All the World's a Café (July 2011)

I’ve just returned from a month in Saratoga Springs, NY where I spent another summer with SITI, the theater company that has influenced my work more than any other and that I continue to train with. What is most extraordinary about this rigorous summer workshop that takes place annually on the beautiful campus of Skidmore College is the amount of diverse international artists that gather here, and by default the incredible exchange of ideas that occurs and standards that are set.  More than half of our participants were from foreign lands, and the other thirty USians were themselves rich with varied culture and experience.  We ate, slept, partied and made art together.

Anne Bogart, SITI’s artistic director, speaks often about how theater creates microcosmic societies, proposing ways we might live in the world.  The Viewpoints training method itself is essentially a practice of mini global coexistence:  there are people in a room, these people are individuals with individual bodies, languages, and desires, yet these people must find a way to come together as a group and make something, so that the rest of the world can watch and say “hey, what a great way to live, I think I’ll try that.”

Not coincidentally, the text we used throughout the month both in Viewpoints class and in making short plays called Compositions focused on the conversations and events experienced in cafés (specifically, excerpts from café-centered plays by Chuck Mee).   It quickly became clear that a café is more than merely a place for coffee and cigarettes; it is a gathering place, a place of focus, inspiration and coexistence, a place where big ideas are born and our complex lives are grappled with safely and publicly—just like a rehearsal process, a Viewpoints improvisation and our four weeks at Skidmore.

 

As I write this, I am sitting in a café.  Thankfully sipping iced tea on this typical oven-like July day in NYC, I feel myself confronted yet again with a Big Conundrum: how do you take a microcosm and make it macro?  That is: how do you take the lessons learned from a functioning mini-community and apply it to the much more complex global community?  If all the world were a café it would be easy to negotiate questions of self vs. society, for instance, because the society I am a part of would be small and visible enough to understand, to know my place, to find love, to examine evolution, to harvest the knowledge of others, to start revolutions, to improve…

If the world was a café, there would be a farm in the back that was our sole provider of food, and we would eat what was in season, and it would taste good and be healthy and we would have a more direct relationship with agriculture.  The coffee would come from a greenhouse tree, the tea plucked from our herb garden and the wine and whiskey would grow old with us.

If the world was a café, there would always be music playing.

If the world was a café, we would learn each others languages and marvel at the power of words. We would debate until dawn, until our disagreements were absorbed and respected.  If we fought, it would be without weapons, with our friends surrounding us, to protect the walls and our brains from breaking.  We would break bread.

If the world was a café, we would rearrange the chairs every night and enact stories and play instruments and dance.  There would be celebrations for each new friend that entered, and for each old friend that left.  We would notice the subtle changes of people and time like seasons, and react accordingly.  We would take care of one another.  And when others were taking care of us, we would take care of ourselves (less caffeine, more dancing).

The head chef would change every year.  We’d all get a turn to choose the menu.

It would be simple to power our café from the sun, from water wheels, windmills or geothermal—it’s only one café, after all.  Most of the time we wouldn’t even use electricity, because our windows would be big and our café built to harness passive solar.  Our water and waste would be recycled on a self-contained system.  Computers would only be used for reference and research; most of the news and knowledge we’d need would come from each other, from word of mouth.  The walls would be lined with used books—every book ever written, in fact—and we would read to each other and to ourselves, and make decisions based on the lessons of the past.  All of this would have been decided and financed together, as a group, with the oldest woman and the youngest boy making final decisions and the barista taking minutes.

But the world is much bigger than a café, the problems more complex, the demands more demanding.  How do we take the possibilities of coexistence discovered in a microcosm and apply them to the challenges of the macro?

Perhaps the answer lies in the process of trying to make the micro-community function.  After all, there are very few cafés with such diplomacy and sustainability, much less theater companies.  Individuals want different things, and their needs evolve as they age; audiences want different things, and their needs evolve as the world ages; funding appears and disappears; competition appears and disappears; inspiration is fickle; coffee just doesn’t taste as good when it comes from a greenhouse.  There are immense challenges in forming and maintaining a functioning society on any level.

But if we can’t make a theater company function, how can we ever expect the world to do the same?  When looking at the mammoth problems we face as a global community, it seems essential we figure out how to better coexist in our microcosms and hope that, leading by example, the ratio between micro and macro will gradually become more perfect.  If Superhero Clubhouse can truly become sustainable, can take care of its members, nurturing individual interests while simultaneously forging ahead with the goals of the group, if we can consistently create vital art and bring it to people who need it, if we can become community servants, if I can become a better Captain – only then we can demand such change from the leaders of the world, and offer a living model to our fellow citizens.

It is too typical to feel overwhelmed, too easy to become sunk by the weight of the world on our shoulders, too natural to take care of ourselves first, and too human to give up.  Fear and resignation is what is expected.  But art offers an opposing approach —art defies death and diversity, it strengthens by difficulty and accelerates through endings.  Art is the only place where utopia can truly be realized, because it does not legislate with answers, but rather guides with questions; it is merely a model--a microcosm--of reality.  So then, it is imperative that we figure out to make art together, if we are ever to make a livable world again.

Art is a café.  It stays up late, spooning the dregs from the bottom of the cup, drunk on ideas and flush with discovery.  It declares love and initiates heartbreak, unites friends and confronts enemies, philosophizes and remembers and forgets and rebirths.  It is a place of pleasure and pain, a place where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  And we are all in it together.