This is a tough essay to write because we are now almost a full year into our Manifesto for Now and “Now” is a very different place than it was then. Yet, we are hearing, and have been for years, that the problem is the money. We propose that the money is a red herring, a distraction. We write this essay to advocate that what “Now” needs is imagination, from there the money might follow, which is a hell of a lot more interesting than the other way around.
What does it mean to imagine? The root of the word comes from the Latin “imago”, meaning image. It is to create a picture, one that exists only in the mind, and potentially shared amongst many minds. This is a superpower for us. We are the experts in it. Our audiences, our communities, our institutions, the two of us writing this – we are all seeking inspiration. We are all in need of better, brighter future possibilities. And whether or not we feel like those futures are possible, it is our imperative to try to imagine them. To insist on imagining better. Again and again and again.
You approach an entryway. You know where to go, because there are people with pink shoes standing on either side of the opening saying:
You were told someone would be there, and there is. You are comforted by this. The person on your side of the entryway smiles at you. Another person, approaching from the other direction, must have just received a smile of welcome from their greeter too, because you note a complete change in the shape of their face and the weight in their shoulders. A bluebird flies out into the street, cutting between them and you. You laugh. You don’t know why. The greeters offer an open arm gesture to beckon you in.
You have no ticket. There were no tickets to get, instead you received a personal invite, in the mail, with a date, time, location, the first page of a short story that immediately captivated you, and it was attributed to a friend of a friend of yours. Cool! You keep walking, and as you do, they say “Enjoy the show, Vee”. You love that they know your name, how did they make that leap?
Many of our marketing materials tell our audiences and our funders that we are meeting the moment. But what is our evidence of that? In critical moments when our medium is given the opportunity to engage, we retrench. We are responding as politicians, not artists. We have to stop this.
In another dimension you are back staring at a set of orange doors, talking to a friendly person in pink shoes:
You say: “I am really looking forward to this.” And you are.
You have heard many accounts of this experience. You have been reading about Sofar events, and Fever Candlelight concerts, and interactive water lantern festivals; you have been made curious by EXPERIENCE. When people told you about this one, none of them talked about the show, just the experience of arrival.
You turn to find the person that arrived at the same time as you, but you are alone. “Mama said there’ll be days like this” wafts from an invisible speaker. You love your mom. The orange doors beckon. Through the glass windows in the top half of each door, you see a forest of green with darts of bright yellow and red. It’s enchanting. As you push through the doors you find a very long dinner table. Some people are seated, others are milling about, and you sense what can only be described as an abundance of oxygen. Before you can form any anxious thoughts, you spot the person who arrived at the same time as you, they nod and smile, you breathe in the oxygen, then a friendly-seeming person passes by you, but on their way, pauses to say:
“There is a place card with your name on it and if you feel like a drink, we have a series of bars down each of those three forest paths”, they say pointing, “don’t worry” they say, “you won’t get lost, and if you do get anxious, look for the people with the pink sneakers, there are six of us and only 200 of you. It will be easy to spot us. And if seeing is not your thing you will hear us, those of us here to help, by our hopscotch step.”
They laugh, and say:
“At least that’s what we call it. Close your eyes and listen.”
You hear hop hop land, hop hop land. And you are transported to a sidewalk you played on as a kid.
This feels like an idea of performance heaven.
The promise of heaven is not sustainable. This is our unending challenge with innovation and imagination. Ideas are just like us, they have a shelf life, and like us they too shall pass. There is a lifecycle to any idea: there’s the status quo, there’s the potential for a radical new way, it either resonates or fails, if it works it gets co-opted by the mainstream. Formation, discovery, comfort. Start again.
That will happen in this heavenly place too. This idea will tire. It will start to cost more money to sustain it. As the idea ages, its status will grow but its vitality will diminish. This wellspring of imagination will begin to dry up as institutions step in to shore it back up. But that is not yet. That is not now.
Right now, the light is dappled, the sounds melodious, you can’t find where the sunlight is coming from but you are warmed. A pink shoed person approaches you on the path and says, as they extend a drink towards you:
“Here you go! I chose the lemon one for you but if you change your mind the lime one is waiting for you on the counter. I really hope you enjoy the show”, they say, as they skirt past you with a hop hop land. You like the lemon soda. A lot. How did they get this just right? Please – you might think – don’t ever let me figure out the trick.
In a world of what “ifs” we wonder what might happen if we put all of our accumulated skills together and built catered experiences for our audiences for “while they are there” – NOT to get them there. NOT to get them back. But to offer them a singular experience of care, thoughtfulness and nurturing while they are there. The money has already been spent on all of the marketing staff, offices, and software. In the world of “what ifs” what might it look like to centralize the marketing findings into the spinal fluid of the experience for the show?
“Great, another neolib/neocon idea that valorizes data over artistry”, we hear you thinking… But what if data is now – in 2024 – one of our strongest design and collaborative partners? We live in changed times. We keep saying this.
You are sitting down at the table that you are known to enjoy, you look to the person next to you, read their name card, and as they smile at you, you say, “Hi Kay, have you done one of these before?” And Kay responds, “No Vee, I haven’t, but I’m excited. I feel like a kid. I can’t remember the last time I felt this kind of giddy. It feels like anything is possible”. Now you are smiling too.
Indeed, it is. For a while. Until we begin again. Let’s.
Again and again and again.