General 6-21-2005

Letters from a Writer: Saving the World, Sort Of

Jean Sramek wrote the script for "Phantom of the NorShor," performed by Colder by the Lake in Duluth. This series of columns has followed the fates of that show. Here she evaluates the whole damn thing: Was it worth it? Did it do what it was supposed to?

Jean Sramek

I’d like to lock all the Creative Artists in the world in a medium-sized room and pump in a sufficient quantity of sodium pentathol. Then they’d fess up: all the stuff in the narratives for their arts project grants is a sack of lies.

Maybe lies is too strong a word. Let me qualify. In a lineup of these chemically-honest Creative Artists, pick out any five. Ask them to read their grant narratives to you, specifically the sections where they answer the question “How will this project impact the funding region and serve its population?” The five answers will be along the lines of:

  1. 1. The concerto will virtually re-invent the quarter note.
  2. 2. Rehearsal spaces and classrooms will be fully renovated using recycled fair-trade hemp flooring and photovoltaic-powered glue guns.
  3. 3. Our audiences will examine their relationships to historic places.
  4. 4. Area high school fine arts programs will receive more attention than hockey.
  5. 5. My paintings will wipe out smallpox and tuberculosis and reduce urban poverty by 38%.

Then ask them whether any of those things are actually going to happen. Ask them again: “How will this project impact the funding region and serve its population?” under the influence of truth juice. They’ll probably say:

  1. 1. I don’t know.
  2. 2. Maybe my old girlfriend will come to the opening and see how much weight I’ve lost since college.
  3. 3. If we don’t get this grant, we’ll have to use those lame Microsoft Word templates for the poster and flyers, instead of hiring a real designer.
  4. 4. Please don’t make me do a projected budget again. I beg of you.
  5. 5. Dude, you shouldn’t use “impact” as a verb. It’s totally wrong.

If any of the nice people from Minnesota’s regional arts councils or community foundations are reading this, please understand that we are not misrepresenting our projects, our organizations, or ourselves in our narratives, nor are we misusing the funds so generously given to us. Most art is made without any grant funding, and those artists play the very same game. We plan to do big things. The reason we do what we do, we tell ourselves, is to save the world. Starting with this show/installation/concert/piece/initiative, we’re going to save the world. We really believe we can.

We can’t. No matter how hard we try, no matter what intended or accidental good comes out of the art we create, we can’t save the world. And so we feel like phonies and liars.

Maybe we’d feel less desperate, less discouraged about not saving the world, if we didn’t worry about it. In Douglas Adams’ acclaimed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, humans fly; as Adams brilliantly wrote, “flying is simply a matter of throwing oneself at the ground … and missing.” Even as we fail to save the world with our shows/installations/concerts/pieces/initiatives, we usually do some other things we didn’t expect to.

If you gave me the truth serum (I don’t recommend ever doing this, by the way—I truly enjoy using swearwords and most of the time I am consciously suppressing them in order to avoid scaring the neighbor kids, my in-laws, and my husband’s Aunt Lois) about my recent grant narratives, using the examples above, my answers would be:

  1. 1. (Quoted from application) Our audiences will examine their relationships to historic places.
  2. 2. (Truth) People who see our show will laugh, cry, and be tricked into writing big checks to the NorShor Theater, and maybe it won’t crumble into dust and we can continue to do shows there if we want to.

People who came to see Phantom of the NorShor laughed (a lot). They cried (I saw them). And even though the general reaction to the show can best be summed up by a congratulatory email I received from my friend Katie (“The show was so funny, Jean. I will be giggling for a long time. And persuasive … we are more painfully aware of those losses and potential losses thanks to your good work. Tim and I wanted to empty our bank accounts for the NorShor but thankfully regained our senses by the time we got home”), a handful of people, after seeing our show, did express a tentative yet sincere interest in the financial bailing-out of the NorShor.

We didn’t save the world. Hell, we didn’t even save the NorShor. The place is still a dump and needs a kabillion dollars in renovations. The programming and concessions are mismanaged by everyone from savvy concert promoters to provincial goofballs. A month of rehearsals in the building—inadequate lighting, arguments with the staff, secondhand smoke, a veneer of vintage grime on everything—resulted in fatigue and weird respiratory infections among our cast and crew. Its fate, along with the fate of so many other special places in our community, is still uncertain.

When Phantom of the Norshor was over, and we had packed away our unwieldy props and set pieces, and the non-proverbial dust had settled, a truth flashed neon. We had done everything we set out to do. Make people laugh? Check. And cry? Check. Make them write checks? Check. Audiences examining their relationships to historic places? Check, check, a million times check.

Senior citizens pressed their hands into ours after the curtain call and said, “I haven’t been here in decades but I still remember when this place was new.” Smart people pointed out allegories and themes and underlying messages in our script and score, told us we were making important points that even we didn’t know we were making. Others, tears in their eyes, simply said, “Thank you.” But we didn’t save the NorShor and we sure didn’t save the world. Did we fail? Nope. We just threw ourselves at the ground and missed.