Agency

Anne Bogart's picture

You are free to choose what you want to make of your life.  It’s called free agency or free will, and it’s your birthright.
(Sean Covey)

The moment that Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanatta first encountered David Bowie on the cover of his record album Aladdin Sane at the age of 19, her perspectives and attitude were forever transformed. She said, “It was an image that changed my life. It was the beginning of my artistic birth.” She put the vinyl record onto a record player that sat on the stove of her tiny apartment and began to evolve into the Lady Gaga that we know today. She said, “I had never heard somebody with such a strong musical perspective that combined so many different genres and types of music in such a boundless way. I had never heard or seen anyone that was so limitless in his vision where music could go and how you can change the world in a single moment by creating some piece of theater that is just otherworldly … From the moment I saw that cover my life changed forever and I started to dress more expressive of how I wanted to be. I started to be more free with my choices. I started to have more fun.” Lady Gaga seized the permission, provided by David Bowie’s life and work, to become who she is today. He gave her the freedom to move and the inspiration to act. Through his example, she found freedom. She learned agency.  

As artists we are all beholden to the journeys undertaken by our predecessors. What we inherit from them is not so much technique, but rather agency, the ability to take action oneself. The forays, experimentations, discoveries and actions of our heroes are what give us the permission to maneuver more freely. This inherited and learned agency does not simply arrive at one’s doorstep; rather it is earned by looking out into the world to find role models and inspirations, followed by personal identification, hard work, repetition, determination, sustained practice and, perhaps most importantly, opportunity. There is no end to this cycle of inspiration. Our own artistic breakthroughs are what, in turn, will provide agency to future generations. 

Agency is an individual’s power to make choices and enact them in the world. This capacity to make choices first entails the personal belief that humans do in fact make decisions and are able to enact them in the world. Some people believe that they can do big things. This belief implies a measure of direct control or guidance over one’s own behavior. In the fields of sociology and philosophy, agency refers to the engagement of an individual within a social structure and the capacity to act within a given environment. Society is a social construction and requires the cooperation of individuals connected through social relationships. Even though the lives of individuals are shaped by the existing social structure, they none-the-less have the ability, the agency, to make decisions and express them through conscious behavior and action. High levels of agency represent the individual’s ability to understand personal action in terms of the consequences and implications. Low levels of personal agency represent the tendency to see one’s action in terms of its details or mechanics. These two levels of agency can work towards positive creative acts in the world. They can also work towards destructive acts. In his Los Angeles studio, the architect Frank Gehry oversees the design and realization of dozens of international projects simultaneously, thereby exercising high levels of personal agency. His associates and assistants, in comparison, enjoy lower level of agency. Their task is to tend to the mechanics and details of given projects in the creation of what can become beautiful creative acts in the world. In contrast, and towards the destructive, Donald Trump exercises a high level of agency over the circumstances of his rallies. In contrast, the Trump followers exercise a low level of agency through their aggressive, reactive, often impulsive behavior at those same rallies. They feel agency, but the territory of freedom and consequence is narrow.

In order to develop high-level agency I must first develop an awareness of my physical moment-to-moment state in relation to not only the given social structure, but also to my goals and possible actions towards those goals. With this immediate awareness of my physical state in relation to these structures and goals, I craft a plan. I strategize. But my ability to take action, to be effective and to assume responsibility for my actions in the face of conflict or change requires the awareness not only of what I can do but what I think that I can do. I must find a way to give myself permission.

The question that I repeat often to myself is, what stops me? What prevents me from being a free agent in my own environment? And what, on the other hand, provides agency? Probably what stops me is my own fear of doing something differently. What stops me is the accumulated assumptions about how things are supposed to be done. What stops me are inherited ethics and moralities that have outlived their usefulness. What stops me might also be lack of opportunity. 

The actress Viola Davis remarked in a recent interview that Meryl Streep did not become the great actress that she is simply by being Meryl Streep, rather she came into her abilities through the particular roles she was offered. Without Sophie’s Choice, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Devil Wears Prada she would not have had the chance to advance and grow. Davis continued, “You have to separate opportunity from talent. People feel that if the roles are not there that that means that there’s no talent out there. That’s not true. What’s true is that if you create those narratives, then those roles can open up to people who are waiting in line.” She attests that the people who are in the positions of power are the ones who can make the kinds of decisions that provide the agency for talent to emerge. “You can’t be a Meryl Streep if you’re the third girl from the left in a narrative with two scenes.” Davis thereby makes a plea for artists of color to be offered opportunity. “You write it and we will come. We will show up.”

What gives Viola Davis the agency to speak so eloquently in support of her community? In her 2015 Emmy acceptance speech, Davis began by quoting the 19th century African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Then she continued by giving personal tribute to, “People who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman. To be black. And to the Taraji P. Hensons, the Kerry Washingtons, the Halle Berrys, the Nicole Beharis, the Meagan Goods, to Gabrielle Union. Thank you for taking us over that line.”

In order to celebrate and show gratitude to individuals who have provided me the freedom and agency that I currently enjoy in my own life and in my work, I make plays about them. I have directed projects about Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Bertolt Brecht, Orson Welles, Anna Akhmatova, Leonard Bernstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell and Robert Wilson. These projects generally allow me to engage in deeper conversations with these innovators and permit me to stand more firmly upon their generous shoulders. 

SITI Company and I are currently embarking upon a new adventure, an engagement with the composer/maverick/musician/writer/visual artist/theorist/ chess player/anarchist/raconteur/teacher/performer/poet/innovator/mycologist John Cage.

There is never a moment when sound is not available to the ears. However, when our minds are full of fears our concern is taken away from hearing. We stop listening even though there is something to listen to all the time.
(John Cage)

We are in the beginning phase of the creation of a large-scale project entitled Theater Piece #1, a cross-disciplinary, multi-artist collaboration that will grow and expand over the coming years and is based upon the pervasive influence of John Cage. We are now in the process of research and experimentation, gathering information and material to launch the project. We begin with the construction of Chess Match, a small two-hand theater piece that will operate at the heart of and be the organizing-principle for the larger work Theater Piece #1. Chess Match transpires in six movements, or chess games, with spoken text sampled from the hundreds of conversations, interviews and talks that John Cage engaged in over his lifetime. Although the same two actors can perform all six matches, the piece can also be performed by up to twelve actors with a new couple taking over for each match. Through an excavation of John Cage’s love of the art of conversation, Chess Match introduces the audience to his theories, humor, and worldview. In addition to being an entertaining piece of theater, Chess Match will serve as a guide or a user’s-manual for how to experience and appreciate the larger Theater Piece #1, which will eventually surround it.  

John Cage has been a touchstone, an influence and inspiration for me over the past four decades. Through the example of his own life and work, he taught me to seek and enjoy agency and freedom from the repetition and regurgitation of inherited assumptions. His innovations and his life force continue to exert an affect upon the rehearsal hall in both practical and spiritual ways. Often in rehearsals I say, “Let’s Cage/Cunningham this scene!” By this, I mean let us create the staging separate from the text and then put the two together and discover the new meanings and possibilities that emerge from this process. Through Cage’s example I learned how to walk the thin line between control and chance in my relationships with actors and designers and how to allow the different elements in the theater – the lighting, the sound, the text, the movement – to enjoy independence and agency. But perhaps most profoundly, Cage taught me how to give the audience the most creative job in the theater. Because he was not interested in art as self-expression or as direct communication between artist and audience, Cage said that he wanted his art to create the conditions for the audience to “sober and quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences.”

I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!
(Nina Simone)

Through the example of his life and his mischievous provocation, Cage showed me how to let go of the fears and assumptions that I have accumulated surrounding what is permissible and possible. He taught me not to be afraid of the absurd, to look for surprise and the unexpected and to approach the world with the attitude that things are simply not what they seem to be. He taught me to ask questions. He taught me not to be afraid. Through his example, I am increasingly able create the conditions for agency and freedom in the rehearsal hall and to allow the audience more agency during a performance. 

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To share the excitement around the launch of Theater Piece #1, we invite you, the SITI Community, to join us for Cage Conversations. As part of our research into the pervasive influence of John Cage, I will conduct a series of public conversations with individuals whose trajectories have been indelibly marked by the example, the work, and the life of John Cage. I am delighted that the first of the Cage Conversations will be with Laura Kuhn, the Executive Director of the John Cage Trust. The conversation will take place in the Zeisler Studio at SITI Company in midtown Manhattan at 7 p.m. on April 20th. We hope that you will join us. There will be a small entrance fee of $15. Reservations are encouraged.

Writer, performer, scholar and arts administrator Laura Kuhn worked closely with Cage over many years on a variety of projects including his first full-scale opera Europeras 1 & 2. Upon Cage’s death in 1992, she teamed up with Merce Cunningham, Anne d’Harnoncourt and David Vaughan to found the John Cage Trust. In her capacity as Executive Director of the Trust, Laura travels extensively, lecturing and conducting performance workshops all around the world. 

Cage Conversations is part of our launch of SITI Thought Center, which you can read more about over at my Co-Artistic Director Leon Ingulsrud’s blog. You can keep up with all of our Thought Center events on the Thought Center page, where you can also find out how to RSVP or buy tickets. Please join us for Cage Conversations with Laura Kuhn and me and become part of the birth of Theater Piece #1.