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Why Do Artists Love Workshopping?

I’ve written a few short plays, and I’m organizing a little event this spring to introduce them to my eager public. My little event is not a stage performance, though. It’s a reading and a discussion. It’s a step toward performances in the autumn, and, strangely, I find this workshop just as exciting as the final performance.

Why do artists like “workshopping” so much? I think a lot about artists and writers, wondering why they do what they do. They are like an exotic species, and I must observe to figure them out.

You might be tempted to compare art to any other product. Perhaps the artist is even freer than other producers. They are licensed to be eccentric and innovative. Isn’t it enough to reveal the final image, idea or dance and delight the world? Why reveal the process? Doesn’t that risk disenchantment and boredom?

But I don’t think the traditional business model quite fits here. Art work as a consumable product is a failed analogy.

To be fair, I don’t think a “traditional business model” exists anywhere. The idle right-wing fantasy of the world being run like a Ford plant is based on warped nostalgia. Ambitious young businesspeople today long to be creatives. Everything is workshopped; every project incorporates agile methods. It seems to me that the 80s devotion to free-market economics – promoting business models as “efficient” – was essentially an anti-democratic movement – painting democracy as “inefficient.”

Anyway, art, like democracy, is a messy process. We do art because we love doing art. The love for making art speaks to art’s definition. In its roots, art means skill. In Greek, artizein meant to prepare. The focus of art was always on the process. We share art most when we share the process.

Art is thinking out loud. It’s a public conversation, a project in transparency. The art object captures human instinct and thought. Why are we so curious about, say, the mechanics of sculpture? How did he or she do that, we ask, and we are quite stirred by the thought of that individual chipping away at stone for weeks or months. We feel flattered somehow. His or her hands represent our own.

Theatre is the messiest of the arts. We love theatre because we love the mess: actors, writers, technicians, possibly musicians and visual artists, all hashing out some very tentative and fleeting moment on the stage. The making of it is the making of a community. The members of communities quarrel; they disappoint each other. They inspire each other. It’s a lot of stress for something so fragile. But the “product” is the work itself. The work challenges, and it rewards, and it educates. It ennobles people because it brings them together in realms of speculation.

There it is. We love workshopping. Every rough draft is a final. Each audience response is art. An art lover should never hesitate to attend a workshop, thinking they want a finished product. Finished theatre is just the curtain and the applause. Would you buy a ticket for the final bow?

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