“Lifelong Vegetarian. Cultural Carnivore.” That’s been my life’s subtitle since I was 10 years old.
“Culture. Creation. Community. Connection.” Those have been my four core values since I was 20.
In high school, I remember asking my World History teacher why armies at war destroyed cultural centers first. He kneeled down, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Culture is civilization, Michael. Culture is humanity. When you attack a nation’s cultural centers – libraries, theatres, museums – you attack their humanity. Without our humanity, who are we? What are we? Like the rubble, we are dust.”
Now I *may* have given this memory a sprinkle of Dead Poets Society heft, but the sentiment landed, and it’s stuck with me to this day.
The history buffs out there know that following the destruction of cultural sites in WWII, the UN put together “The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.” For the most part, this international treaty made destroying another country’s cultural centers a war crime. However, there are still no protocols in place for when countries destroy their culture from within.
We must not give up on our culture. We must continue to create and commune and connect. Your efforts do not go unnoticed. I see your perseverance, your artistry, your grit. Keep going.
I love how the government of Ontario defines culture on their website: “Culture is the lifeblood of a vibrant society, expressed in the many ways we tell our stories, celebrate, remember the past, entertain ourselves, and imagine the future. Our creative expression helps define who we are, and helps us see the world through the eyes of others.”
No matter the medium, I live to tell stories. I live to connect humans. I live to build culture. Better Work Week was my small attempt to help build a better culture. Thank you to everyone who participated and helped make it a reality. I’m thrilled that it was free and open to the public. I’m thrilled by the assembled talent’s diversity and expertise. I’m thrilled that it brought a little joy, a little ease, a little connection to people scattered across the globe. (And to keep the goodwill going, I’m giving away free SunBasket meals to anyone who reads this. E-mail me and I’ll send you a link.)
Let’s collaborate and build back our culture together. A culture of empathy and wonder. Let’s reclaim our humanity. I know sincerity can feel retro. Sue me. Call me old fashioned. We all could use a little sincerity these days. Chins up, my friends. We have work to do.
Eight years ago today, as Hurricane Sandy prepared to batter New York City, I stuffed my soaked limbs into the last train out of the city. I traveled back to New Haven, where I was directing and choreographing The Drowsy Chaperone at Yale. (Ah, theatre. <clutches heart> Remember theatre?) We were scheduled to start a weekend of tech less than a week before opening. The weekend of tech was cancelled.
Despair was not an option for this incredible group of theatre makers. (Kudos always to this amazing creative team.) Everyone pushed through – theatre makers are experts in pushing through – and a few days later, we managed to open one of my favorite productions I’ve ever directed. While mounds of snow encased the gothic arches of Yale University, I watched friends and strangers huddle in a theatre to watch a man in a chair, alone and lonely in his dark apartment, find joy and meaning in his favorite piece of art.
Do you like theatre? Or maybe film? Perhaps you like music or dance or museums or literature or TV? Over the last 7 months, have you turned to a book, a show on television, or even a song to bring you a moment’s comfort?
The Arts are essential. Our culture, our humanities are essential. I’ve already shared the staggering data around arts employment and economic output. The Arts are one of our country’s biggest foundational industries. So here’s a different bit of context:
The United States government spends less money supporting the Arts than EVERY OTHER country tracked by The Arts Council of England. (As an example, Germany, a country comparable to the U.S. in terms of per capita gross domestic product (GDP), spends more than 14 times greater than per capita U.S. spending, and even Ireland, with less than half the per capita GDP of the United States, has higher public spending on the Arts than the U.S.)
Right now, workers in the U.K. who cannot do their jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have up to 80% of their wages covered by the government. On top of that, the U.K.’s public funding body for the arts announced a $190 million emergency relief package for artists and arts organizations affected by the ongoing public health situation, specifically earmarking $23 million in emergency relief to freelancers in creative industries who were not sufficiently covered by the government’s existing bailout package.
With all this in mind, did you know that every year for the last four years, our current administration has tried to significantly cut or eliminate altogether the federal funding allocated for our arts and humanities? In their budget proposal for 2021, these cuts can be found under the header, “Stopping Wasteful and Unnecessary Spending.”
I’ll tell you again. The Arts that you enjoy, that relax you, that thrill you, that comfort you, that serve your communities, that create millions of jobs, that withstand plagues and wars, that give your life pleasure, connection and meaning, they are not unnecessary. The Arts are essential.
We’ve done it before. During the Great Depression, the U.S. government invested $27 million with The New Deal, a huge sum in those days, to employ artists, musicians, actors and writers via the Works Progress Administration.
The Arts are essential. Dear reader, I hope you’ll vote for candidates that feel the same way. I know, this simple bout of nostalgia turned left real quick. But so be it. So much is at stake. Now excuse me. I’m gonna turn up some music real loud in my apartment and dance with joy around my living room.
Fun Fact: I’m smiling because I have my kippah from Jared and Ivanka’s wedding stashed in my pocket and I’m willing to perform a hex if necessary.
No, no, no. I’m smiling because I voted!
Okay, false promises of ancient Kabbalistic witchcraft aside, there are a thousand reasons I proudly voted for Joe Biden. As we near the finish line, I’ll share with you just one. (And it has nothing to do with policy.) Joe is a healer. He has endured the most painful personal tragedies imaginable and instead of retreating or growing hard, he continues to model his life with dignity, compassion, and a drive for national unity. It’s easy to forget we are The United States of America. It’s easy to choose cynicism, to believe our wounds can’t ever heal. They can. We can unite. We can heal. In fact we must if we’re ever going to survive.
I would never rely on Joe to heal our nation’s wounds. That’s on us, as individuals, as interconnected communities. But with Joe as our President, we’d have a leader who leads with empathy, not division. Who believes in science and equality. Who champions working families, not with empty words, but with action plans. He’d be an advocate for all US citizens, not just his followers. With Joe, we all can start to thrive. With Joe, we all can start to heal.
You could call my words unbridled optimism. Not sorry. Optimists get shit done. They imagine and work towards that “more perfect union.” Republicans are going to do everything they can this next week to steal the election. They can’t win if we make it a landslide.
Every day for the last month, I have written personal, non-partisan letters to swing state voters through Vote Forward. It’s been a heart-stirring experience to spend time with each name. To imagine what life might be like on their street, or how they’ll react upon reading my words.
Big ups to all y’all waiting in long lines, phone banking, texting, writing letters, volunteering, and donating. Big ups to all y’all having hard and painful conversations with loved ones. I am so inspired by you all. Your efforts to save our democracy and our planet do not go unvalued.
See you on the other side. Godspeed and love to you all.
PS. Thank you New York Magazine and I Am A Voter for these artist-designed stickers! Stickers really do make democracy saving more fun. #BlueWave #IfYourWaveIsRed #SomethingIsWrong #LikePlagueWrong #TheOceanIsBlue #TheMoreYouKnow