Several Bay Area companies descended upon Chicago in May for Theatre Communications Group’s annual conference. Although not officially registered for the conference, I tagged along after my husband, who attended as an individual artist, to visit the Windy City for the first time. I caught a couple of shows—an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere at Lifeline and, I admit it, Lookingglass Alice—and socialized with conference attendees in the hotel lobby bar at night, and during the days I joyously explored some of Chicago’s neighborhoods, shops and cultural offerings.
Just before I left for Chicago, I was working with some other Theatre Bay Area staff members on the first article in our excellence series. So it was rather serendipitous that while walking through Chicago’s Printer’s Row neighborhood I came across the historic Franklin Building, with a sign over the front door that read: “The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.”
This quote—which also graces the main door arch of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum—is found in the discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds published in the late 1700s. Although Reynolds was discussing the art of sculpture, the Franklin Building housed printing presses (a mural depicts men working at a Gutenberg press) from 1916 to 1983 and today houses presumably well-off condo dwellers. Printing, sculpting, theatre-making—a good quote can be taken out of its original context and applied to just about anything. (In fact, the original quote “ends” with a semicolon, not a period.)
What I found intriguing about the quote was its indirect attempt to define excellence. As we embark on our exploration of excellence, in trying to get our bearings we may grasp onto the idea that we need to define the term, that a definition may act as a compass that points us directly to our destination. But the Theatre Bay Area staff is wary of defining excellence (and some of our members are just as wary of us defining it, too). Is Reynolds saying that a work of art is excellent if it accomplishes what it sets out to do? What if the bar wasn’t very high to begin with? Is the height of the bar subjective? And so the trouble of definition begins.
Theatre Bay Area’s work on excellence, part of our strategic plan, starts internally with our infrastructure and the effectiveness of our programs. So if some of you are nervous about our work on excellence, truth be told, so am I. Because it’s starting by Theatre Bay Area taking a look at ourselves. When I think about personal excellence, I may think that overall I do a pretty good job. But I don’t have to look far beyond the excuses before I reach that uncomfortable spot where I know I could do better. (I know that some of you know I could do better.) The spot is more than uncomfortable; it’s like a pot of boiling water that makes me want to jump back into the cool “excuses pool” in half a second. That uncomfortable spot would be more comfortable if I knew I wasn’t the only one in it.
The theme of excellence doesn’t just run through our series on excellence, it appears in different textures and intensity in many of this issue’s articles, be it Clay Lord’s series on communities, which begins in this issue, or in AfroSolo’s community work or Velina Brown’s “Show Biz” column, and it will continue in future issues. I hope you’ll take the excellence journey with us. I’ve found that some of the most fulfilling travels I’ve had include uncomfortable moments.