Great mentors are the stuff of legend. “Joe Papp taught me how to produce.” “Lloyd Richards taught me how to develop a play.” “Paula Vogel taught me to write.” “Liz LeCompte taught me directing.”
And I get it. Artists are craftspeople, and we don’t learn our craft in a vacuum.
But here’s where I question the limitations of mentorship:
1) It seems like more mentors talk about the importance of mentoring than “mentees” want to be mentored.
2) There’s a push towards more formalized mentorship opportunities within institutions, and it’s hard for me to see the value of these kinds of programmatic grant-funded educational forms of mentorship, especially given the proliferation of MFA programs, internships, fellowships, and apprenticeships that are steadily forming a wedge between training and honest-to-goodness art-making.
It seems to me that what working artists need most right now is not mentoring but modeling. What are novel, viable models for play production? What models for play development are actually effective? Who has the model for making a play premiere feel like as much of an event as a film premiere?
More importantly, what do other industries offer us in the way of models we can co-opt for the theater? How can Louis CK’s self-produced comedy tour be applied to theatrical ticketing? How did YouTube and Neflix get so effective at distributing content? How do sports teams galvanize such civic pride?
Mentorship is inwardly-focused. It is by nature an approach to craft and problem-solving that look inward to personal history and personal inclinations to find solutions for moving forward. The mentorship mentality is in some ways an extension of the same kind of inward focus that guides many institutions today: staff retreats, core values seminars, trust-building exercises. These kinds of activities seek to answer inward questions: What do we value? What do we do best? What’s our company’s aesthetic?
Whereas modeling is outwardly-focused. It asks: How do other people handle this problem? What’s working and not working in the theater, and how do we fix it? How do we build structures that are useful to artists, how do we engage with the community and with technology, and how can our buildings augment the work instead of putting us under? These kinds of questions are hard to answer from a mentorship standpoint.
Plus, as we all know, no two artists’ paths are the same. The young artist can ask, “What did you do to get where you are today?” and invariably the veteran’s answer will be some crazy non-replicable cocktail of grit and timing and circumstance. The young artist can ask, “What would you do in my situation?” but invariably that situation will be a nightmarish highly personal jumble of fate and commerce and artistry that the veteran will have never encountered.
But modeling is another story. Models can be replicated, iterated upon, and refined. Everyone keeps talks about 13P not because those writers are all such great mentors (although they are such great mentors!) but because 13P offered up a startling new model.
These concepts aren’t mutually exclusive. And again, mentorship is a beautiful thing. It’s just that I think we’re now over-focused on mentoring to the exclusion of modeling. When a bunch of people get in the room together, our first inclination is to swap experiences rather than swapping best practices. Which is a problem, because in some ways mentorship takes care of itself from generation to generation, whereas the basic not-for-profit production model has remained largely unchanged for about 50 years despite rapid, sometimes catastrophic changes in similar industries (such as the music industry, or the film industry, or the symphony, or the ballet).
Ultimately, the biggest limitation on mentorship is that we’re all in a leaky boat. The mentee asks, “Hey, how’d you get out of this leaky boat?” and the mentor says, “Oh, well I bailed, and I scooped, and I patched, and I bailed.” And maybe that story is somewhat encouraging, somewhat inspiring. But at the end of the day the both of them are still in a boat that has leaks in it.
Modeling builds us new boats.