Creative America and Tom Tresser

Jesus Christ it snowed. And snowed. And snowed.

I got up this morning to go to a seminar and thought – oh hell – it’s gonna be ugly outside. But then I thought The people at the seminar are gonna be the real die-hards if they had to trudge through snow to get there.

I was scheduled to attend the Creative America workshop, giving an entire overview of the political campaign process from ‘put up or shut up’ to ‘Hail to the Chief’. Bailiwick hosted the day-long seminar in one of their chilly theatres where 30 fellow passionate creatives sat and mused on the possibilities of civic service.


I made one huge assumption the first time I got there. I was talking to one attendee who worked mostly in textiles and costuming and I was sharing my usual tirade about the war and the media control and the usual axe I grind. Then she says, “I like Bush because he does what he says.” She had left the Democrats after they greenlighted the war (and evidently the Republicans greenlighting it as well didn’t carry as much weight). She also loved Ann Coulter because of how she turns everything the Democracts says back on them (granted by lying a lot and having absolutely no journalistic integrity). Was this a case of wanting more to be on the winning team? I realized that the function was non-partisan (though lots of Bush critics attended) and it was reminder of how the Fundamentalist Christians had transformed the party into their own image. And to shut my damned mouth and listen before I go off and sound like a yutz.

Before we began, Daniel (an ex-Navy that got back from Iraq 6 months ago) introduced Eileen who read a Langston Hughes piece calling for jazz and celebration to be embedded in the political process.

Tom Tresser: The Political Case for Creativity

The day was hosted by Tom Tresser – a former Shakespearean actor – who evidently tried to warn us all 14 years ago about the quiet strides the conservative Christians were making at the local levels of office across the nation. The Christian Coalition, led by Pat Robertson, came on the scene to help develop things even further with the losing of the ‘culture wars’ back in the NEA Four and Mappelthorpe Controversy Days. Bush’s re-election is no landslide – it is the crown jewel (the latest?) of the effort that began after Barry Goldwater lost to LBJ. Essentially the Republicans got their ass kicked and they went to work building an entire network of think tanks, magazines, university chairs, pundits, media channels… an entire thought-delivery system. (For an extensive portrait of this check out the book you must read: George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant) And now here we are with massive installation of conservatives at the local, state and federal levels in all areas of government.

Tresser theorizes that the current leadership is part of the anti-creativity meme. He rhaphsodizes on Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class and extends that anyone that American innovation is driven by creativity. Creativiy is defined to essentially be any job where you picture something that doesn’t exist. Seems anything but service or manufacturing is considered a creative field (architects to poets).

Much like conservative Christians take ownership of our Founding Fathers, Tresser sees the Declaration of Independence as a profoundly creative act: to say Yeah it’s these United States, see? Ya see it, yet? You will! That Ben Franklin is the epitome of a nouveau renaissance man (Tom even had a Ben Franklin action figure to demonstrate). Here’s some of the reasons Tom gives that artists have got to get involved in politics: (from his essay in American Theatre, PDF format)

  • You know how to think outside the box and how to challenge assumptions.
  • You how to create ensembles and high-performance teams.
  • You know how to use resources wisely, creatively and effectively
  • You know hot to assume the perspective of the other and to empathize with outside viewpoints.
  • You are essentially an optimist and an idealist.

Aha, now we’re getting somewhere. Because Tom is exactly right. Art is about creating the unseen, the unknown or exploring the unpalatable. Walking into a room of people with all different talents and figuring out who does what when and why and keeping backbiting/infighting to a minimum. Another big difference is the reliance on cooperative metaphors – you can lose a war or a basketball game – you can’t really lose a play, it just doesn’t be it’s best. There’s less reliance on fear and more on hope. Kinda like I’ve been stewing in my head and on this blog for the last four years.

Here is the tactics the Right used and how they worked:

  1. Identify the base
  2. Locate the base
  3. Engagee the base
  4. Energize the base
  5. Train the base
  6. Activate the base
  7. Translate that to success

Tom wants to help begin the installation of a similar system of channels to train, educate and groom creatives all over the country to take back at the local level and then extend it on up. Essentially: Grow Your Own Candidates. I liked Roll Your Own better though. Finally, someone talking my language! I wanna party with Tom Tresser!

Kevin Conlon: Implications for a Politics of Creatvity at the National Level

Kevin, a political PR consultant spoke at legnth about how Kerry presented no clear-cut, nuance-free option. He really was Republican-lite. And that the reason Dean grabbed so much support early on is that he had that clarity that people take comfort in (just like Bush). Kevin also chimed in with those great terms we all know:

  • tax relief
  • death tax
  • Clear Skies
  • PATRIOT Act
  • No Child Left Behind
  • marriage penalty

All carefully constructed phrases the Republicans use to frame the debate on their terms – and when Democrats begin to use those terms – they will (and did) lose.

Kitty Kurth and Kevin Lampe: Why Would You Want to Get Involved in Politics & Do You Have What It Takes?

I love these guys. I forgot Kitty’s background – though she’d been working in elections since she was 2 and Kevin was a former stand-up comedian. He got into campaigning to meet chicks and that’s how he met Kitty. They were a fantastic team with fantastic stories:

Great juicy wonderful stories. I love this kind of shop talk. It’s like stage diva wars but on the public policy level. They gave an overview of what it takes to organize, fund and run a political campaign at the local level (like school boards or other city panels). I thought it was absolutely fascinating – and very much in the grasp of someone who takes the time to research, motivate and knock on a bunch of doors. They covered tons of stuff and I think they are on my list of new political crushes. I so want to take them out to lunch and just listen to their stories.

Recommended reading: the writings of Saul Alinsky.

Nicole Gotthelf: 8 Years on the Madison Common Council

Feisty ex-politician Nicole got up and told some ripping yarns about her experiences in politics and city councils. Great stuff.

Eric Davis: Democracy is a Design Problem

Architect Eric Davis, who helped organize the Dean campaign in Illinois talked at length about the morphing into ‘the new politics’. He talked candidly about his experiences in the golden days of the Dean campaign and that the underlying things was Don’t wait to be asked. Just go get involved. It’s like when an artist pines about how no one appreciates their art – stop being a wuss and write your damned play. He currently runs the website Democracy for Illinois.

During the lunch break I even got to record a little mini-interview with a woman from a free radio station with Loyola.

After lunch we returned to more Kitty and Kevin and Tom and it was really a fantastic experience – a little long, a little cold – but well worth the trudge through the snow and the $20.06 registration fee. I met a ton of great people of all ages and backgrounds and hopefully some will take me up on their offer of blog training. I can’t wait for more from Tom and company. They’ve already started planning to take this workshop nationwide. Stay tuned at http://www.creativeamerica.us/.

Update: Forgot to say I thought it was classy the way Tom, Kitty and Kevin handled a strange man that wanted to talk at length about medical health legislation and why no one mentions Barrack Obama’s wife is Jewish (Is she? Oy gevalt, who cares!). It seemed like one of those I’ll ask a loaded question in front of an entire group to get attention and totally trash the current discourse. kinda things. There was a guy in my Poli Sci class in college that would do that – it was so smarmy – he’d grin this self-satisfied Limbaugh-soaked grin and totally take the entire class off topic. Idiot.

4 thoughts on “Creative America and Tom Tresser

  1. dan

    Looks close to the Alien Support Group you once attended.The public will never be priviliage to see what really happens in gov.The entire Governmant poloicy thing is much like the stage show we only see the story and not the real drama.Monday the TV will blare the evanglistic montra if the liberaial people.Close the hatches and pull up the cross God will see us through..The winter of 2005 will be a bear and we haven’t got in to midwinter yet!!…………………….d

  2. Tom Tresser

    Andy – great piece of reporting. I couldn’t believe it myself. When it started to snow the night before, I thought “We’re hosed! But we actually had 40 people in total at the Jan 22 training event and had another 9 people registered who couldn’t make it, including people from Rockford and Bloomington who couldn’t get out of their driveways!

    It’s creative and entrepreneurial people like you and the folks who read thos blog and who give a damn about creativity and democracy in America who will have to get into purposeful political action to save creativity and democracy in America. Thank you for giving a damn.

  3. Jo-An

    So … were you inspired enough to consider a run for office?

    Artists CAN win political office. And sometimes you don’t even need a huge war chest to do it. Especially at the local level — school boards, township offices, etc.

    My husband, a photography major and video creative, is currently into his second term as a Lake County, IL Board Commissioner. He is now seeking the office of Mayor of Waukegan.

    Thanks for sharing!

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