Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How Theater Failed America

As probably all six people who actually read this blog already know, I'm an ensemble member with a small storefront theatre company in town. I'm also in charge of their marketing and PR (by the way, come see our production of Spring Awakening, the gripping original play by Frank Wedekind, running through May 9! Yeah, I still got it). I've been mulling over several items lately, including Mike Daisey's monologue How Theater Failed America, which I saw this past Monday (better late than never, right? Definitely, in this case). It was delightful, hilarious, thought provoking, and a lot of it seems to be sticking with me, at least for now. One of the reasons that's kind of amazing is that, as he tells us early on, "This is a story you already know." I think the reason it still mattered so much to me to see him do that is that, as he puts it, he's doing an incredibly rare thing on stage these days- telling the truth. To hear him say some of the things he does on the stage of that particular theater (in a studio space at that particular theater, naturally) struck me as pretty ballsy even if it actually wasn't. Not as ballsy as if he were invited to do that show Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare or in the Owen at the Goodman, but still, you can't help but wonder how many of the accusations he levels accurately fit the very institution within which he is performing. The unspoken philosophy that actors are vermin, or that artists are infinitely less important than survival of the institution, and in particular the building, where the art is taking place.
I left the place after a chat with Mr. Daisey himself (which also amazed me; after talking for something like two hours straight, he continued to be very generous with his time and conversation after the show) all fired up, but the main question burning in my mind is this: what can I, personally, do to help with this situation today? It's hard to answer- I'm part of a theater company, but it's a small itinerant operation with very little money. It's true, we're just as guilty as some of these larger institutions of underpaying our artists, but it's not like we have piles of cash being squirreled away for some capital campaign for a building- it's not even as if we're giving it to administrative staff instead: we're poor. We at least are definitely built as an ensemble of artists- and not just artists; most or all of us are actor/staff hybrids like me (i.e., one of our actresses is our Development Director as well; same for our Literary Manager; our Business Manager is also the company's resident Stage Manager, our Artistic and Excutive Directors frequently perform in or direct our plays)...except, all this is minus the money. We all have to cling to day jobs as our life support. Nobody who spends time working for our company is making any kind of real money doing it. Still, I'm doing what I can. I spoke with our Executive Director about How Theater Failed America yesterday and told him flat out that if we ever do a capital campaign I'm adamant that we do one to endow chairs for artists before we ever, ever, raise money to build a building. I'm not sure he agrees with me- he had some things to say about the importance of having a single 'sacred space' in which our community gathers. And I can see that point of view too- in many ways, to me a theater is a temple. This art form plays that significant a role in my life. But that doesn't mean that we need to build a gaudy palace for our god while the high priests and acolytes are starving and begging in the streets. It's like Mr. Daisey says- once the audience is past the pretty lobby, the lights go down and they can't even see the space- it's only the *art* that will matter, finally. (Though if I can offer a quibble, Mr. Daisey, there's something to be said for having comfortable seating at least. I don't know about you, but I've definitely had difficulty enjoying a theater performance because the seat in which I was placed had become viciously, ass-punishingly uncomfortable after about the first forty five minutes!) I'm also going to try to get everyone I can, especially in my company, to see this show. Mr. Daisey is very persuasive- hopefully between the two of us we can convince everyone that, while we're poor now, we need to have our priorities clear in case we actually do wind up raising some serious cash at some point.
But you know what? That's not enough for me either. I'm trying to think of ways that I can help improve the disaster that was described to me Monday night sooner than that. And I'll talk about it in my next blog post. It has to do with another group of people that I feel are too often exploited by this current non-profit arts system, and, as a pretty big clue, it also has to do with how completely pissed off I got when i read this article in the New York Times.


Jeremy Wechsler said...

Obviously, I fell on the side of the "sacred space" argument. But, it is a mistake to reduce the question of raising money to artists vs. building. Neither exists without the other, but the financing and construction and maintenance of each is very very different and would need different approaches to one's funders.

I would argue that without a home, artists are even more doomed to an itinerant professional life. And a building is a key aspect into raising the money required to fund the artists. We are all still dumb monkeys in our backbrains; we build emotional associations with locations and small family units. The audience member who has been coming to the same location and seeing those artists for a long time is the audience member who will transform into a donor. The audience member who has to remember that your particular production company did that show they liked across town three years ago is an audience member you must win over again and again with every show.

I believe a home creates support systems for the artists working there. I'm seeing Mike's show on the 2nd, but don't be so quick to think that facilities steal bread out of our mouths. Spaces give us a place to bake bread.

Ed R said...

I agree with you that having a place to do the work matters. And I certainly wouldn't equate what you've done with Theater Wit with the 'gaudy palaces' I refer to in my posting. But certainly you'd be among the first to agree that the concerns of building your space were a huge time and resources drain on your company that had nothing to do with actually producing a play- and now that it's built, the headaches of maintaining and managing it will continue to be a drain independent of the art that Theater Wit is doing. There are certainly perks to having your own space as well- not having the headaches of renting from someone else, being able to plan your production calendar further in advance, having supplementary income from renting to others, etc. And having a space of your own does make a theater company seem more established and less ephemeral, somehow.
But without the artists, the building is just a building. I would maintain that if you pay an artist enough, they don't have to live a gypsy lifestyle. And 'enough' is probably surprising low given how little artists earn. I think there's something to be said for creating loyalty to a company based on artists that you trust and can look forward to seeing again and again, rather than just the 'where' of it. For example, with Theater Wit, it matters to me more that you're directing it, or that Penny wrote it, or that you've gotten Tom Mula back again, than that I get to scope out the new digs on Belmont, undeniably nifty as they might be.