That said, it just is more expensive to survive in some cities over others. Nothing earth-shaking about that idea, I'll admit. Except when you start thinking in terms not of survival, but artistic options. For instance, if you live in Los Angeles, where 64% of the average net salary goes for housing, even if you split the rent with someone else you are still paying 32% of your take-home pay each month for housing -- and that's if you make the average salary. If the comments on my "Personal Income" post reflect reality at all (and there are only four replies, so who knows), many of you are are making less than the average salary.
But if you decide to live in Atlanta, which actually has more TCG theatres (9) than DC, LA, and SF (8 each), and actually has a higher average gross salary than LA (that surprised me), and like your LA friend you split the rent with someone else, your housing bill is now $456 a month, or 16% of the average net salary, way below the 30% recommendation. Consequently, you have about $15,000 extra in your pocket each year that isn't going for rent. Now, what could you do with that? You might decide to use it to pay for an independent theatre project, which could be good for your career. Or you might see that you could considerably reduce the amount of money you need to make to survive: instead of needing a job that pays you $45,000 a year gross, you could comfortably survive on $24,000. This might allow you to work fewer hours in a less demanding field and devote more time to auditioning, or it might allow you to take time off when you are doing a show and concentrate on what you are doing.
If you think of money as representing time or independence, these housing numbers start to look a little different.
But my examples above are not entirely forthcoming. Let's be up front about this, just in case this hasn't become clear over the past three weeks I've been writing: I think the freelance system of doing theatre, where an artistic team is put together piecemeal for each project through auditions and interviews, is artistically and economically bankrupt. It turns the creation of art into a crap shoot, and denies the experience of every other group art form in existence which shows that artists who work together over time create better work. Look at the example of rock bands: the musicians need to play together for a while before they can create much worth listening to, and for many bands the longer they are together the more interesting they become. Same for symphonies and dance troupes. But for some reason, theatre thinks this isn't necessary, despite the fact that theatre is far more complex than music or dance because it involves the coordination of more elements.
And so young theatre people go "where the work is" in the hope that someone in authority will, as the song says, "Give me a chance to come through." (If you are looking for a dramatization of the neuroses that the freelance system breeds, just flip to the Chorus Line soundtrack on your iPod and listen for a while. The whole show is about what desperate theatre neurotics will "do for love." They'll put up with abusive acting teachers ["Nothing"], get plastic surgery ["Dance Ten, Looks Three"], grovel ["The Music and the Mirror"], and generally work themselves into a lather about whether they will be allowed to work ["I Hope I Get It"]. And theatre people saw this show as a Valentine to the theatre, not a disturbing cautionary tale! Sheesh!)
I say to hell with that sick system.
I think that the only way live theatre is viable, both economically and artistically, is in the form of semi-permanent companies or "tribes." I wrote about the "New Tribalism and Theatre" back in July, and a vibrant discussion ensued, and my hit count soared, which had only happened before when I was involved in some ugly dustup. To me, this was an indication of interest in the idea -- suddenly, my posts were getting forwarded to people outside of my usual readership. What I noticed as the number of comments increased is that for theatre people the idea of the tribe (see definition below) represented both a dream and a fear: they deeply wanted something like it to work, but they feared that it couldn't in today's American economy based on individualism and the American Dream. They wanted to collaborate, but they felt they had to compete. I explored the ramifications of this in "Locating the Tribe":
Which leads me to wonder whether this model would operate better in a place where the likelihood of fame is less in the forefront of artists' imaginations. Perhaps NYC and Chicago, where there is a hierarchy of theatres and where a strong personal review can lead to the possibility of individual fame, holds too many temptations. In fact, perhaps these environmental facts actually attract the type of people who would fit into such a system, and thus NOT fit into a tribe. I'm not saying that NYC and Chicago theatre people are more "selfish and self-involved" than others, but rather that the unspoken hope that, like Cinderella, you might be plucked from obscurity and courted by the Prince would be less prevalent in a city a bit further from the spotlight where fairy godmothers rarely go. Perhaps the every-man-for-himself, dog-eat-dog mentality is encouraged in big cities that receive mass media attention, and the values of cooperation and ensemble would best be developed in a different atmosphere.So now this data starts to have a context, right? If you stop seeing your only option as fitting into the freelance model, suddenly you are released from "going where the work is" and instead can consider "where you want the work to be." When you are deciding where you want to spend your life, you think not in terms of going in search of work, you rather in terms of creating it. So you are able to consider the options afforded all over this country, instead of being fixated on the expensive NY/LA/Chicago troika. You can consider climate, you can consider cost of living, you can consider factors much different from the number of theatres that are in a city. And then if you decide that NY, LA, or Chicago is where you want to be, you are making that choice of your own free will and in an educated way, and not because you are compelled to make that choice because A Chorus Line has a grip on your psyche.
And if the thought of doing theatre outside of the megalopolis makes you queasy, makes you think it is a symbol of "giving up" or not being "good enough," then you are probably not a good candidate for a tribe. Tribes are about the work, not about the individual. It's about being happy having an opportunity to do work that is fulfilling, and regarding that fulfillment as an end in itself. It isn't about money (although tribes should provide enough to get by), and it isn't about fame. It is about theatre, and contribution to the life of a community.
Buckminster Fuller said, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." My biggest challenge on this blog is to make this point clear: the life of a theatre artist will not be made significantly better by tinkering with the current way of doing things; only by building a new model will theatre attain health and vibrancy.
Part of that new model involves spreading theatre more fully across this country. It is my hope that, by examining data such as what I have presented over the past few weeks, we will start to see that there is nothing carved in stone about the NY/LA/Chicago compulsion, and that if our desire is to create work that matters to us, and to create that work with the kind of regularity that leads to excellence, then we need to think about the theatre in a different way. I'll admit, that's scary. We may agree that the current system is sick, but be afraid that anything different won't work. We may think that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But the fact is that most people in theatre don't have a bird in the hand, they have the dream of a bird in the hand that they hope they'll get if they just wander through the forest long enough. But the fact is that there are too many hunters and not enough birds in that forest, and there are forests elsewhere where there are fewer hunters and an unknown supply of birds.
Note: I forgot to include the promised definition of a tribe, adapted from Daniel Quinn's Beyond Civilization: "a tribe is nothing more than a coalition of people working together as equals to make a living." [ital mine] It is a self-sustaining, ongoing group of people who, "among them, have all the competencies needed to start and run a given business," who are "content with a modest standard of living," and who are "willing to think 'tribally -- that is, to take away what they need out of the business rather than to expect set wages." A self-sustaining tribe "needs to perform all the functions that will make it successful." While each person may have something they are especially good at, they nevertheless share responsibility for all aspects of the tribal business. So, in the case of a theatre, a person may be an actor, but if program ads need to be sold or lights hung, you willingly pitch in.