Thursday, January 24, 2008

On Money and Choice

So what am I getting at in the previous post about one portion of the cost of living index (housing and utilities) for various cities? Obviously, there are ways around the rent crunch: live with someone else and split costs -- a roommate, a spouse, a significant other; live in housing that is less expensive than average; reduce expenses in other parts of your budget, such as auto expenses; live in a less expensive area outside of the city and commute. So there are ways to reduce the effects of high housing costs.

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.

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.
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.

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.


Tony said...

Ironically, Chicago is very much built around ensembles. Most companies here are ensembles, even some of the biggest. That is one reason why a lot of people move to Chicago--to start their own tribe, where they can find the necessary tools. (True many others come to work before heading to one for the coasts.)

One thing that makes it hard to start a theatre company solo is you need others. Where I grew up in Michigan there was a company that was around for years. They folded a few years ago, not because of lack of attendance, or financial issues; but, because they could not find anyone around them who was wiling to do the technical work, and the core members simply grew tired of it after years of doing it themselves.

The sheer amount of work it takes to build a company is staggering (I know this very well) whether it is in Chicago, or Cisco TX. Even in Chicago it can be difficult for many companies to find designers and technicians.

So, I don't think it is as simple as it may seem.

This is True: "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."

But to use a similar analogy: There are many, many more hunters, but you can also find good camo, a good pair of boots, more calls, and a lot of ammo.

There can be are advantages to both sides.

Scott Walters said...

You may be well-dressed and have great ammo, but you still need a bird to shoot at. Otherwise, it's just a walk in the woods.

By the way, I don't think I have ever maintained that starting a company is easy. The last time I looked, doing freelance wasn't easy either.

While there will be more posts in the coming weeks about a new model, I'd say you should read my post on "New Tribalism and the Theatre" -- oh, shoot, I said I would define a tribe in this post and I forgot. I'll go back and do it. Anyway, the people in Michigan made a crucial error: they created a business without having people with the necessary skills to run it properly. You can't just have a bunch of actors and directors, you need designers and business people, or you need to have people broaden their knowledge to encompass those tasks. There are no specialists in a tribe.

Tony said...

Oh no I'm not discounting your argument, just saying there are other possible paths out of the broken system.

J. Holtham said...

I'm with Tony. I agree completely that the current model for developing and producing theatre is fundamentally broken and that more companies, working together over a longer period of time and even (heaven forfend) re-visiting work would go a long way to making theatre vibrant and relevant again. But I think the solution is more than "go somewhere where a company is economically sustainable". You can also figure out a model that works for where you are. I'm a native New Yorker, this is my hometown, where my roots are. I don't necessarily want to leave it to do the work I want to do. But the current model does nothing for me. We all have to engage in re-thinking how we approach our art and how we produce and how we fundraise. A theatre company should reflect not just its community but the artists making it. Everything should be on the table.

Scott Walters said...

J Holtham -- Obviously, nobody is going to hold a gun to anybody's head and force them to leave NYC or Chicago or LA. Once you see the data, you are a grown-up and can make an informed decision. My comments are not for those currently happily ensconced in these cities, but rather for all the young people who feel compelled to go there despite the fact that it makes very little sense if the object is to create theatre, and for all those who are in those cities who are frustrated and considering giving up. There could be some other way somewhere else

Don Cummings said...

So Positive, this idea!
Having been involved in theatre all around the country, however...I still do think most of the best talent is in the best, if one were to have a great theatre tribe going on in Huntsville Alabama, chances are, these theatre artists probably would have counterparts in LA or NY that were actually better at their craft. It's sick but true. Hate me---but that's my experience.

Many variables out there... One prefers Paris to Lyon...unless one really loves sausages.

Another note: It is actually easier to get theatre produced in LA than in NY if anyone is interested. For one thing, people are less risk averse in the LA theatre scene...and, the theatre rents are cheaper.

Lucky me--I have cheap dwellings in NY and LA--- My suggestion to young people: Keep your eyes open! The market is dropping. Buy something when you're young. Get a studio apt. in Queens! Live in North Hollywood in LA.

Or start a tribe in Albany, NY---but I warn you, I've worked with a tribe in Albany, NY---they eventually disbanned and half of them moved to NYC.

Let's not forget--competition in big markets is not such a bad thing. It can force the best out of you. And- you do tend to call upon friends that you know and you work with them again---it's sort of a few tribes loosely interacting. One tribe can get culty and one cranky leader can really be a drag. Choice is good.

Make new friends, but keep the old ones. One is silver and the other is __________.

Scott Walters said...

For the life of me, I can't figure out why it is so hard to see that the reason all the "best" people are in NYC or LA is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is the status quo defending the status quo by pointing to the status quo. First, we create a system where the employment is centralized, then we declare that the quality is better in the centralized location because everybody is there. It is nonsense. Talent does not increase due to having a 100- zip code. An actor in Alabama has the same amount of talent once he moves to NYC. The question is: how often will he get to develop that talent by doing actual work?

Yes, tribes disband. Businesses close, people get divorced. And your point is? I could just as easily say: Talented people have gone to NYC and then become frustrated and taken a job in Albany. Big deal.

And if you visit the cost of living calculator I had on a previous post, you will see that the average dwelling in Queens goes for $581, 166. You tell me what young person has the wherewithal to cover that kind of mortgage, much less qualify for it. Yes, you are right, financially it is much better to own a home than to rent it. The likelihood that a young person could do such a thing is MUCH higher in Albany than in Queens. Which is another argument forgetting out of NYC.

Your free market ideology of so-called "choice" doesn't benefit the artist. It puts them at the mercy of producers, instead of being in charge of their own artistic life, and it puts them in competition with each other rather than in collaboration. A rock band whose membership changed every album would have no identity and no fans. Yes, band members have battles, they might have a "cranky leader" and that's a "drag." But that is the nature of collaboration, and the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. The Beatles were a much better band together than they were working solo with others. Wings never inspired and challenged Paul McCartney like Lennon and the Beatles did.

J. Holtham said...

Scott- I totally understand that you're not talking about reforming the NYC theatre scene. All I'm saying is that it's part of the same conversation. I'm in complete agreement with you that the best theatre work happens with a tribe, a dedicated group of collaborators, whether that work is happening in Alabama or Wyoming or Oklahoma or New York. But it does a tribe no good to just import the models used in other places and not take into account the particular needs and limitations, both financially and artistically, of the area they're moving to. I completely agree that young artists need to be encouraged to explore other communities and places, or even to go back home and work. But it does no one any good if they take with them the old idea of "Well, I'll do this here for a while and when I'm good enough (or famous enough or bored enough), I'll go somewhere else with it." And that hurts theatres everywhere, whether you start them in Atlanta or Queens. I think a theatre company should be organized to reflect the benefits, realities and limitations of the community it's in, both financial and artistic. Simply replicating what we have in more places won't do the trick.

Scott Walters said...

J Holtham -- I agree 100%.

ilannoyed said...


$5 for the first to guess the quote

anyway - it is not just a self fulfilling prophecy that all the best talent is in the major cities. it is also a fact of MOST ALL COMMERCE. Part of why cities exist, as a matter of fact. as a centrally located marketplace for resources.

It seems to work pretty well for actors in London. but they have all their resources in one city.

The larger issue, or problem here may just be the fact that this country is so large and so spread out. You have already pointed out the NY/LA/Chi triumverate - how much more fractured can it get?

And don't forget, there ARE theaters in many of these "smaller" towns - Community Theaters and University theaters and Church Drama Groups. And these are very near and dear to peoples hearts.

Just as it is not possible for every podunk piddly little town to have or even support a major league sports team, perhaps it is also not really possible for every small community to have and support a professional theater? That doesn't mean they won't have amateur teams or drama clubs. And maybe that's ok.

I'm not sure how you would even "build a better model". Maybe this model is alright.

I do agree that jobbing actors in all the time is not conducive to creating an ensemble, and i do wish that more theaters would actually cast for a rep company instead of jobbing in all the actors for each show. But is living in the middle of nowhere trying to build a company really going to create better artists?

Don Cummings said...

Good luck Everyone!

I got my studio apt. in Queens for under 100k 2 years ago. Go on Craigs List. It's all possible.

Furthermore---If people want to live in Kansas City---by all means, go for it. However, I think the draw for artists to consequential urban has been around since before Rome and Athens. It's more exciting. More ideas, energy and let's face it, interesting sexual partners can be shared in lager arenas.

Your suggestions are fun and worth a try. But I think the picture is bigger than what you point to. Changing the landscape one theatre tribe at a time is noble. I am all for change. But for me, I think even Chicago feels like a bit of a backwater. Couldn't do it. I don't believe your suggestions are going to change this.

And frankly, I find the regional theatres, where I've worked and where I've watched, just ape New York. Who wants to be part of something that's two to three years behind?

Theatre is a challenge. I think instead of geographical solutions (which are good consideration but really just a tiny part of the problem), I think we need braver artists, everywhere. Including the coasts. And certainly in Omaha.

If one is brave, one can do it anywhere. In the sun, by the sea, near the cornfield, on the permafrost.

Go theatre people, go! Push that rock uphill!

Don Cummings said...

And please forgive the typos.

Scott Walters said...

"I'm not sure how you would even "build a better model". Maybe this model is alright."

Um, no. 87% unemployment is not alright. Actors Equity members median number of work weeks at 17 is not alright. Actors Equity median annual income at $7239 is not alright.

When you use major league baseball as as an analogy, it is clear you are thinking in terms of Big Box Regional theatres. I am not. I believe, along with E. F. Schumacher, that "small is beautiful"; I believe, along with Bill McKibben, that a local economy is stronger and more vital than a global economy. Earl Butz, when he was the Head of Agriculture, told small farmers to "get big or get out." The result: the destruction of our farm economy and our environment. Theatre has waded into that same Butzian philosophy, and it is killing us in the same way.

J. Holtham said...

il- I think it would. I think it would create better theatre and remind people that theatre can be relevant to their lives. When I think about jobbing in, I'm also thinking about playwrights. Importing whatever went over big in New York or Chicago or L.A. at the expense of generating new work that's directly relevant to the community it's in is part of the problem. I think the suggestion that colleges should produce one new play a season, preferably one by a local writer, helps bridge that gap. Part of the calculus here, as Scott has pointed out, is financial. If the constituents in those rural/underserved areas have a stake in the arts, their elected officials will have a stake and more of the arts could be supported nationally. Also, on the thinking of new models, I think you can re-define what a "professional" theatre is. Do you need all of these individuals with their specialized roles only? I think about the theatre mentioned in the comments above that fell apart because they didn't have designers. So one of the actors designs, or you find ways to use what people have, you work around it. So you don't have a playwright, create new works, a la the Living Newspaper. I think part of the entrenchment is this notion of having an "artistic director": a singular person with a "vision" who creates and runs the theatre. That's what I think about when I think changing the model.

ilannoyed said...

ya know scott - there's probably MORE than 87% unemployment among wanna be baseball players also. some professions are defined by the difficulty of succeeding at making a living in that field.

as much as i want to disagree - Don Hall kinda said it all in his post 1/23

RLewis said...

the 87% unemployment figure is disengenious at best. it does not account for the thousands of union members like myself who keep their cards, but currently are not seeking acting work in the field. it also does not account for multi-card holders -AEA,SAG,AFTRA- who may be doing dayplayer work on a soap opera, films or commercials.

in addition, much of this discussion seems to assume that all actors are stage actors when many just do stage work until they book a good commercial (3 of those = all the $$$ one needs for the year). I'd bet more actors are in nyc and la, not because they have theaters, but because no other cities have advertising agency communities as large as they do. Actors don't buy a studio in Queens with money from stage acting, they do it with commercial residuals.

MikeDailey said...

Hey Scott! Great blog!
I have been following this and as some one who has spent the last ten years in Chicago, acting as a 'freelancer' and producing work at my own company I have a few observations.
First, I think Don has a good point. Artists, through history have gravitated toward urban centers where the competition and elbow rubbing helps push the artform forward. Perhaps with technology and communication being what it is these days, this is no longer a necessity, but it still exists and might always need to be part of the equation.
Secondly, I was born and raised in St. Louis. I love the city still. I have just had a baby and would love to live in a place like that and be an actor but feel it would be, as an actor, throwing in the towel and closing a door.
No more commercial work. No more real thoughts of getting tv or film work. No more being exposed to the upper tier theatres like the Goodman and Steppenwolf and no more being inspired by young fresh companies like The House or the multi-media new kids on the block Oracle. Oh and bye bye to the improv/sketch comedy scene.
Maybe I should be more selfless and lofty and just look at it as an opportunity to start a tribe in St. Louis and become a part of the community, but it seems like a major sacrifice to make for a populace that might not really care.
I suppose that is the point really, most of the society has lost the 'need' for theatre at all. We have failed to prove our relevance to the greater community and that is one reason why our big cities are the place to practice our craft. People care. I know here in Chicago, if you put in on and its good, they will come.

Don Cummings said...

Don -- By writing about the issues I write about, I have a Technorati rating of 63 compared to your 7. I get 300+ hits a day. So I wouldn't worry too much about my perishing.

You are exactly right: things are huge and changing. And what is killing theatre is that it isn't. We continue to produce using the industrial model that worked in the early 20th century. We live in a decentralized world, but produce theatre from a centralized model.

I think I have been pretty upfront about my agenda: I want to change the business model of theatre, and I want it to be a national art form. What's your agenda? To maintain the status quo and get laid as often as possible?

--Posted on OPEN TRENCH.

Don's Response:
Posted here, and on Open Trench.

Dear Scott,

I am SO HAPPY For your 300+ Technorati rating! (But aren't they a centralized agency?)Perhaps my 7 measly inches will measure up to your 300 one day...

Look--I don't really care too much about how theatre is made--as long as it IS made. I guess I DON'T understand the kind of mind (yours) that takes a VIEWPOINT and then just stays at it, endlessly---not even considering someone's else's viewpoint. I mean--that kind of obstinate thinking does seem to push one toward perishing. The mighty oak and all....falling. I could be wrong. But go for it, I guess.

I do think your idea of small tribes all over the country (all over the earth!) is thrilling. My personal preference, simply, is for New York, LA, Paris, London. I do understand that there may be MANY people who would be happy in St. Louis. Or Lansing. So they should go! I simply could not.

I think what you are suggesting, though noble, will be hard to pull off. Raising awareness in your blog is great. But how does one really make this happen? AND---where does the money come from? Who is going to produce this theatre? You? Me? Grants? The Feed and Harness store?

A workable plan would be interesting to read about.

As far as my agenda goes---I'm just a playwright who gets his plays produced in smallish theatres in NY and LA...who wants to keep doing that.
If a small theatre in the middle of the country wants to produce my plays---cool---but I don't think I could live there. And my experience has been that theatres in LA and NY will do my plays. Smaller theatres around the country--no matter how often I submit, seem to have no interest. Possibly because my plays have a certain sensibility that does not fit among the corn fields.

In closing---I have never tried to maintain the status quo, certainly not in my writing. But I admit, I am not one to reinvent the wheel of production. Perhaps the way things are produced is the best way? Or could just be improved upon? Or added to? Why the scorch and burn policy? Why not just adding to it? Isn't there room for that?

And on getting laid as often as possible: sadly, at my age, this is no longer an option. But for the up and coming kids---I think they might be interested in a large pool of choice. Powerful thing in your twenties.

May the next generation be pan-creative, find ways to produce on the cheap and ready, and attract wonderful, sustainable audiences. I am not a producer or marketing guy---I hope this next generation finds the skills to do what they must, wherever they must.

Don Cummings said...

Scott's latest on Open Trench:

Don -- What has infuriated me about your comments, including the one here on your blog, is the level of pure condescension on display. "Go theatre people, go! Push that rock uphill!" Come on, Don, that is about as close to an internet pat on the head as possible, and is insulting to me and to those who are trying to think through alternatives to the current system.

Why the scorch and burn approach? Because in order to imagine an alternative, one needs to acknowledge the problems residing in the status quo. This focuses the discussion, and also serves to provide support for all those theatre artists who have been frustrated with the way things are but have somehow been taught that their frustration is their own damn fault.

My blog is not about happy talk. It exists to explore an alternative, one that might lead to a more democratic and progressive theatre in America. Nobody is going to put a gun to your head and force you to move to Kansas City, which apparently is a g=fear of yours. But there are people, believe it or not, who would prefer Kansas City to New York City, and I write for them. If you are content with the way things are, more power to you, but your contentment does not outweigh discontent.

Don's Response:

Let it be known! I am not condescing AT ALL! I mean it when I say, GO THEATRE PEOPLE GO! I think it is a very difficult thing to do, to commit to a life in the theatre. This is NOT a pat on the head. This IS my truthful heartfelt desire to see people succeed. I am NO cynic. I think what you are doing is fine and noble. Why you are furious about my comments is beyond me. I have considered your comments. I think them valid. And I state again, simply: There are many ways to do what we all do. And my preference is my preference.

I implore you to understand that I am not against you, even if I am against Kansas City ;)


And success and joy to everyone, no matter where they choose to do it.

I'll be watching your blog to read the progress.

Scott Walters said...

Don -- Then I sincerely apologize for misreading your intent. Not knowing you, I added an ironic spin onto those sentences, and that led to my anger. Somehow, I never seem to learn that internet text doesn't communicate affect very well, and when I react to the "tone" of a comment, I almost always are wrong. I apologize for my rudeness.