Monday, February 11, 2008

Empowerment

OK, so I've written three posts to start off this journey toward a sustainable, geographically diverse theatre. I've asked you whether you can give up the dream of fame and fortune and focus primarily on the work as an end in itself; I've asked you to team up with a group of people who share a similar willingness to focus on the work and form a tribe; and I've asked you to consider an approach to the creation of theatre that incorporates additional work outside the theatre to supplement the income of the ensemble ("and then").

Those are big changes from the freelancer's life. Over the past two weekends, my wife and I have been attending a "bee school" where we are being trained as beekeepers. One of the things I've learned is that, when it somes to bees, the unit is the hive not the individual bee. Everyone is committed to the health of the hive, and each bee has his or her own job to contribute. There are many who will say this is impossible -- that we have become a "free agent nation" and it is every person for themself and to hell with everybody else. There was a point only a few years ago that I was enthralled by this idea -- I was reading The World Is Flat and Tom Peter's Re-Imagine and I was totally buzzed (pardon the bee pun) by not having to worry about cooperating with anyone else, and by riding my own particular form of genius to the top. Now -- not so much. Because while I think that sort of individualism is kind of a rush, I'm not convinced that the results are either valuable or healthy. I'm more interested in creating a community of people who collaborate to create something healthy and sustainable.

But what I experienced when I was on this individualistic high was a sense of empowerment. And I still think that is critical to all walks of life, and I think it is what we have lost to some extent as theatre artists. Oh, sure, we're all free agents hustling to win that next role or directing gig, and we'll fight tooth and nail to knock others out of the way to do so. But the structure of the business is based on disempowerment, and I think that is one thing that has to change. It is also the thing that links together the three things I have asked you to consider, which I listed above (commitment to art as an end in itself, commitment to an ensemble, and commitment to ancillary income sources). All of these are designed to make artists more independent of outsiders who would control their fate.

I know in a previous post I mentioned my distaste for A Chorus Line as being a musical advertisement for theatrical dysfunctionality. Now, when that cast album first came out, I about wore a groove in it playing it so often (yes, this was back in the day when you wore grooves in your albums -- ask your parents). I saw the show on Broadway, and I lived and died with each of the auditionee's heartfelt stories. But looking back, I see that this was SICK! *L* It was getting me used to being disempowered because I was in the theatre. One of the songs from that musical stands out in this regard: Music and the Mirror. Here are the lyrics, for those who haven't got them memorized:

Give me somebody to dance for,
Give me somebody to show.
Let me wake up in the morning to find
I have somewhere exciting to go.

To have something that I can believe in.
To have something to be.
Use me... Choose me.

God, I'm a dancer,
A dancer dances!

Give me somebody to dance with.
Give me a place to fit in.
Help me return to the world of the living
By showing me how to begin.

Play the music.
Give me the chance to come through.
All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror,
And the chance to dance for you.

Give me a job and you instantly get me involved.
If you give me a job,
Then the rest of the crap will get solved.
Put me to work,
You would think that by now I'm allowed.
I'll do you proud.

Throw me a rope to grab on to.
Help me to prove that I'm strong.
Give me the chance to look forward to sayin':
"Hey. listen, they're playing my song."

Play me the music.
Give me the chance to come through.
All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror,
And the chance to dance...

Play me the music,
Play me the music,
Play me the music.
Give me the chance to come through.
All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror,
And the chance to dance...
Hoo-boy, I'm having flashbacks. Let's give these lyrics a close look. First of all, the phrase "give me" appears ten times during the course of the song. Give me a chance, give me a job, give me an audience, give me place to fit in. Give me a life! (Setting aside the artistic use of repetition, this whole song is about begging and pleading for somebody else to let her be an artist. Please please please let me fulfill myself by allowing me to do your choreography. The disempowerment of this song becomes more obvious if you switch the art form. Imagine, say, a novelist pleading for paper and a pencil, or an artist begging for paint and canvas. Yes, those artists need others to publish their work, or to display it in a gallery, but they have complete power over the creation of the work. Not the freelancer -- she needs somebody else to let her create. Or so she thinks.

It gets worse. She needs somebody else to give her something she can believe in. Now, think about that for a second. Can you get any more passive than that? Having somebody else provide you with purpose and direction? Yes you can get worse, and she does: she asks to have a rope thrown to her so she can prove she is "strong." What? You throw a rope to someone who is dorwning, right? Isn't that the image? So how can you prove your strength when somebody else is holding you up? If you're strong, what do you need a rope for at all -- start swimming! Ultimately, she gives the whole game away when, in perhaps the saddest lines in the whole musical, she begs, "Use me, choose me." Use me.

If this were just an example of individual pathology, we could let it pass. But it is the way most theatre people are socialized to think. We think other people control the means of production, and we are so desperate to be "used" that darned if they don't do just that. They do theatre people a "favor" by letting them work for nothing -- this is called a "showcase," and theatre artists beg and claw for an opportunity to be chosen.

And this kind of thinking permeates the whole damn business. What is one of the major topics of conversation in the theatrosphere? The small amount of government subsidy. Give me give me give me. We spend half of our time with our hands out begging for other people to give us money. The government, foundations, businesses. Our regional theatres have seen an inordinate growth in those in administration, and what do most of them do? Beg for money in the form of grants.

And then we wonder why Average Joe thinks we are all a bunch of slackers who oughta suck it up and earn a living. Well, this is how we've been taught to earn a living! It's like we have all worked an apprenticeship in begging. The thought of actually controlling our own art is almost unheard of. A commenter on one of my previous posts complained that forming a company involved a completely different "skill set." Actually, what it requires is the desire to have control over your own artistic life, instead of relying on everyone else to give something to believe in, something to be, some place to fit in.

Being an artist means taking control of your development. The only way to do that is to control the means of production and give up this pathetic passivity, this reliance on Big Daddy to throw you a rope and save your cookies. And the irony is that I don't think there is anyone who does want to be able to do that -- who doesn't have an idea of what kind of work makes them happy, what kind of work inspires their best creativity, what kind of work allows them to grow.

Part of being an adult is agency -- making our own independent choices. This blog seeks to develop a model of doing theatre that empowers artists so that hard work and creativity trumps dumb luck and ass-kissing.

2 comments:

The Director said...

I agree completely. However, whenever I talk to anyone regarding this type of thing, they all look at me like I'm crazy and exclaim "That's not disempowerment, that's how things really are" or "Of course actors go to NYC, that's where the jobs are!" or "Of course they import actors from NYC, that's where the talent is!"

I reply that I know it is that way... but it shouldn't be.

It's frustrating, to say the least.

Scott Walters said...

Yes, I run into that all the time on this blog. There is an innate conservatism to theatre people that is sometimes surprising. We often believe that theatre can change anything...but theatre can't be changed. I don't know what people were doing in their theatre history classes when the teacher was talking about the business models of the Greeks, the Medival mystery plays, the Globe, commedia troupes or any other number of theatrical models that vary enormously from our own system. There is almost an attitude that the current system was somehow created by God or the laws of nature, rather than it being man-made and changeable. That's why I spent so much time over the past month hammering home the complete absurdity of the current system. All we can do is keep talking and keep trying to emphasize that nothing changes unless people change it.