But now I need to go on a bit about the bug-a-boo I have with Mike’s contention that Theater failed America. In his article, I sense an underlying sentiment from him that somehow the American theater artist is inherently entitled to a middle-class existence. Entitlement is something I've never considered when it comes to having a career in the theater. If you ask any artist making theater in America today whether they made the choice to be an actor, actress, designer, director or craftsperson because of a need for comfort and steady work, my guess is that you would receive an overwhelming “no”.Let's examine this paragraph a bit. First, I don't think Mike Daisey, or I for that matter, am suggesting that there is an "entitlement to a middle-class existence." Entitlement means "the right to guaranteed benefits" -- please note the word guaranteed. Nobody in their right mind would argue that the decision to be a theatre artists guarantees one to a middle-class existence.
What I am arguing, and what Mike Daisey seems to be arguing (I will not put words in his mouth), is that the decision to be a theatre artist should not disqualify you from a middle-class existence. While one might not choose to be a theatre artist "because of a need for comfort and steady work," neither does one choose to be a theatre artist out of a need for discomfort and sporadic work. There is no correspondence between doing quality theatre and not eating, not having a home, and not health insurance. The art of theatre is not benefited by being filled with artists who are a) young, b) tired, and c) worried about whether a bout with appendicitis will put them on the streets.
Now comes the cliched bravado:
A life in the arts comes with great highs and great lows. But that’s what we all signed on for when we chose it, right? I knew that my life was going to be tough when I really knew that I was going to fully sign on as a dedicated member of the theatrical community. But I also knew that I would be in the company of a hearty band of tenacious dreamers who would help me, through good humor and generosity, to shoulder the burden of working 47 different types of jobs and constantly worrying about my inability to ever really retire and live in a sunny condo in Florida.Gag me. "Tenacious dreamers." No, Jonathan, that's not what we signed on for. We signed on for a life devoted to our art, not for a life of grinding poverty. It's not like we decided to become monks. This is the same logic that leads to people telling migrant workers, hey, you knew you weren't going to get rich being a migrant worker, what are you complaining about the piss-poor wages for?
In a paragraph that is breathtaking in its condescension and idiocy, West writes:
In his article, Mike Daisey talks about a friend of his who is giving up after trying to be an actress in Seattle. I don’t think that lady is weak, I just don’t think she’s a true artist. True artists are a combination of two things: talent and tenacity. The talent is the easy thing. The showing up day after day for guaranteed rejection, humiliation and unfair treatment that is just part of the job description of being an artist is the real work. Mike Daisey’s friend, it seems to me, was not made of the stuff for the real work that goes on throughout an artist’s life. You can still be talented and have a hobby. It seems to me that is the case of his actress friend. She's a great hobbyist who, for very sane, rational reasons, chose to move away from something that was crushing her soul.
What an insulting prick. "I don;t think she's a true artist." I'm sorry. My greatest desire was to keep my temper and just point out the errors in this article, but I can't. Paragraph after paragraph, West arrogantly frames economic injustice as artistic freedom, naively expressing a belief that theatre is a meritocracy (does anybody really believe that? Is that why so many people go to grad school in order to "make connections"?) and the cream rises to the "top" ("Theater isn’t an “everyone gets the same size piece of cake” kind of enterprise. Some people succeed. Some people don’t."), that an acceptance of poverty is heroic ("Let's face it, we theater artists are all a little mad to keep putting ourselves in front of doors that more often than not get slammed in our face"), and that artists just need to suck it up and glory in the status quo (" I would love to think of myself as a theater artist through and through who derives his entire income from performing and directing, but I know that will probably never be the case. That doesn’t mean, I’m saying, “Boo hoo, this is too hard. I’m giving up on the theater.” I’ll just paste together a life with odd jobs and things outside the realm of theater that can support the work I do as an artist.") West combines a weird artistic Darwinism with the capitalistic myth of merit and an anarchistic fuck-The-Man bravado is noxious.
And he winds up with this classic: "But what we need most of all is for the American theater artist to stop whining and to just keep showing up to work."
I can't beat Mike Daisey's own response to this line:
This is classic: really, what we need most is for the artists to stop whining? Really? It's that much of a problem, the whining?Exactly, Mike. Now there's a healthy vision. West seems to argue that theatre is better if it is done by people who have no money, no time, no control over their careers, no stability, and no health insurance. That there is some sort of artistic value -- no, beyond value, some sort of artistic heroism -- in being taken advantage of. And those who think otherwise he insults by characterizing them as people who dream of a need to "retire and live in a sunny condo in Florida."
I saw this a lot in Seattle, on message boards, and from a number of other regional sources around the country: an intense disgust with the "whining" of artists. I believe it comes from a Puritan impulse--people who've been working under hard conditions in the trenches for years and years can become hardened. After all, they never make any money—why should anyone else? They haven't gotten to live in the city they wanted to and do theater--why should the next generation? Why should they have it easy?
The short answer is that we should be making things better for the future. I believe the largest missing element in the American theater is its treatment of the artists—if the actors had stability, they could be ensembles. If we had ensembles we could start winning back some of the losses of the past and forging a new tradition that is living and vibrant and based around humans, as opposed to a tradition based around real estate and subsidized buildings. We owe it to the future and to ourselves to make things better. That is the dream of progress.
Let's make this explicit:
1) Theatre is not better if it is made by poor, tired, insecure artists.
2) There is nothing heroic about allowing oneself to be exploited.
3) Theatre can only be made BETTER if artists have the time to focus their attention on it full-time, or as close to full-time as possible, and not as a fucking afterthought during the few hours available after putting in a full day doing something else.
Jesus Christ. Can we finally grow up and stop thinking that we're sticking it to The Man if we are eating ramen noodles four nights a week in a roach-infested studio apartment? Can we give up this belief that in poverty their is virtue, and in insecurity there is inspiration? How did we come to believe so deeply in the self-destructive narrative of heroic desperation?