Thursday, March 06, 2008

Leading a Rich Life

First of all, I would like to acknowledge Don Hall's passion for life. Have any of you noticed the times on his posts? Here are the last five: 6:32 AM, 5:51 AM, 5:05 AM, 5:39 AM, 7:35 AM (that was a Saturday, so he slept in). This truly is a man of steel and commitment. That he cares enough to get up and write something substantive, day after day, before heading off to a demanding job at NPR, and then comes home afterwards and commits his evenings to creating theatre -- well, it is truly super-human. Me? Couldn't do it. No way. After about a month, I'd be going postal all over my blog, after which I'd lapse into total silence. To hell with it, you could all figure it out without me!

In his most recent post, "Art is NOT a Job," Hall comes down squarely on the side of the theatre artist with a day job: "I've lived the life of the artist who holds a decent full-time job during the weekdays and spending my time away from my job working in the theater. For me, I like [this option]. And the conclusion that I've reached is that Art is Not a Way to Make a Living. Art is a Way of Life."

Oddly enough, I think Don thinks I am proposing something different than this with the theatre tribe idea, but I'm not, really. I'm proposing a variation. Here's where we differ: instead of having a day job working for somebody else, I think the day job ought to be run by the theatre ensemble itself (this is my idea of "And Then"). And depending on how you read this idea, it is either straight out of "Free Agent Nation" or "Das Capital" -- you choose! Economically, when you work for someone else, the reason they hire you is that they believe that your work will generate more income than it costs to pay you -- Marx would say that you create surplus labor. My goal is for the tribe to claim that surplus labor instead of someone else doing so.

So if you work as a temp, your employer (Manpower or whoever) is charging the company you work for much more than your hourly wage -- why not have the theatre run their own temp agency? Theatre people are often much smarter than the average temp, personable, and articulate -- it wouldn't take very long for a theatre temp agency to develop a base of devoted customers. You wouldn't need very many customers, because you wouldn't have hundreds of temps available at any one time.

Temping is sort of an unexciting example, but I provided an example of The Circle Project and Arlene Goldbard, where theatre people do consulting for organizations and businesses. I just received an email from a former student of mine, Paul Kalina of 500 Clowns, whose company takes another approach: "We are now moving into our fourth production which is Brecht's Man est Man. We are building it so that we can perform it with us or we can take it to a University and add 5 students to it and perform it with them as well. This way we can do an artist in residency, teach classes and some of the students would get to work with us in the form.
We have received a commission from the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center to do just that with students from the University of Maryland College Park....It turns out that our classes we offer in Chicago have become quite popular, so we are trying to expand that as well."

To put it all under one umbrella-word, I think a theatre tribe could survive better by thinking entrepreneurially. So no, art is not a job -- jobs are what other people hire you to do. Art is part of an entrepreneurial organization operated by artists.

Don quotes parts of my rant about Jonathan West, including "Theatre is not better if it is made by poor, tired, insecure artists." Don writes, "The Prof [I love it when Don calls me the Prof] is dead on with his railing against the current model that essentially supports the idea that it is cool or noble for the artist to accept this third-class citizen status. Where he gets it wrong is his belief that theater can be made better by the well-fed and well paid than by the starving, broke nomad." While that sort of looks like an accurate rephrasing of what I wrote, and a logical implication, it actually isn't. To say that theatre IS NOT BETTER if it is made by poverty-stricken artists does not mean that theatre IS BETTER if it is made by well-fed and well-paid ones. The point is that the quality of the art has little to do with how much the artist gets paid. However, it does have something to do with the quality and quantity of the energy than an artist has to give. It is harder to concentrate on your art when you are living out of your car and trying to keep ahead of the bill collectors, I don't care what Don says!

Interestingly, Don seems to be proposing theatre as part of a gift economy (see Lewis Hyde's The Gift): "If God charged me five bucks to create a tree, the tree is no longer merely that living, breathing part of the world - it becomes my possession and is subject to my value judgments in the same way that my shoes or desk are.The quality and value of a work of art has absolutely nothing to do with the economic status of the artist and everything to do with the honest endeavor to create something new and personal to share with the world." [bold by Don] In the past, I have promoted a similar idea, and so has the RAT Conference (Nick: "We had proposed the radical notion of No More Box Office as a way of de-commodifying our work and our theatre lead in the practice of the “potlatch model” of hosting conferences and producing theatre collectively."), and so has Zachary Mannheimer's Subjective Theatre. The fact is that ticket sales account for a small percentage of most theatre's income. But if the theatre tribe model also wants to disconnect from a reliance on governmental largesse and foundation grants, then where is the money to come from? We're back to ancillary income and entrepreneurial activity.

And also, we're back to forming a bond with our audience -- with the 1000 true fans, for instance. Howso? I have been reading the story of the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA -- a theatre begun during the Great Depression that allowed people to trade meat and vegetables for tickets. And I've been pondering the applicability of that model to the theatre tribe. What if one way for people to contribute to the theatre was to "adopt" a couple artists and provide dinner for them once a month -- invite the artists to their home for a home-cooked meal, take them to a restaurant and pick up the tab, bring a potluck to the theatre, whatever. People might make an event of it, inviting their friends or family to have dinner with the actors. Each time this happens, the bonds between artist and patron becomes stronger, because they are getting to know each other, instead of someone just making an on-line financial transaction. A patron might not be able or willing to make a $100 cash contribution, but he or she might be able to provide a chicken breast, mashed potatoes, and sweet corn as part of the family supper. And isn't that money that the artist doesn't have to spend themselves? Isn't that as good as income?

The object of all this, from my perspective, is for artists to lead a rich life, which is not defined by money. It is a life with health insurance and financial stability, yes, but also a life that allows for control over creative activity, time for rest and contemplation, time to spend with family and friends who are not involved in theatre (Don's wife is a theatre artist herself, so their work together is quality time in the relationship -- my wife is not a theatre person [been there, done that, didn't work for me], and so evenings spent in rehearsal after a full day at work is time we are NOT together, which is an emotional hardship.), time to participate in the life of the community, in charities or tutoring or worship, in short in living a well-rounded and rich existence. In order for an artist to become part of the community, they must have time to do so.

So ultimately, the theatre tribe idea is less about money than about time. Someone once said that wealth was not defined by money, but by time and space. I agree with that, and am putting all my mental energy into trying to conceive of a way to make artists truly and deeply wealthy.


GreyZelda Land said...

" ...that he cares enough to get up and write something substantive, day after day, before heading off to a demanding job at NPR, and then comes home afterwards and commits his evenings to creating theatre -- well, it is truly super-human. Me? Couldn't do it. No way."

You should give it a try, Scott! That's what a lot of us artists get to do everyday! If you can talk the talk, come walk the walk. I triple dog dare you. =) Take a sabbatical for a couple of years from your professor job, go to a major city for a year, create theatre and then go to a smaller city of your choice to do what you just did in the city and see if it ends up working out better or worse. Then report back from the trenches because you have the gift of writing eloquently.


Scott Walters said...

RZ -- Although Don has my admiration, that lifestyle is exactly what I am working against. So no, I have no interest in joining the ranks of the double-employed (although I get a taste every time I do a show at my university and work all day and then rehearse all evening). While I like Don a lot, I don't think being an Iron Man Artist is really worthwhile.

GreyZelda Land said...

You're "against" it and you don't think it's "worthwhile".


Withholding comment for it speaks for itself.

Well ... you could cash in your retirement and use your savings, 401K, what have you and see how long you could live off of that while making art fulltime.

It could be a sabbatical.



GreyZelda Land said...

How can you be an artist without having the instinct of an iron man, by the way?


Scott, do you call yourself an artist?


GreyZelda Land said...

No, my last comment was a bit harsh and unfair. You're a "theorist" according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which, also according to the dictionary is the opposite of an artist.


Director said...

RZ - Diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks. Scott doesn't want to do the double-job thing -- to him, it's not worthwhile. The idea that artists HAVE to have two jobs is what Mr. Walters is against, not the actual practice. Like he said in his blog, if an artist can focus on his art instead of whether or not he can meet the next bill payment, then better art is going to be a result. If that means working a day job elsewhere, then that's what it takes. But the idea that Mr. Walters is proposing is that shouldn't be the way it has to be.

I SHOULD be able to work solely within the theatre industry and making living wages. I SHOULD be able to, with a tribe, open our own theatre company and work together to create a successful company that provides us with the support to live, whether financial or moral.

I should NOT be forced to have a day job as, say, a waiter in order to pursue my art and still maintain living wages. Right now, that's pretty much the status quo -- there's an 87% unemployment rate in NYC for actors doing stage gigs, and that means most of them are working another job right now.

Why should that be necessary? That's the question Mr. Walters is asking.

The principle that Mr. Walters is working against is having to work 16 hours a day and not being able to spend time with family, friends, and perfecting your art. Don Hall certainly can do that, and by God, he does it well. But for others whose families and friends aren't solely concentrated in the theatre, that's going to be a nightmare. Mr. Walters already said that if he were to do something like that, he'd never see his wife.

It all comes down to priorities, and like I already said -- whatever floats your boat. If that lifestyle works for you, more power to you. But the idea is that it should be a choice, not a fact because of the status quo.

Scott Walters said...

RZ, let's be clear: I did the gig you're talking about when I was in my 20s. I worked a day job while doing freelance directing in Minneapolis for a decade. I then went back to school. Once I finished my doctorate coursework (while working 20 hours a week), I spent another 6 years doing a full-time job and writing my dissertation while also finding myself as a new stepfather for two teenaged boys -- so again, the research and writing happened on weeknights and weekends, and it was time taken away from my new family. It wasn't until I was 40 that I landed my current job as a professor. So I know the lifestyle firsthand, lived it for 75% of my adult life, and I know the toll it takes. I respect that people (and I, at one time) do it, but as a model I find it ultimately unworkable and undesirable. As Director says, if that's your idea of a great life, then knock yourself out. But don't get cranky because somebody is trying to imagine an alternative.

Yes, I'm a theorist; so was Harold Clurman, so was Peter Brook, so was Antonin Artaud, so was Bertolt Brecht, so was Edward Gordon Craig, so was Constantin Stanislavski. Opposite of artist? Not really.

Paul said...

@Rebecca: I can't tell if you're just taking the piss or if you honestly believe the words you typed.

If the former, well played.

If the latter... funny how pursuing an alternate path is only okay if it's YOUR alternate path.

RVCBard said...

But for others whose families and friends aren't solely concentrated in the theatre, that's going to be a nightmare.


I'm not sure about the rest of you, but as much as I love playwriting, there are other things I want to do and other people I want to spend my time with that are not related to theater in any way. And that's good.

It seems like the theater community mandates its artists to be monks without benefits like respect, community support, or basic necessities.

Tony Adams said...

Here's where I'm a bit confused. Perhaps I missed a post.

How is it any different to have a day job outside "the tribe" that allows you to make theatre on your own terms, than to have a day job as part of a tribe to allow you to make theatre on your own terms?

Both are pretty similar aren't they? The only difference is the employer. Or is that the primary difference?

Scott Walters said...

Tony -- That is, indeed, the difference. By being self-employed, you keep the money that would normally go as profit to your employer. In addition, if you are self-employed as part of an ensemble/tribe, there may be times when you are released from responsibilities (say, right before a show goes up) while the slack is picked up by other members of the tribe who are not as busy. In addition, by thinking entrepreneurially you can design employment opportunities that involve a higher level of skills, and thus a higher level of pay (e.g., the consulting work), and thus may not need to work as many hours to maintain a reasonable standard of living. So yes, at the center of this is a desire to empower theatre artists by putting them in charge of as many parts of their life as possible.

Ammegg said...

Scott, the one thought I'm having to lend support to day jobs is that I think a lot of people become worse at creating art when the only people they spend time with are artists. That is, the perspective of the art becomes limited.

I feel like I see it all the time—brilliant young Hollywood actors growing up and starting to play the same role constantly is just the most visible example. It's the reason for a lot of my questions about majoring in theater undergrad (of course, my biases are clear here), and also I think the one thing that's really holding me back from the tribal model. If all our day jobs are among our artistic colleagues, and if our tribe is to be as deeply our home base as the model names it, where do we continue learning about the things we make art about? Where do we continue to develop our knowledge of things interesting to those audiences we need to cultivate outside of the theater world?