Thursday, March 06, 2008

Open Thread: Art as a Job

Dear Readers: I haven't done this before, but I'd like to create an open thread for discussion of the following posts, which have arisen following Don Hall's "Art is NOT a Job."

Don Hall: Art is NOT a Job
devilvet: Art is not a job, but Lord it sure is work...
Me: Leading a Rich Life
Slay: Art as a Job

I have a sense -- and correct me if I have it totally wrong -- that my attempts to create a new business model based on Daniel Quinn's ideas concerning "occupational tribes" are being interpreted as focused wholly on making money, making it totally from theatre ticket sales and wholly without concern for artistic values. An example of this would be the last paragraph of Slay's post: "I bet I could build a model that pays well, makes art that doesn't cost very much, has low production values, and packs the house. But, I think I'd have to sacrifice my artistic standards to do it."

In addition, there is a theme that has arisen that I find very odd: art as a vice or addiction. devilvet writes that "For most of us this Art thing is an addiction and a hobby," and John, writing in Don's comments, says: "Seems to me that Theater is not a job, not a business and not a Holy Fucking Communion, it's a Vice. I wrote about this awhile back on my blog, and it's not a smart funny thing, I think its a useful way of looking at it. A vice, like gambling or prostitution or drug running." I am flashing back to Sigmund Freud's idea that art is just sexual sublimation, and a byproduct of neurosis.

My attempts to imagine a different approach -- to pull together ideas that have been discussed within other contexts (local economies, viral marketing, sustainability, occupational tribes, barter systems, social entrepreneurship, and so on) and apply them to the theatre -- are all rooted in a single value: empowerment. I want artists to able to take charge and be in control of as many aspects of their lives as possible, and that includes taking charge of artistic choices and decisions about what projects are worth their time, but it also includes taking charge of their financial life, their personal life, their community life. It means finding a way to allow your art to express your values, and also finding a way to create that art while living a life that is full and rich. As RVCBard says in my comments: "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."

So why the open thread? Because I am baffled by the direction this conversation seems to be going, and what seems to me an odd misunderstanding of the purpose of the theatre tribe model.Rather than simply engaging in argument, I am hoping that somebody can help me understand, because only by understanding can I express my ideas clearly. What is making people so nervous?


GreyZelda Land said...

"I want artists to able to take charge and be in control of as many aspects of their lives as possible, and that includes taking charge of artistic choices and decisions about what projects are worth their time, but it also includes taking charge of their financial life, their personal life, their community life. It means finding a way to allow your art to express your values, and also finding a way to create that art while living a life that is full and rich."

I think this might be where I'm having a hard time with all of your postings because I know that Don, Tony and myself feel like we do have lives that accompany all of these things. We're living in it, I guess ... my friends, husband, etc are all a part of my theatrical circle and I've met most of them through theatre. The only difference from the utopia you describe is that we're creating art (all with our own theatre companies that we all helped found, mind you) and making money during the day through an alternative source, aka "the day job". Maybe that'll change someday, but it's what's working for a lot of us right now. We're thankful for the jobs we have because it helps fund our work a lot of the time.

I do feel perfectly happy about a lot of things. I'm creating theatre with my husband and am currently pregnant while doing so. I'm doing exactly what I want to do artistically. I don't have to answer to anyone on the choices I'm making with a show. I'm running an exremely low-budget non-profit theatre company and don't pay myself through its earnings or donations, true, but nobody's telling me when or how I'm supposed to make art. I'm making it because I feel like it and want to. And, when we're not able to get the donations, but want to do the show anyway, we put in our own money made by the day job. Don mentioned that my husband and I would make art in an alley if we had to and it's true. We would. And, it's not because we're addicted to theatre. It's because we get a vision and an idea that we want to share with others and no one will stop us from doing so.

And I don't feel like a victim of the system because, to me, I'm doing exactly what I want.

Anyway ... I'm interested in hearing what others write in response to this.


Richard Morell said...

Hello everyone! Thank you for sending me an invite to join your web-community. I don't log into Ishmael much these days, but I'm glad I did put my info there so that something like this would emerge.

I'm having a lot of thoughts about this issue, but I'm typing these thoughts from my day job. As far as these gigs go, this is a good one--I work in a law firm for a practice specializing in media and First Amendment law in New York State. It's a new gig, and I'm good at my legal sec'y role, so that's why I'm here. I do wonder however if I haven't switched deck chairs on the Titanic.

I don't know about you, but when I raise issues like the ones I pay attention to re: sustainability, localization, etc., I face a lot of ignorance and blank stares. For the most part, mis compadres aqui en Albany, NY don't really have a clue. I wonder if it's denial or if it's the media, or what. But I haven't really broached the subject matter I'm most interested in, except in short little plays that our group does from time to time in a cabaret format. I think that can work and it can work well, actually.

The issue here is one of people striking out in a different direction, I think, and we do have this unfortunate "national theater" notion that NYC is where you have to be. Even here in the Capital District there's that idea, though there is a lot of talent in the woodwork in the Hudson-Mohawk Valley region. Also, it's interesting to note just how much moneyed interests do have power and control over what goes on in these institutions, and that it takes someone who has the ability to get what they want all the while ingratiating herself in such a way that she can somehow convince the money peopled that what they want is what she wants. (Albany's Symphony seems to have a conductor who has been able to do just that.)

There's an insecurity about "local work," that I constantly run into. Partly that's the character of Albany-Schenectady-Troy, but I encountered it in Seattle and Denver as well. It's like THE MARK if it did well in New York, which is a real shame because what that means is that it becomes all about the money. I lived in NYC for 10 years after I graduated from NYU's Dramatic Writing MFA program and found the experience rather demoralizing. But I was working solo, as well. I didn't really have much of a community of people I could hang with.

I guess what I'm saying is that the issue behind this is a cultural one. The denial is thick about how things are and how they could be. It's part of the reason I stand in Washington Park every day and pray that the financial system collapse and implode--so that we can start the necessary business of putting together the life we know we can lead. Those cultural notions really require something external, some moment of grace to compel action. People have to "hit bottom" with how things are going, and from what I see, we're pretty far away from that.

Heh. I wonder if there's an opportunity of being a change-agent that way. I don't know. It's the end of the day, and I look forward to hearing what other people of like mind have to say about it.

From a gay, pagan, sugar-flour abstinent playwright with aspirations to Bardic Greatness!

Paul said...

Scott, what I'm hearing from you is Hugh's
"Sex and Cash" theory. The tribe has "cash" applications of their skills, so that they can afford to put up their "sex" theater and pay the bills.


Scott Walters said...

Paul -- Sort of. I think it is possible to get some of the sex into the cash job if you are thinking like an entrepreneur. Also, if you control the cash job, then you have to do less of it to make ends meet, because you are scooping up the surplus labor, not just the hourly wage.

ecotheater said...

I have a day job--in the arts. And when I'm not engaged in that gig, I'm still usually engaged in making art of some kind. This whole topic seems so silly to me, because people could go on and on about it for centuries. The fact remains that my life in art is not going to be like Scott's or Don's or anyone else, nor is theirs going to be like mine. Isn't that what makes it so rich and rewarding? If it were any other way, we'd all be creating the same damn thing.

Devilvet said...

The fact that I have a day job that provides me a salary in the high forties empowers me more to make theatre than quiting that job and selling t-shirts with my brand on it. Or trying to find a way to construct and market a class or workshop to sell to corporate America.

I don't make shows to make money. I make shows becuase I have a message I want to convey. I am 9 out of 10 tens the playwright and the director.

(post script) - Keep feeling emotion and rambling and rewriting...I'll just close with this

Some times the discussion does feel like it is about empowerment...but sometimes the discussion also seems to be about entitlement.


Devilvet said...

I guess that also for the majority of people out there who do theatre, theatre

a Hobby
an avocation

One of the reasons I want significantly less rhetoric, is that I think some people confuse the depth of their passion as something that ought to in a perfect world be something that they are...rewarded for.

To be blunt, I agree it would be awesome to not have to work a 40 hour a week job, just like I think it would be awesome to not have to cook my own meals, or it would be awesome to have a harem at my beckon call, or it would be awesome to win the lottery.

But when I hear someone say I dont have it should be required that I work 40 hours a week at a job I don't want to make ends meet...Well, why should they be any different?

Some people vacation in Paris, some people put all their money into their cars, some people save up for the kids college, some people by antiques and some poeple make theatre...You want it all? Nothing wrong with that...but where are the tribes full of folks that have it all?

Devilvet said...

"But when I hear someone say I dont have it should be required"

I dont THINK I SHOULD have to be required...

Sorry sticky fingers.

Danielle Wilson said...

"One of the reasons I want significantly less rhetoric, is that I think some people confuse the depth of their passion as something that ought to in a perfect world be something that they are...rewarded for."

The thing is...we don't live in a perfect world, but we can choose to serve perfection.

I work as an ATD at a university. I am a staff position. I don't teach classes. But part of the reason I took this job at this university is that there is the potential to "one day" teach classes. This semester the associate chair approached me about teaching. Teaching is my dream. I happily said yes and inquired what the pay scale was. She referred me to the chair. The chair informed me that the college had cut all funding for the 2008/2009 year for instructors. If there was not already a faculty member to teach a class, the class would not be taught.
So, in my department there is a definite need for an undergraduate lighting class. I am a willing teacher, and I would happily do this for free since it is my dream job. But perfection says, no work without pay, so I won't teach this year.

Anonymous said...


Well, we have to differiate between artists and teachers here. Not becuae one is qualitatively better than the other but becuase they are two different species, with different ...nutritional needs. Sometimes we mistakenly think we becuase we share a common origin and language we aren't.

We have different goals. Very different goals.

You are hanging on there in this example in the hopes that it will lead to teaching?

I'm not making shows in the hope that one day I can quit my day job. I am making shows becuase I have an inclination to speak a message.

To be blunt, even freelance work as an artist might not work for me because, it would be a distraction from my scripts, my productions.

Teaching, whereas I'm sure I'd enjoy the community of it, spending that much energy on something that wasn't mine would drain me.

So, if you want to teach tech...I say to Huzzah...but If I applied your tactics to what I do...I don;t know what I would get out it...except frustration at the failure of an imperfect world.


Mary said...

I've been following this blog for a while now. I've never felt quite comfortable enough to post a comment, because I am an actor living in NYC who makes a living on Broadway. I feel there is a lot of contempt for theater workers like myself in this community.
But I come to this and other "theatrosphere" blogs every day because I DO care about the state of the theater in this country right now and I DO believe that things need to change. I, along with some of my friends, am actually working on creating a version of the tribal model Scott talks about. We'll see what we come up with. I don't think that NYC is the end all be all of the theater world, but this is where my home is. We can still work to revive that which has atrophied in the scene here. We, like you, RZ and Devilvet, have "a vision and an idea that we want to share with others." We're not looking for a reward. We're looking for a new way to make it happen--- an alternative to the status quo. As far as I can tell from what's been said, no one's asking for Utopia.

Here's why I'm posting now: what drives me crazy is this hyper-idealized vision of the artist as the "Iron Man." It's as if an artist who struggles without health care or financial security is somehow nobler than the rest. That sort of mentality is part of what got us into this mess in the first place. No one here has called themselves "a victim of the system." How belittling. We're simply talking about a new way of doing things. We're talking about having agency over our lives as artists and as citizens. What is so "entitled" about that?

Anyway, I really have nothing new to contribute to these never-ending debates. I just find it confusing that people are so threatened by Scott's proposal.

So, a question in response to RZ: you say that you have many aspects of the tribal model already. I guess I don't understand what you're railing against. Are you entirely convinced that it wouldn't work for you, ever?

GreyZelda Land said...

Hey, Mary -

Scott's post yesterday entitled "Leading a Rich Life" mentioned a blog my friend, D. Hall, wrote and I took it as basically saying that Scott doesn't think Don is leading a rich life. I had an issue with that. You would to, if you knew the type of work Don's been able to achieve with his company and the happiness he exudes about his current state of affairs.

I feel the same way about what I've accomplished with my theatre company.

And, no, it's not possible to quit the "day job" at this time and continue staying in Chicago. Regardless of where I moved, be it small-town or mid-sized America, I would need to work because I'm not independently wealthy. And that money would probably help fund my theatrical work if I were to start a new company. And my "victim" comment was in response to Scott's insistence for a while of comparing the theatre artist to an abused person, which is a "victimizing" comparison. And, I just wanted to say ... I don't think me and a lot of my peers fall into that category. A lot of the people responding to Scott (devilvet, Don, Tony, Paul Rekk, me ... we're all from Chi-town.)

His post today takes a lot of our statements into consideration, which is really nice. I do think the model here in Chicago may be different than what he's been talking about and, as Don has written about, there are plans hatching about what needs to be changed here and I'm positive that Tony, Devilvet, P. Rekk and I will be on board to help. And that's just it. I really LIKE living here. I love creating theatre in Chicago and I think we're doing alright for ourselves. And, we're taking action here in Chicago to better our circumstances. Don will write about the results, too. They're just a different plan of action than Scott's.

Mary, please let me know how following Scott's model works for your group. Will this be the first theatre company you've formed in New York or have your members attempted to do so before?


Anonymous said...


Threatened? Well, I'm not really threatened by Scott's ideas. I can raise concerns and debate without feeling threatened.

Nothing Scott suggests would impede me from doing what I want. I don;t think even in my comment to his post today, I've attacked Scott. But, sometimes I dont agree with him and he has invited us to discuss why.


Sarah McL said...

I wonder if this discussion could be expanded a little bit to include people, like me, who are passionate about arts management. I've worked in theatre education, Off-Broadway, an agent's office, a service organization, and a bunch of training programs, and I consistently make less money than the artists we employ. For me, providing a stable, safe, flexible structure upon which artists can build is massively rewarding. Not to go too far off-topic, but arguments like "administrators don't understand art" are pretty offensive to me... my training, education, and appreciation of theatre is pretty much the same as any actress or playwright's, I've just found more gratification in helping to make the art happen. Anyway - in terms of empowerment and employment, nothing, in my experience, is more exciting than being a strong, steady anchor to a group of creative artists.

Danielle Wilson said...


I think I didn't explain my point very well...

you said:
I'm not making shows in the hope that one day I can quit my day job. I am making shows becuase I have an inclination to speak a message.

I have an inclination to speak a message too. Right now I am doing it by being an ATD. I get a lot of hands on time with students and I get to support their art. Sarah puts it quite nicely: "providing a stable, safe, flexible structure upon which artists can build is massively rewarding."

For me teaching in a classroom setting would be even better. I'd do it for free, but that wouldn't be perfect. So I choose to get as close to that perfection as I can by doing my current job and getting paid rather than having the perfect job and not being paid.

Does that make more sense?

Anonymous said...


I get it I think.


You sound awesome! Who is telling you that arts administrators dont get art?


Tony Adams said...

"I consistently make less money than the artists we employ."

Now that's one I've never heard before.

Are the artists really well paid, or are the administrators paid less than the norm (not that it's all that much normally)? Or are you comparing weekly salaries?

Scott, does financial empowerment have to come from theatre skills?

Sarah McL said...

anonymous -
Mike Daisey!! See his comments on "spreadsheets do not make good theatre" in his piece in the Stranger (I have no hyperlink skills in the comment section)

Tony Adams -
Well, neither of us are paricularly well paid. As an assistant at a professional agency and off-broadway house, and senior staff at a training program, I made like $400/week after taxes (sometimes less!). I live in New York! I've moved on to the associate level, and I still don't really make enough to pay off my student loans or live in my own apartment. Wah wah, poor me, whatever - I really don't care, it's my choice and I'm cool with it. The real problem, in my opinion, is the absurd disparity between executive paychecks and everyone else's paycheck.

Anonymous said...

Sarah Mcl -

At the risk of offending some...I take alot fo Daisey with a grain of salt. There is nothing I enjoy less then affording him anymore of my time since the "water bottle" massacre of 07. I wont go into anymore detail becuase to post something negative about him or his message is to literally invite a barrage of rebuttal. He has been ordained a new saint and it seems you can't say anything negative about him without members of the blogosphere throwing stones at you, including him.

signed anon ....
errr -dv

Mary said...

RZ: thanks for your response. I have a better sense of what you're saying now. And my apologies...looking back at my post...well, emotions run high when we talk about what we love and how we live, don't they?

Not sure what my friends and I will come up with. No, we've never taken on anything like this. We're all working professionals in our twenties, and we're not naive. We know how oversaturated this market is; we have a hunch that the odds may be insurmountable. But trying carve out a small place for ourselves is a start, right? It's a worthy challenge to take on-- trying out something that's even a little bit new. Maybe we'll fail. Who knows? I'll be the first to admit I won't be able to quit my regular job anytime soon. Right now, we're just brainstorming.

Thanks again, and I'm excited to keep following this dialogue.

Director said...

I think we've established in earlier posts, on the sites of all parties involved, that each of us has a different model that works for them. Don Hall and his wife have a model that works for them, Scott has a model that works for him, and dv has a model that works for him.

I freely admit I'm one of the "young people" Scott mentioned in another post, and I love his ideas. Certainly, I see the same flaws that some of you have pointed out -- namely that, in truth, it's impractical at the moment. The infrastructure for the kind of model just isn't feasible for someone in my position – not yet, anyway. On the other hand, Scott has said many times that he's basically thinking out loud (on blog?) on here. He (and others in the Tribe community he set up) discuss different options regarding the model.

RZ mentioned using the scientific method. Since we've been using another scientific term, let me clarify for the rest of us who might be misinterpreting or misunderstanding.

A model, in science, is an approximation of how things work. You take all the data and information that you have and try to correlate it together and make it correspond with the way things work. Models are essentially the theory section of the scientific method. They are open to being disproved, open to new data, and certainly open to being changed.

Models are never, ever accurate in real life, because you simply can't account for every factor. The model Scott is proposing is just that, a model. It's a work in progress.

He has a vision of empowered artists. He's putting together his ideas to create a model that would help bring that vision to life. It's not going to be perfect. There are factors that he never even thought of -- this post proves it right here! You guys have come up with factors and arguments that Scott hadn't accounted for.

So, what's the next step? We adjust the model.

Let me use an analogy, since I like them so much.

Theatre is like a hamburger. (I had a delicious one at some place in Chattanooga called "Taco Mac" tonight. Am I stupid for ordering a burger from a place with Taco in its name? Probably. But it was probably the best burger I've ever had... but I digress. Um... Where was I?)

Oh yes, theatre is like a hamburger. Broadway's status quo is like the Whopper, which is popular and fills you up, but really isn't worth the $5 you pay for it. There are better burgers out there. But Scott's tribal model is a triple bacon cheeseburger. I've had triple cheeseburgers with bacon, but they almost always require something else to make it "perfect".

Don and his wife don't want a TRIPLE cheeseburger, so they change the model, or recipe, if you will, to make it a single bacon cheeseburger.

DV, on the other hand, isn't a big fan of bacon (ack! blasphemy!), but thinks substituting lettuce instead would make a great sandwich.

RZ is on a low-carb diet. Bye bye, hamburger bun!

In short, Scott's ideas aren't canon, they're not even remotely close to perfect. They're a work in progress. Ideally, when we're done, we will have developed a menu with enough toppings and combinations that everyone can take that hamburger and tweak it to fit their individual needs and tastes.

I think this conversation is fascinating, if a bit unfair. We're taking Scott's ideas and poking holes in it. He's totally on the defensive right now, trying to figure out why we suddenly (apparently) turned against him. None of us really want that, so how about we plug those holes with something better?

There's nothing majorly wrong with the tribal model -- hell, most of you admit to using the model already to some extent.

I propose we treat Scott's idea as a foundation and turn this conversation into the blogging equivalent of Burger King. How do you like YOUR Whopper?