It would be a shame to lose this momentum. The likelihood that there will be other opportunities anytime soon are slim, especially given the attention span of most theatre people. We have already reached a point where Isaac Butler feels the need to apologize for bringing it up at all, titling one of his recent posts "Will You Shoot Me If I Keep Talking About Mike Daisey?", as if doing so is a cause for embarrassment -- because, you know, Mike Daisey is soooo June, dude. Indeed, given these tendencies and Daisey's desire to move on, if I were Teresa Eyring and I just wanted the whole thing to go away, I wouldn't give in to pressure to devote an entire issue of American Theatre to this, but would just let the energy drain away by ignoring it. Because the reality is that, for all the kvetching about the status quo, theatre artists would rather focus on their individual work and leave systemic change to others. And this isn't just true of theatre artists, but all kinds of artists. Last night, I was at a meeting of about ten people who wanted to do something about the lack of local government support for the arts here in Asheville. I suggested that before we focused on the powers-that-be, we needed to create an "us" -- i.e., that we needed Asheville artists to join in common cause. One sculptor, who was supported by another one, said that getting individualistic artists to do anything as a group would be like shoveling frogs into a wheelbarrow, and that given a choice between attending a meeting and working in their studio, we all know which choice would win. In essence, Mike says something similar, and Don concurs: "I have a calling, which I fulfill through my work. I do my part and more. I am an artist—I will nurture, hone, and refine it, and that is what I am responsible for because that is what I am." (Mike Daisey) To which Don replies: "All fair as far as I'm concerned. I suspect that almost every artist on the map will state pretty much the same thing, which is, in essence, "I'm too busy doing some art - let the administrators whose salaries I'm questioning make those decisions."
And there was part of me, last night and this morning, who knew that such single-minded focus is what make artists artists, but there was another part that felt that if they had that attitude then they deserved whatever happened to them. At the moment, the latter opinion has won out. We all would prefer to do exactly what we want to do, but there is a responsibility of every person to be a citizen, part of a community, and to work to improve the lot of the whole. As a college teacher, for instance, I might prefer to spend all my time in the classroom doing what I love to do, help students learn and grow, but the expectations are that I will devote time to research and, as importantly, time to service. And so I serve on committees and donate my time to professional and community organizations, because part of being an academic is being part of the academic community. The expectations toward service, which are an important part of the criteria for my annual reviews and tenure and promotion decisions, nudge me to do what I ought to do. Where are similar expectations for artists?
Should Mike Daisey be held accountable for the discussion he has set in motion? Yes, he should, and to some extent he continues to do so -- the likelihood is strong that his letter to American Theatre will be printed in the next issue rather than Dennis Baker's or my own, and that is as it should be, and Daisey has not skirted that responsibility. Could he do more? Sure. Should he? Yes, I think so, but not alone. What about the rest of the theatre community? When will they take action? When will they join forces? Because if you don't want to put it on the administrators to create change, then we have to do it ourselves. When will they take a stand?
If the discussion in the theatrosphere is any indication, the answer is never, because far from joining forces in support of the issues Mike Daisey raised and that many have kvetched about in bars and coffee shops for years and years, what I see are artists seeking to pooh-pooh these issues, and to attack Mike Daisey for raising them at all. Don compares being an artist to being a blackjack player, and says that nobody is trying to figure out how to provide health insurance for blackjack players, nor, apparently, should they. Of course, blackjack players seek to make money only for themselves, and what they do does nothing to improve society in any way, whereas artists contribute something valuable -- but let's ignore that. "Nobody forced you to do theatre" seems to be a favorite theme among theatre artists, with the unspoken assumption that once you make such a decision you should expect to be treated like chattel. Others have fretted that the possibility of having a reasonable income from artistic work will take the edge off the creative impulse and lead to complacency, as if there were historical evidence that artists who had money lost the ability to create anything worthwhile. Others have touted their poverty like a badge of honor, a sign of the purity of their creative lives and proof that they haven't "sold out" to middle-class values. R Winsome writes in "Theatre and Labor Relations" that he "strongly disagrees with Daisy's claim that theatre artists are entitled to benefits and guaranteed long-term employment. Eyring's claim that this problem doesn't exist is specious for the reasons Daisy points out, but it does open the door for my conclusion: theatre should not provide such things." Which not only misrepresents Mike Daisey, who has never said artists should be "guaranteed long term employment," but dismisses even the notion that health insurance might be something desirable. At NPAC, Alliance Theatre's Associate Artistic Director Kent Gash, to my total jaw-dropping amazement, said that a expectation that theatre artists be provided a livable wage and the possibility of a stable lifestyle sounded like "entitlement," and he went on to assert, in an argument that lacks any semblance of logic whatsoever, that because African-American theatre artists weren't paid well in the past, nobody should be paid well in the present because African-American theatre artists survived those tough times and "we're not going anywhere" (smattering of applause at such defiance in the face of the powerful "Go Away, African-American theatre artists" movement in America). Injustice yesterday, injustice today, injustice evermore.
It is simply astonishing to me how theatre artists seem to enthusiastically embrace marginalization and economic deprivation, and will attack anyone who dares suggest that things might be changed, much less improved. While theatre artists are too busy making art to confront these questions, and make a big deal about how making that art is more important than any contribution they might make to improve the theatre scene as a whole, they turn as one to attack non-artists who might do so on their behalf, especially if those people are (gasp) academics. And if someone like Mike Daisey actually starts to garner attention and sell tickets and even start to succeed just a wee bit, well, he must be painted as an opportunistic, self-promoting con man who is simply using these issues as a way to fame and fortune.
In a post below, I attributed this unwillingness on the part of theatre artists to engage larger issues to passivity, but I was wrong; this is active self-injury, a masochistic desire to be dominated and abused, the artistic equivalent of being a "cutter." It used to be religious fanatics who wore hair shirts and scourged themselves with whips, but now it is artists who do so, with the same self-righteous fervor. And if this statement reflects a "pretty low opinion of artists in general," as Don asserts, then I guess I stand convicted, because I have never seen a group of people so bent on self-destruction. It isn't that you all don't agree with Mike Daisey, or with me, it is that you actively resist any suggestion that change is possible or even desirable, and you seek to eviscerate those who would make your lives better. Apparently you are living in a Panglossian best of all possible theatre worlds, a utopia of artistic bliss where the cream always rises to the top and where poverty is just an little obstacle that everybody faces equally and that allows you to show your true artistic superiority. Or the flipside: you are living in a theatrical dystopia that is wholly deterministic -- as Jesus says in Jesus Christ Superstar, "everything is fixed and you can't change it." Regardless, the art form is permanently petrified in amber as far as you're concerned.
To Mike Daisey, I say this: you are the face of this issue, and you have to accept that responsibility, but I wouldn't do much unless you receive some indication from the field that they've got your back, that they are ready to march with you, that they are willing to step out of the rehearsal halls, or put down their beer, take off their hair shirt, and leave the bar, in order to push for change. Otherwise, all bets are off, and you should just say that you were playing a role in How Theatre Failed America, and now you have another role to learn the lines for. And to the rest of you, I say: either step up, or stop whining. Self-inflicted wounds do not qualify you for sainthood.
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