But let's entertain this analogy further. Thurman describes a poker game where 6800 players each pony up $10,000 thus creating a huge pot of money that will reward the winner with $9M, and the next 679 players with a descending amount to about $20,000. They represent those actors who have "hit it big," as it were -- they've made it, they are working. The other 6100 walk away with nothing. Adam calls these people "dead money," and they represent all the artists who are not "good enough" to "make it," who are "deluded" about their level of talent. Now, Don has taken me to task for having a "generally low opinion of artists," but I would argue that this analogy makes me look like James Lipton. What Thurman is saying, and what Don Hall is seconding, is the idea that 89.7% of theatre people are losers who are deluded about their talent. Really? 89.7% of theatre artists, which corresponds fairly closely to the unemployment rate amongst Equity actors, have nothing to offer our society that is worthwhile?
Thurman's and Hall's analogy rests on a commonly held idea we might call "Artistic Darwinism," the belief that in the arts the "cream rises to the top," and those at the top represent the best that there is. The survival of the fittest, artistically speaking. There are several problems with this belief, at least one of which also plagues the blackjack player: the element of luck. Thurman assumes that the blackjack player who wins is the player who has worked the hardest at his "craft," and who is the best prepared, the player who takes second place is the second best blackjack player, and so on down the line to the ranks of the deluded. The problem is that even the best prepared player cannot overcome crappy cards, no matter which system he has become expert in. The opposite is also true: a player who is not great may win anyway because the blackjack gods were smiling on him that day. The same is true for theatre artists. No matter how well-prepared you are, no matter how talented, you may have a bad audition, you may not be able to attend an audition because you are sick or your mother died or you can't get off work or any number of reasons. The fact is that success is more arbitrary than we'd like to think. Far from a meritocracy, theatre is more like a crapshoot.
Furthermore, unlike blackjack which has definite rules that apply in all cases everywhere, the theatre game has rules that change from place to place, theatre to theatre, and day to day. Whereas two 9's and a three always adds up to 21 and a winner no matter where you play blackjack, the exact same audition performed at an equally high level of preparation and creativity may result in a role in one audition and a cool dismissal at another. Furthermore, the cards do not care how tall you are, whether you are blonde or brunette, whether you are taller than the other players at the table, whether you resemble the dealer's first wife, or anything else. What counts is how you play. Can anyone argue that that is the case in theatre? That the best actors get the best roles without concern for any other considerations? What about playwrights? Would Harold Pinter or John Osborne have changed the nature of theatre had not one single critic, writing against mainstream opinion, demanded the spotlight be turned on them? What might have happened if Kenneth Tynan's newspaper had been short on space and cut his impassioned review of Look Back in Anger? Osborne might look a little less creamy, may never have risen to the top. What if Stanislavki hadn't had a chance to see or read The Sea Gull in its first disastrous production? Would Chekhov be known as a minor short-story writer now?
To make matters worse, while in blackjack there is a clear way of evaluating one's success (your stack of chips is higher than anyone else's), there is no similar way of scoring in the theatre. Who is ahead and who is behind is completely arbitrary, and the rankings will be different from person to person. Is Rhondi Reed a better actress than Deanna Dunagan? In blackjack, we could count their chips and see who was winning, or they could play a game against each other; in the theatre, your guess is a good as mine. In one situation, Reed may be superior, in another Dunagan.
No, when it comes right down to it, Mike Daisey is right: this analogy is just dumb.
But let me throw another thought into the mix. So there's this blackjack game where 6800 people are playing, 89.7% of whom will lose everything. Meanwhile, at a casinos all over the strip, there are games where their are fewer players, where the likelihood of winning enough to make a living and keep playing is much greater than 10.3%, but where the ultimate $9M jackpot doesn't exist. There are many, many who would only feel it is worthwhile to play for the highest stakes, no matter what the odds. I would argue that, given the arbitrary nature of the game, these are the truly deluded. But my question is: if you are thinking rationally, why wouldn't you take your $10,000 down the street?
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