Monday, July 14, 2008

On Doctors, Lawyers, Plumbers, Actors...and Blackjack

Adam Thurman, in his post entitled "The Power of Scarcity: A Reply to Mike and Scott," writes:

If you haven't been able to carve out that distinct niche for yourself, either in the work you do, how you do the work, or who you do the work for . . . then you are officially a commodity and you will be treated like one, meaning you will get paid just enough to keep you working but never enough to be stable. It's true for doctors, lawyers, plumbers and artists . . . there is nothing sacred about the artistic profession that makes it different.

I'm going to put aside the idea that any human being should be treated like a commodity, and not discuss the moral bankruptcy that such a system exhibits. Instead, I am going to focus on the fact the commodification happens to "doctors, lawyers, plumbers..." There is at least one difference between this group and theatre artists, and I think it is important: there are over 1 million lawyers in the United States, about 837,000 doctors; there are 46,000 members of Actors Equity. So the idea that there is, at least comparatively, an oversupply of actors might be an over-statement. But what is key is that the lawyers and doctors are spread all over the nation. There probably isn't a town so small that it doesn't have at least one attorney or doctor. And yet there are six states that have no TCG member theatres at all, and 11 more that have only one. In addition, what would be the impact on the legal or medical profession if most members of it were centralized in a single city? What would happen if someone in Marshall, NC had to bring in a lawyer from New York to do their will? It is hard to predict, but I suspect what would happen is that some other way of doing things would develop. Small towns might develop "community lawyers" on the order of community theatres, where someone local provided the services themselves. This would especially true if there were no laws set up that required that licensed lawyers do the work.

The point is that what seems like lack of scarcity in the acting profession may, in fact, be an over-concentration of actors in a few areas. Ethan Stanilslawski, in a post summarizing the dialogue on this topic, writes "A bad lawyer can still make six figures, while an exceptional one can make eight figures. Theater artist should be able to make a living the same way." While I know I am not arguing on behalf of "bad artists," and I doubt that Mike is either, I would change the focus from quantitative issues to geographic: a lawyer in Marshall, NC can make six figures, and one in NYC might make eight figures." (Of course, six figures in Marshall might be the equivalent of eight figures in NYC, but let's set that aside.) My argument is that more artists could make a living in the theatre if the theatre had more geographical diversity. And in that instance, we could break out of the high-stakes poker model to one more like...well, lawyers and doctors, or at least plumbers.

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20 comments:

Don Hall said...

There is at least one difference between this group and theatre artists, and I think it is important: there are over 1 million lawyers in the United States, about 837,000 doctors; there are 46,000 members of Actors Equity

I'd wager (and I mean, for real wager) that there are at least ten non-Equity actors in the country for every single Equity actor. Equity is a shitty measuring stick when it comes to quantifying the number of people in a profession that requires no formal degree to qualify.

devilvet said...

The product that is distributed though is not actors but performance. Nobody other than the actors (and a few others) care about the actors...they care about the performances...and the dont need "community" resource to get ahold of performances. Performance can be distributed via the web/tv/cinema etc... so that a community can be entertained or enlightened etc without ever being in the same space as an actor ever.

Video killed more than the radio star.

So in global regions where the actor might see an empty lot, the majority audience is feeling just fine.

If you can get 1 in 5 people in a community to feel that they need "live" performance just as much as cable TV...then you'll have the leverage to enable change.

Until then the moral outrage doesnt communicate beyond the realm of theatre actors.

I've heard some folks say that ...well if the theater artists were better provided for then we'd have better theater...

The obstacle to that Argument that Don has succesfully stated is most of America doesn't care if theater gets better, because they think they dont need it at all.

-dv

Scott Walters said...

I won't take that wager, because I believe you are right. But I'm not certain how that is relevant to the argument. Even if your figures are correct, that is 460,000, which is still less than doctors and lawyers. The issue is about centralization, not numbers.

Scott Walters said...

Well, dv, you are changing the focus of the argument to whether theatre is valued, which is a great conversation, but not the topic here. Unlike you, I don't think film and TV killed theatre any more than photopgraphy killed portraiture and landscape painting, but it did force those latter art forms to change in order to emphasize what made them different than photography (painterliness, stylization, etc.). I am not willing to generalize about whether America "doesn't care" about theatre. We might argue that it doesn't care about the theatre they've been offered, but that isn't the same thing. And we don't care about communicating about this issue beyond the realm of actors -- this is an internal issue, just us theatre folks -- the people that we need to convince are ourselves.

devilvet said...

Where you say I'm changing the focus...I would say it is the fulcrum of the issue. The economics are the issue not the morality. By the way, photography did kill portraiture and landscape painting.

"the people that we need to convince are ourselves."

But convince ourselves of what? That things could be better?

Please lets just pretend that Don isnt arguing in favor of the vision he see, but rather is attempting to map the territory as it is, in hopes of changing it as well...

If you're trying to convince us that the model doesnt work...you had me at "hello"

If you're trying to convince that the current state of theater doesnt due justice to dignity of those dedicated to it...again we're with you...

But...

Twice now, you've told me that this is an internal issue. So long as it remains internal, it remains fruitless. Unless... those internally are discussing how to effect the economics of the paradigm rather than "druthers" or "moral outrage"...

So long as this arm wrestling match between you and Don over allusions and metaphors and morality and choice etc etc goes on... I am at a loss as to how the focus evolves, how the theory and hypothesis evolves...

Help me out... regardless of Don's POV... where is the evolution of the ideas to be found?

Note, I'm not calling for action (yet) i'm just interested in what is novel about the conversation versus what is rehashing of the old chestnuts that make the usually players red in the face.

-dv

Scott Walters said...

Well, for a change I am calling for action. If I had you from hello, then it is time to walk the talk. Agreement without action is barren. Theatre artists have been very good about agreeing with ideals, as long as they can continue doing exactly the same thing they've always done.

Don Hall said...

But Scott - what if the exact same thing we've always done is exactly what you're calling for?

Scott Walters said...

Then send me your name and theatre, and I;ll put you in the book and welcome you as a theatre tribe in the flesh!

R. Winsome said...

DevilVet- video crippled a certain kind of theatre, but there are things that theatre does that video cannot do (just like there are things video does that theatre cannot do). Modern theatre artists need to adapt and find ways to play to the medium's strength relative to other available mediums, that's how to make essential theatre. Assign the audience a role, make their presence a necessity for performance. Do all the shit that Peter Brook and Bertolt Brecht told us to do decades ago, but all the arts administrators ignored them because the traditional theatre audience couldn't handle it.

Scott Walters said...

I totally agree with you, Rex, and I think the only thing that stands in the way of this is the legacy of my generation: every time you mention "presence" and "assigning the audience a role," inevitably people say, "We don't need to go back to the 60s and have actors in my lap and group gropes on the stage." Brecht and Brook are good role models, as is Ariane Mnouchkine and Bill Bryden. We need to reclaim what makes theatre essential and alive.

Devilvet said...

@Rwinsome - Video killed (or at the very least was the next to last nail coffin) when it comes to a distribution system of narrative.

I would agree with Scott that when I hear touchy feely sort of metaphors about what theatre can do that other mediums cant...I dont want to roll my eyes...but the gravitational pull of the zillions of committed non theate goers draws my pupils into their circles.

Appealing to the audiences desire by claiming that there is such as thing as 'essential theatre' doesnt seem to draw in the uninitiated....
which doesnt inprove the bottom economics line which....
doesn't enable change in how artists are economical treated by the industry.

"essential" can not be divorced from "economic" IMO

Scott Walters said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott Walters said...

I think essential MUST be divorced from economics and from distribution systems, at least long enough to define the product.

Right now, one part of theatre is trying to compete with film and TV by creating live (often musical) versions of films, or by increasing the spectacle to become live film. To me, this effort is doomed to fail. You don't compete by mimicking the strengths of your competition, but their weaknesses. You focus on what makes your product different.

Film and TV tells stories using actors pretending to be other people -- in this, they are just like theatre. But film cannot compete in terms of liveness -- even a live TV show is not live in a real way. Frankly, I can't think of anything else that theatre is that film isn't. So it behooves us to find ways to exploit that winner as much as possible. That is an trump card, and we must play it to our greatest advantage.

If we fail to do so, then there is no purpose to theatre, and it will disappear, or worse limp along as the minor leagues for film and TV, which is what it is today.

Devilvet said...

(I disagree but that aside we can still attempt to gain some insight here)...Alright...then...Scott

Are there ways to approach a conversation about "liveness" and its benefits that doesnt get mired down with rhetoric or for lack a better term, a certain sort of initiated spirituality?

Is there anything measurable about "liveness" that can convince non-initiated to convert into "theatergoers"?

-dv

Scott Walters said...

dv -- I just wrote something about this at your site.

I don't know what you mean by "measurable."

Let's take an extreme example: Tony and Tina's Wedding. If you asked an audience member following the performance what made it different than watching TV or a movie, I doubt it would take any prompting for them to talk about something that sounds like liveness: "being part of the action," "getting to interact with the characters," "feeling like I was actually in a wedding," etc. If you filmed the performance and showed it on a plasma TV in somebody's house, they might enjoy it, but if you asked them about what they liked "being part of the action" or "being able to interact with the characters" would probably not be mentioned.

Similarly, there is a difference between playing a video game and watching a film based on a video game. One is participatory, one is passive. The experience of riding a roller coaster is different than watching a movie of somebody riding a roller coaster -- even a movie of YOU riding a roller coaster.

There is nothing spiritual or esoteric about this. If it werent; true, people would never shell out the price to go to a baseball game instead of watching it for free at home.

John Dewey said art is experience. When we speak of liveness, we are speaking about enhancing that aspect of the production -- the experience.

Devilvet said...

But, this participatory thing of which you speak...

Are you convinced that it is the way in which to get people to the theatre...

Does participation in a narrative event require being in the same space?

Measureable would mean something that was convincing and verifible.

Example are all those metrics you've been talking about from Denver meeting.

Maybe it would help evolve our discussion or help identify areas of consensus if we could demonstratively show or share something other than poetic, literary, opinion about benefits that are ephemeral such as the qualities of liveness from an artistic strategy that the Mass want narrative from...not participatory involvement.

Your appeal to reason regarding "liveness" doesnt convince me of value to the non-initiate. I dont say that to be difficult... I am just emphasizing that "value" of the art or it perception has to change to mass audience before the necessary leverage to enable economic change for artists will occur.

I am not waiting for the good graces, or moral awakening of some individual who is already in charge of the current resource.

The resource and who and how to it accessed needs to change.

Scott Walters said...

dv -- Hmmm. Give me an example of how one could participate in a narrative event without being in the same space? I am curious. One example springs to mind: American Idol, if you consider the audience voting being participation. Another might follow the model of multi-player video games, where audience members might interact with actor-improvisers who were responsible for moving the plot along. What else? Brainstorm with me.

devilvet said...

Well G4 has a way (very clunky) where folks ask questions via web cams

(Gulp) Radio Talk shows provide narrative with participation.

However, I think most audiences view the act of spectating regardless of demonstrative influence on an outcome as participatory. Watching is a verb to them regardless of whether or not they affect an outcome (i dont condone this thought...I just know that for most folks even making a decision if they dont have DVR as to what to watch seems to "exhaust" them.)

Ultimately I'm not sure participatory is the route to awakening a slumbering mass back into theatre spaces...but there are a couple of examples up top of my comment.

Karl Miller said...

I fear I'm coming late to the party again, but I just posted about all this recently, too. If nothing else, you should find some validating arguments there, Scott.

http://tundratastic.blogspot.com/2008/07/against-national-theatre.html

best,
karl

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