Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What Are You Playing For? (Response)

Don Hall continues the discussion of the motivation for theatre, this time with a really interesting post entitled "What Are You Playing For?" Moving from blackjack to video games, he bifurcates motivation into those who play for the experience of playing, and those who play instrumentally to get "tickets" that can be redeemed for other things. He is the one who is playing for the experience, and Mike Daisey and I are the ones playing for the tickets. And he predicts I will deny this, which I do, but not for the reasons he thinks.

There was a wise man who once defined wealth not as money and things, but rather as time and space. That having free time to think and create and the space in which to operate is what true wealth really is. Virginia Woolf felt the same way, saying a woman writer needed a thousand pounds a year and a room of one's own. That is my orientation as well.

While I am known here in the theatrosphere as an academic, that fact is that until I was nearly thirty I was a freelance director and actor in Minneapolis. I worked at day job at a restaurant supply company, and then as a customer service rep at the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (all you bloggers who have played Oregon Trail, my boss was the creator of that game, a man named Don Rawitsch, whose biggest dream was to give up the computer business and to teach high school history). I put in my forty hours a week, and I did theatre at night. I freelanced, and I produced as well. My then-wife and I rescued a hundred old theatre seats from a movie theatre being demolished in downtown St. Paul and stored them in the basement of the house we were renting while we negotiated to rent a space in the now-tony warehouse district in Minneapolis, and when that didn't work out another warehouse in St. Paul that was condemned by the city two days before we were slated to move in. I was ambitious, and recognized by many in the Twin Cities theatre scene as an innovator. And by the time I was thirty, I was toast. I hit the wall during a production of Ibsen's The Master Builder that I was producing and directing, when one night I sat in the church basement where we were rehearsing and had absolutely nothing to say, and I realized I had no creative energy left for the project -- I was exhausted and depressed. At age 28. I couldn't do the 60 hour weeks any more. I couldn't function in my demanding job, rush home for a quick bite, and then muster creative ideas for another 3 or 4 hours.

It wasn't until I was 40 that I became a professor -- I had been working as an Assistant to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Illinois State University while I worked on my dissertation nights and weekends. For all practical purposes, nothing had changed. I still was working a 40+ hour a week job, and then putting in another 20 doing research and writing. Once, I directed a production of The Fantasticks at the local high school just so I had an opportunity to spend time with my eldest stepson, who was an actor and singer and who I cast as one of the fathers. In 1998, I finished the dissertation, and took a job as Chair of Drama at University of North Carolina, where I am currently. I taught a full load, chaired the department, and directed a production each year. Teaching and administering took even more than 40 hours a week, and when I was in production I added another 20. For most of my life, the 60-hour week has been a norm.

So now I am 50. And as much as I like directing young people in plays and creating interesting and creative productions, I dread going into rehearsal because I know that by the end of the run I will be so tired I can hardly function. When I come home at 11:00, my wife is already asleep, and when the alarm goes off at 5:50 I will see her for a few minutes at breakfast and that will likely be it for the rest of the day. And that will make the mental fatigue even worse, because I love my wife, and I rely on her to keep me balanced and happy, and she will also miss me and grow tired of spending her evenings alone and tired of having to carry the burden of keeping the house going in my absence. I suspect there are others like me, others who love theatre, who have something to offer, but who at some point in their lives can't keep up the 60-hour weeks.

And so the ideas that I write about here, and the attempts I am making to find a way to put them into action, are attempts to rescue time and space for others, so that they can have the experience of creativity without having to have super-human energy, and without having to give up all other aspects of their lives, and without having to have understanding spouses willing to shoulder the burden in their absence. If that is a focus on "tickets," then so be it.  I want to decrease the number of hours theatre people must spend working in a week, and I want to increase the opportunity for theatre people to have the experiences that other members of our society have, so that they can create work that speaks to those experiences. I want to increase the amount of mental and spiritual energy that theatre artists have to devote to their work, and I want to increase the opportunities theatre artists have to create work that inspires them, grows them, and inspires and grows others.

Ultimately, yes, that involves economics. But my belief is that theatre should be an end in itself, not a means to an end -- not a means to money or fame, but a to fulfillment and self-realization. And so I am trying to create a model, a way of doing theatre, that frees theatre artists as much as is possible to experience their lives and fully realize their creative potential.

I have spent most of my life tired. When I had an opportunity to have a sabbatical this past semester, and as a result became rested and was allowed to focus wholly on my own creative interests, I realized how much different things might have been, how much more productive I might have been, and how many more ideas and insights I might have had if I had a little more time and space. And that's ultimately what I am trying to provide for a younger generation of theatre artists. It's not about me, it is about other people, and about time and space.
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