Monday, February 25, 2008

Jonathan West on Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey links to Jonathan West's commentary on his essay How Theatre Failed America. West, "a Midwestern writer, actor, and stage director" who "co-founded Bialystock & Bloom Theatre Company... and served as the company’s Artistic Director for 11 years" oughta know better. What he gives us is is a very clear and vivid view of the self-destructive ethos that has made theatre an art form that refuses to support its artists.

He writes:

But now I need to go on a bit about the bug-a-boo I have with Mike’s contention that Theater failed America. In his article, I sense an underlying sentiment from him that somehow the American theater artist is inherently entitled to a middle-class existence. Entitlement is something I've never considered when it comes to having a career in the theater. If you ask any artist making theater in America today whether they made the choice to be an actor, actress, designer, director or craftsperson because of a need for comfort and steady work, my guess is that you would receive an overwhelming “no”.
Let's examine this paragraph a bit. First, I don't think Mike Daisey, or I for that matter, am suggesting that there is an "entitlement to a middle-class existence." Entitlement means "the right to guaranteed benefits" -- please note the word guaranteed. Nobody in their right mind would argue that the decision to be a theatre artists guarantees one to a middle-class existence.

What I am arguing, and what Mike Daisey seems to be arguing (I will not put words in his mouth), is that the decision to be a theatre artist should not disqualify you from a middle-class existence. While one might not choose to be a theatre artist "because of a need for comfort and steady work," neither does one choose to be a theatre artist out of a need for discomfort and sporadic work. There is no correspondence between doing quality theatre and not eating, not having a home, and not health insurance. The art of theatre is not benefited by being filled with artists who are a) young, b) tired, and c) worried about whether a bout with appendicitis will put them on the streets.

Now comes the cliched bravado:
A life in the arts comes with great highs and great lows. But that’s what we all signed on for when we chose it, right? I knew that my life was going to be tough when I really knew that I was going to fully sign on as a dedicated member of the theatrical community. But I also knew that I would be in the company of a hearty band of tenacious dreamers who would help me, through good humor and generosity, to shoulder the burden of working 47 different types of jobs and constantly worrying about my inability to ever really retire and live in a sunny condo in Florida.
Gag me. "Tenacious dreamers." No, Jonathan, that's not what we signed on for. We signed on for a life devoted to our art, not for a life of grinding poverty. It's not like we decided to become monks. This is the same logic that leads to people telling migrant workers, hey, you knew you weren't going to get rich being a migrant worker, what are you complaining about the piss-poor wages for?

In a paragraph that is breathtaking in its condescension and idiocy, West writes:

In his article, Mike Daisey talks about a friend of his who is giving up after trying to be an actress in Seattle. I don’t think that lady is weak, I just don’t think she’s a true artist. True artists are a combination of two things: talent and tenacity. The talent is the easy thing. The showing up day after day for guaranteed rejection, humiliation and unfair treatment that is just part of the job description of being an artist is the real work. Mike Daisey’s friend, it seems to me, was not made of the stuff for the real work that goes on throughout an artist’s life. You can still be talented and have a hobby. It seems to me that is the case of his actress friend. She's a great hobbyist who, for very sane, rational reasons, chose to move away from something that was crushing her soul.

What an insulting prick. "I don;t think she's a true artist." I'm sorry. My greatest desire was to keep my temper and just point out the errors in this article, but I can't. Paragraph after paragraph, West arrogantly frames economic injustice as artistic freedom, naively expressing a belief that theatre is a meritocracy (does anybody really believe that? Is that why so many people go to grad school in order to "make connections"?) and the cream rises to the "top" ("Theater isn’t an “everyone gets the same size piece of cake” kind of enterprise. Some people succeed. Some people don’t."), that an acceptance of poverty is heroic ("Let's face it, we theater artists are all a little mad to keep putting ourselves in front of doors that more often than not get slammed in our face"), and that artists just need to suck it up and glory in the status quo (" I would love to think of myself as a theater artist through and through who derives his entire income from performing and directing, but I know that will probably never be the case. That doesn’t mean, I’m saying, “Boo hoo, this is too hard. I’m giving up on the theater.” I’ll just paste together a life with odd jobs and things outside the realm of theater that can support the work I do as an artist.") West combines a weird artistic Darwinism with the capitalistic myth of merit and an anarchistic fuck-The-Man bravado is noxious.

And he winds up with this classic: "But what we need most of all is for the American theater artist to stop whining and to just keep showing up to work."

I can't beat Mike Daisey's own response to this line:
This is classic: really, what we need most is for the artists to stop whining? Really? It's that much of a problem, the whining?

I saw this a lot in Seattle, on message boards, and from a number of other regional sources around the country: an intense disgust with the "whining" of artists. I believe it comes from a Puritan impulse--people who've been working under hard conditions in the trenches for years and years can become hardened. After all, they never make any money—why should anyone else? They haven't gotten to live in the city they wanted to and do theater--why should the next generation? Why should they have it easy?

The short answer is that we should be making things better for the future. I believe the largest missing element in the American theater is its treatment of the artists—if the actors had stability, they could be ensembles. If we had ensembles we could start winning back some of the losses of the past and forging a new tradition that is living and vibrant and based around humans, as opposed to a tradition based around real estate and subsidized buildings. We owe it to the future and to ourselves to make things better. That is the dream of progress.
Exactly, Mike. Now there's a healthy vision. West seems to argue that theatre is better if it is done by people who have no money, no time, no control over their careers, no stability, and no health insurance. That there is some sort of artistic value -- no, beyond value, some sort of artistic heroism -- in being taken advantage of. And those who think otherwise he insults by characterizing them as people who dream of a need to "retire and live in a sunny condo in Florida."

Let's make this explicit:

1) Theatre is not better if it is made by poor, tired, insecure artists.

2) There is nothing heroic about allowing oneself to be exploited.

3) Theatre can only be made BETTER if artists have the time to focus their attention on it full-time, or as close to full-time as possible, and not as a fucking afterthought during the few hours available after putting in a full day doing something else.

Jesus Christ. Can we finally grow up and stop thinking that we're sticking it to The Man if we are eating ramen noodles four nights a week in a roach-infested studio apartment? Can we give up this belief that in poverty their is virtue, and in insecurity there is inspiration? How did we come to believe so deeply in the self-destructive narrative of heroic desperation?


RVCBard said...

Speaking for myself, I know that I work better when I don't have to worry about paying the bills. I was a lot more creative when I was employed at a decent job than when I was unemployed or wasting my time in retail.

As it stands now, I'm looking for n entry-level publishing job in a place with a strong theater scene and a sizable Jewish community. Hence, NYC (not to mention I have personal contacts there that have nothing to do with theater).

Anonymous said...

Preach it brotha! Love this post.

I'll just add on my thoughts about having a artistic working theory via this link:

John said...

O hell yes. Amen.

I blame Romanticism, the entire movement, for this dislocation, this very recent and stupid eviction of the artist from the center of the village. And probably absinthe had something to do with it. Read about jesters, folks. Remember that Moliere and Shakespeare were businessmen who had to make very tired, hot laborers laugh. The fucking Greeks. The fucking Greeks were writing for a prize, not for History and Artistic Glory.

Now I should confess I haven't been following the latest Daisey brouhaha at all. Sorry, Mike, if you're reading. Just looked like too big a thing to jump into when I got all these fires I have to start. I mean, put out.

Anonymous said...

I get that attitude a lot here, too. The chapter of Alpha Psi Omega at my alma mater had this ridiculously stupid pledge period. They thought of themselves as a social fraternity when, in fact, APO is an academic and honorary society. During the pledge period, they essentially humiliate the pledges, saying that if they truly wanted to join, they'd follow through the pledge period.

Back when I was involved there, I suggested several times that we curb the humiliation. After all, it should be an honor, not a cruel prank. Their response? "Why should they have it easier than I had it? If anything, they should have it worse than I did!"

This is just one example of that attitude that I've encountered in my theatre experiences.

It's a cycle that unfortunately is going to spiral into more and more of that attitude, more and more humiliation, rejection, and poverty. Like Mike said, an ensemble could and would improve theatre and work better. I know that when I'm poor, I'm worried more about paying bills than whether my cast is doing the best job they can do. Especially considering that I have yet to be paid for directing.

Anonymous said...

This isn't the domain of theater alone. Every non-profit under the SUN operates with this myth of the suffering do-gooder.

Part of it is the Romanticism. Part of it is the myth of the hippie. And part of it that not enough non-profits have stood up and screamed that non-profit was never meant to mean "not profitable".

And hell, if you're not gonna tell me, Capitalist Society, that you're worth a living wage, why should I give you one?

Anonymous said...

This is an important post, thanks Scott. It's imperative to call bullshit on this particular attitude if we're ever going to stop spinning our wheels. How dare someone accuse me of entitlement in something that I work so hard on. I'm not hoping for a mansion with a butler to clean the yacht, nor am I asking for a living wage for going out on the occasional fishing trip. I'm asking for a reliable place to put up plays and a progressive audience. And three squares a day.

John said...

All right, slow down. I just re-read Mr. West's quoted comments in the orginal post. We can all get jumped up about it, and we all just did, but by god that's almost word-for-word what I would have typed ten years ago when I was slaving my ass off at Present Company.

Yes, there's a deafitist attitude and a "fuck-it-just-leave-me-alone-to-die-here-alone-and-unsung" song being hummed in the background to Jonathan's words, but there's also a quiet strength and resilience in the counter-melody. He says, "just show up to work."

That's all any of us are saying, at the end, or at least that's all I'm saying. Show up to work. Every day. No matter what you're getting paid. Yeah, ask for more, but show up while you're asking for it.

Scott, you're tenured, I assume and if you're not you should sue that fucking school. I'm 44 and not as in as desperate financial straits as I was last year. If Jonathan is a relatively young man dedicating himself to a life in the theater in this country, then we should maybe shut up and listen to our younger brother and give him a hand and not a slap.

Is all I'm saying.

Scott Walters said...

No, John, no. That's not quiet strength and resilience, unless you think it is quiet strength and resilience when a woman puts up with an abusive husband because "I love him, and sometimes things are good." The fact is that theatre artists have been showing up for work for a century, and nothing has gotten better -- everyone is still underpaid and under-employed, and and scrambling for an opportunity to work for bus fare in a showcase. Jonathan has been an artistic director for 11 years, so that means he is at least in his mid-30s -- he should know better than to say a hard-working 41-year-old actress who can't take it any more isn't really an artist.

I will not applaud self-abuse. I find nothing heroic in accepting economic abuse. I am fighting to de-valorize the term Starving Artist. And the fact that I am tenured, or you are better off this year than last, is not a argument to support or applaud a system that abuses artists. And I certainly am not going to applaud a man who is slapping down someone like Mike Daisey, who is doing a service pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes.

Can't go with you there, John.

Nick said...

Here is exactly the problem with the Us/Them rants. It produces nothing but rhetoric.

TCG sucks. Starving Artist model sucks. Artists deserve to make a living. Duh.

The Emperors all have no clothes. So what are the proposals for new models? John and others offer us the League of Independent Theatres. This is a start in the right direction. Let’s show up for work every day there.

John said...

I think we're in agreement on this one, Scott, or at least pretty close. As long as you understand that, in the end, I'm righter than you. Sorry, more right. Uhh... Rightest? Let me get my OED and get back to you.

Anonymous said...

Theatre can only be made BETTER if artists have the time to focus their attention on it full-time, or as close to full-time as possible, and not as a fucking afterthought during the few hours available after putting in a full day doing something else.

I just had to include that again, in case anyone missed it.

About two and a half years ago, I realised that I could not make theatre and support my family at the same time.

I want desperately to get back into making theatre, but I WILL NOT do it, if it is to be a part-time, nights and weekends, time-away-from-my-wife-and-kids endeavor.

I will gladly join a theatrical tribe.

I'm just not sure how to go about starting one.

Chris said...

Courtesy of Michael Kaiser from the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
1. Create Great Art
2. Market Like Hell
3. Build the Board
4. Ask for Money ...

Finally...if something looks self serving, smells self serving, and sounds self serving...what do you suppose it is?

Scott Walters said...

Um...wait! wait! I know the answer! Just give me a second...

(P.S. Michael Kaiser's advice looks good, but actually is just business as usual.)

John said...

Build a board?

Build a board?


Build a board?

Good luck, son. See you out there. And bring your...board.

I'm sorry, did you say...


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