Friday, July 11, 2008

On Blackjack and Theatre

Mike Daisey, after first dismissing Don Hall's blackjack = theatre analogy as "just dumb," responds to Don Hall's frustration at his dismissal and his admiration for Adam Thurman's extension of said blackjack = theatre analogy with an excellent description of all the flaws in that particular analogy. What is most incredible to me, and perhaps most revealing about the point we have come to in our conception of the role of culture in our society, is that two thoughtful, smart people are comparing the creation of works of art to gambling. I have to say it boggles my mind. To on the one hand pound the table about theatre's necessity to the soul of America, and then place it within the context of card players in a competitive game... well, it defies belief.

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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Tony Adams said...

Are they advocating gambling, or just making a realistic assessment of the current state of things.

Anonymous said...

Well thought out. I see both sides to the argument and I'm undecided on whether the analogy is apt or not. On the one hand, it seems to be a very good analogy, but on the other hand, I have fingers.

I've learned that no analogy is perfect, so I'm going to have to say it's a pretty good analogy, all things considered. It demonstrates the sheer luck required and the sheer odds against you when you enter the profession. It's not like they compared it to a Congressional election year, where there are a couple hundred seats available and everyone else is just screwed. Like gambling, making it to the top has a lot to do with luck -- much like you described with equal performances in different auditions resulting in different outcomes.

You are correct, however, in asserting that one could take that 10 grand to a local casino and probably make a more reliable profit, if not quite $9M. Problem is that is not the point that Don and Adam Thurman's posts were making. You, however, made that point quite well.

So while I see what you're saying, that doesn't necessarily diminish the gambling analogy..

Scott Walters said...

Tony and Director -- You can read them yourselves and make a decision about their meaning. Don seems to say that making theatre and making blackjack are the same, and so fighting for health insurance and a more stable lifestyle is wrong. Adam concludes his post, which Don loves, like this: "But my gut tells me that making a living as a professional artist will always be like making a living as a poker player. A few big winners, another group of people that are consistently profitable in the world. And lots of Dead Money.
And maybe that's the way it is supposed to be." So that seems an endorsement of the gambling model. And Director, they aren't describing the way it is, but the way it is "supposed to be." Would you agree that the art is best served, and the public is best served, by a random, irrational, and economically discriminatory system?

Tony Adams said...

Scott, when in the thousands of years of recorded theatre has acting been a viable way to make a living for the masses?

Scott Walters said...

For the masses? WTF? We're talking about a system that makes it impossible for almost everyone. There have been many times in history when it was possible to make a decent living as part of a company: commedia dell 'arte, Shakespeare's Globe, Moliere's troupe, the thousands of theatres that dotted the American landscape in the 1800s and so on. Once the one-and-done approach to creating productions, which began in the 1870s, became the dominant mode theatre artists became chattel. The regional theatre's orginal intent, as stated by the early pioneers, was to provide consistent employment and stable companies.

Tony Adams said...

Scott, all of the examples that you use above are a tiny fraction of the populations of their time.

Far Fewer actors made a living then than now. One major difference was actors were responsible for making sure they ate. They were entrepreneurs, just like what you advocate for.

Most of the thousands of theatres that dotted the American landscape in the 1800s and so on did not pay performers a living wage.

So while I fully agree that regional theatres have failed in their original intent to provide consistent employment and stable companies, artists who are willingly complicit in a system that treats them like chattle are not without blame either. Actors are only chattle if they allow themselves to be.

The notion that someone can make a full time living doing nothing but acting has never existed in reality except for a tiny fraction of people at any given time.

Though few training centers tell young actors this while taking their money like chattle.

Even in your tribal model, acting is not what you've talked about as the sole means of income. You've been pretty clear about the need to find other sources of revenue for the tribe.

Scott Walters said...

Anonymous said...

A) There is a pretty big difference between Daisey and you saying you think the analogy is baseless because you don't like what it has to say about the profession and it actually being baseless. Just for the record and all.

B) Speaking for myself - I can't speak for Adam - my point certainly is not that the analogy represents the way things should be but the way things are. You and Mike may not like the fact that artists are not only gambling with their ideas but their money and their marriages, etc. but your distaste for reality doesn't change it.

C) Why don't you and Mike discuss the ISSUE rather than quibbling over the analogy? You don't like the quibbling, so why not stop doing it?

Anonymous said...

Ben Turk said...

Don- Mike and Scott have been discussing the issue for a long long time. Their response to the issue you raise (bad artists are like dead money) is contained in their critique of the analogy. They've shown how and why bad artists are NOT dead money, how art is NOT a zero-sum game, and how the rules of theatre production are not transparent and meritritious. That seems to skewer your beleif that there will always be a small number of big winners and a mass of big losers because they've shown how all those decisions are made by social institution, not artist's talent or the nature of theatre. Change the institutional arrangement, you'll change the outcome.

We could just as well stick with the analogy and say that what we're proposing is a reform or re-creation of the structure of the tournament and the rules of the game to produce a more equalizing and humane result.

Anonymous said...

RW -

There's where you and I cannot see eye to eye.

I don't think they've shown anything of the sort.

Scott Walters said...

Don -- There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Anonymous said...

Scott - you are the best example of that very thing. Actually, you're worse - you see, but only through your own slanted view.

Scott Walters said...

We're very close to "I am rubber, you are glue..."

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