Thursday, March 10, 2011

Advice to a Theatre Major: Finding Your How (Part 1): You Are Not a Migrant Worker

I've spent a few days talking about the importance of "finding your why," finding the reason you get out of bed in the morning, the thing that drives you to not only do theatre, but do anything that you find fulfilling. And the purpose of all this is to help you, through looking inside and out, into your past and present, and at society's past and present (theatre history has a lot of techniques that could be dusted off and put into practice again) to find your own individual path.

This is important, I would argue, because education (especially theatre education) tries to tell you there is one true path for everybody. That's why books like Robert Cohen's Acting Professionally: Raw Facts About Careers in Acting, which I read when I was in high school in the mid-70s, is still in print forty years later, and is still ruining the lives of all but a handful of actors with its one-size-fits-all advice. That's why the information in that book and books like it, are still taught by the majority of teachers in so-called  "pre-professional programs," despite a success rate that is beyond dismal. Hey, it's better than nothing, right? Wrong.

What I am telling you is that there are many ways into the forest, and each of you has to find your own place to enter. And that's why you need to understand your why. "Why" is your north star that you keep in sight as you weave your way, sometimes in directions that seem counter-intuitive, through your daily life.

Now let's look at your "how." First, review Simon Sinek's "Golden Circle," watching from about 2:20 in through about 4:30 or so.

Remember, as Sinek says, "people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it." If your "why" is totally self-serving and egoistic, then you will eventually find that people start not wanting to work with you. They instinctively sense that your "why" doesn't include them. On the other hand, if your "why" is inclusive and inspiring, people can sense it, even if you don't explicitly tell them in words, as long as your actions illustrate your why. Again as Sinek says, your goal isn't to sell to everyone who wants what you sell, but rather to those who believe what you believe. You want to surround yourself with people who help you fulfill your "why."

And this requires that you think about yourself very differently than you are "trained" to think about yourself. Most theatre training isn't about creating independent artists with a strong "why," but rather about creating employees. And not just employees, but employees with the mentality of a migrant worker willing to put up with whatever the employer dishes out in order to have the chance to work. As the A Chorus Line lyric says, "I need this job, oh God, I need this show." What is taught most strongly is compliance. Dennis Baker wrote about this in the Rutgers program, and I have observed it in action myself -- the attitude of all too many theatre professors is that your job as an artist is to jump when they say jump and ask how high on the way up. 

In fact, the lessons we imbue most strongly in the young theatre person would be applauded in any boardroom in the world.

1. Know your place in the hierarchy. In the rehearsal room, the director is king. Everyone else does the director's bidding. And the director does the producer's bidding. In the academy, we really reinforce this because not only is your director king in the rehearsal studio, but he's also your king in your classes where he can give you lower grades if he doesn't like your attitude. In the corporate world, the producer is the stockholders, the director is the CEO, and the rest of the artistic staff are middle managers and employees. Fits perfectly. In the theatre world, we have a slogan that can be trotted out whenever anyone questions the hierarchical model: "You can't make art by committee." We make sure that idea, which is never backed up with any data, gets tatooed on the psyches of every drama major that is "trained."

2. Efficiency is everything. If you don't believe that this is a strong value, suggest to a group of theatre artists that a less hierarchical, more collaborative rehearsal process might create a better production. The first argument you will hear (after "You can't create art by committee,") is that we "don't have time" for that, we have to get the show up. We have internalized the short rehearsal period to such an extent that we behave as if there was another tablet Moses brought down from Sinai that decreed how many weeks are allowed for the creation of a production. After all, time is money, right? Perfect for the corporate environment. The majority of Broadway productions fail every year at a rate most businesses would find horrifying, but we never question this value. It's too expensive to spend money on rehearsal -- better minimize the investment and hope for the best.

3. Do what you're told. Everyone is trained to wait patiently for the director to indicate what they should do, and then do it as effectively as possible. Don't take chances carefully analyzing the script you are given to understand how it works in order to develop your own ideas about how you might creatively support it -- that'll only get in the way of doing what the director tells you. You are a blank slate to be written on by the superior intelligence of the director. Yours is not to question why, yours is but to do or die.

4. Strive to be what they want you to be. This is what everyone learns in auditioning class. The theme song for this is "Dance Ten -- Looks Three" from A Chorus Line sung contrapuntally with "Razzle-Dazzle" from Chicago. What does the market want right now? That's what you should be. Great way to move up the ladder in corporate America as well. What's conventional wisdom about getting your second job? Play well with others. Theatre is Dale Carnegie central.

5. Delude yourself about the product you are working on. I was once told that, if asked by someone about the show I'm currently working on, always say its the best thing you've ever been associated with. Say something critical about the product and it gets back to someone else on the show -- you're dead. Production is a process of group self-hypnosis. Loyalty demands that you leave your critical mind at the stage door. This skill is particularly helpful in the corporate world when you have to defend your products against accusations of health hazards or environmental destruction. Tobacco execs were experts at this skill -- it's ingrained in theatre people, too.

6. Don't let your ethics get in the way of your career. Given the slim employment opps in the theatre, it is in your best interest to accept whatever comes along that pays. In fact, having no moral or aesthetic values at all is a great benefit, because you'll have nothing to stand in the way of employment. And if anyone asks about an artist's responsibility to society, you can laugh with great commitment. An artist has no responsibility to ANYONE, you can snap. Does the play reinforce negative stereotypes? Hey, it's only theatre -- we don't actually affect anyone's ideas, right? Film filled with violence and misogyny? It's entertainment -- nobody really takes this stuff seriously. A highly developed sense of rationalization can serve you well in the corporate world, too. Just take a little of that money you make, wipe the dirt off of it, and contribute a few bucks to a women's shelter or something.

It's time for this corporate theatre training to end, and the way it will end is if you, as theatre artists, begin to take your talents seriously, determine your "why," and then sell to the people who believe what you believe, who share your values, who want to do similar things. Throw away your CD of A Chorus Line and buy a copy of Daniel Pink's Free Agent Nation and Tom Peters' The Brand You 50. Stop asking for people to "give you a chance" and instead start making your own chances. 

Or you can keep playing the Scarcity Game, putting up with 88% unemployment and pounding the pavement, hat in hand, looking for artistic handouts. 

The choice is yours.


Laura said...

I'm really surprised at how this post hits home with me. I intuitively decided to sit here at lunch and read your blog. I've been staying far away from any discussion of theater, but I opted to follow my gut and visit your site.

Thank you. I've been wondering if I should start writing what I'm actually thinking. After reading this, I just might.

Cole Matson said...

Your number six made me lurch forward in my chair in agreement. Once, in a discussion about lying on one's resume, I said that my integrity is more important than my acting career, and that if it was necessary to lie on one's resume to get work (which I maintained wasn't true anyway), I couldn't in good conscience work as an actor. I was told that with an attitude like that I would never "make it", because the only way to get anywhere in this business was to do whatever it took. Obviously I didn't care enough about being a "real" actor.

And that's leaving aside the whole "moral responsibility of the artist" thing. I just got accepted into a PhD program to write my dissertation on that very topic.

Carly said...

I wonder if I somehow missed the day that they put us through the Robot Training Machine that creates theatre artists with those qualities/attitudes/answers. I firmly disagree with almost every single one of those statements. Heck, if I believed I had to take everything offered to me just to have a job, I'd still be in Cincinnati (not my kind of place), because they offered me a contract long before I had an offer from anywhere else. I'm glad I don't think that way for the most part.

Scott Walters said...

We try not to teach those things (although we do somewhat). However, I have seen it at schools I've been at, and also where my stepson currently goes. So I am glad you escaped with your independence intact!

Sound Designer said...

There are some great tips here. For anyone looking to dive deeper into the world of theatre and want to learn how to become a sound engineer in theatre in 2024 this is a fantastic resource. It offers even more insights and tips for aspiring sound engineers.

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