Friday, August 03, 2007

Starving the Local Artist

For many years I have written short stories. Most of them have been published somewhere, in large or small circulation literary magazines, in print and online. I’ve written for zines, Web sites, and newspapers. And for about a dozen years I wrote plays, several of which were produced in Seattle, and had staged readings or workshops in Seattle and New York.

When I was writing plays, I started out with my own company. We created new works by designing text, sound/music, movement, lighting design, and set/environment simultaneously over several months. Three members of the company—the designer, the composer, and myself—raised money to produce these shows. Now and then we were lucky enough to get a commission that helped us financially.

We’re talking about a few thousand dollars, altogether, and earning that money was tough. We made it by throwing in the occasional writing commissions, adding personal income from our day jobs, and begging our friends and family for donations (usually $25 or $50 each).

For the most part, that’s how contemporary theater gets made. A small group of individuals will pledge their time and experience and income, to make it happen. This has been the standard for most of the companies where my plays have been produced.

I stopped doing collaborative theater after a few years. It was exhausting trying to be an artist and company manager and fundraiser, and holding down the day job that was necessary to keep all the other dishes spinning. I thought it might be a little easier to write scripts and let other people do the producing. I was wrong.

Theater at my level is a heartbreaking experience for many reasons. Top of my list is the pain of watching brilliant performers giving their all to interpret something I have written on stage, more likely than not without adequate payment.

Let me say here that I love, love, love actors. They are, as Jack Clay told us in graduate school, the only irreducible element of performance and don’t ever forget it. You do not need a script or a set to make performance, but you cannot have performance without a performer. So honor the actors, because they make the show happen every night, rain or shine, sick or well, in the face of acceptance and in the face of hateful reviews, they go out there and do it.

In most cases, if they are non-equity (and many actors are) they are not simply paid inadequately. The fact is: they are not paid at all. They will spend hours and days rehearsing, sometimes in cramped quarters, in any space available including living rooms, and then transfer to a poorly ventilated, tiny theater where they will share rehearsal space with one or two or more groups rehearsing other shows.

When the play finally opens, the actors will be exhausted by their schedules and broke due to the costs of transportation, parking, meals, and in some cases babysitters and loss of income due to time off for the show. On stage they will probably wear at least one garment from their own “costume wardrobe” at home, and very likely shoes that they have provided. They will wear makeup they bought. They will pay their way to and from the theater every night. And still they will not be paid for their work.

This is a given in theater. It is accepted. It is mentioned and occasionally debated. But nothing is ever done about it. Every show begins with high hopes and plans to pay all the artists, and ends with the producer passing the hat to buy wine for the closing night party. Everybody in theater knows this. But, over the years, I realized that I just couldn’t take it.

More and more, the feeling I associated with theater was shame. I tried harder and harder to write scripts that actors would like to perform. I made the characters as vivid as I could, and made sure every actor had at least one great line, one great moment. But it wasn’t enough to make me feel good about what I was asking them to do. For after all the costs were rung up, and all the rent was paid, there was never enough to fairly compensate the artists.

I tried dividing up my fee and giving it to the performers. But since the fee was small to begin with, it didn’t amount to much, spread over an entire cast. And then I tried not taking any fee, just throwing it into the budget. And still the actors were not paid more than an “honorarium.”

So imagine how it feels to read an article like the one that appeared today in the Seattle Times. One theater company here is asking the public to give them a million dollars by the fall, and another million and a half by next spring. The Artistic Director is not threatening to quit and go back to the East Coast, but the managing director insinuates that holding onto a prize-winning and sought-after AD like theirs requires big-time funding.

Two and a half million dollars, and the money is supposed to come, primarily, from individual donations. So, I’m thinking: Okay, there are rich people in Seattle. All artists know that, and many of them spend inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out how to appeal to these rich people: What will they like? What will they pay to see? How much can we charge them for tickets? A couple of local companies have gone broke and out of business, trying to appeal to rich people while ignoring the theatergoers in their own neighborhood.

Maybe it is unkind, but I think those companies deserved to go out of business for ignoring their neighborhood. Theater is not glamorous; it is visceral and it is present, but it is not glamorous. It is not international, no matter how far word of it travels. Theater is local, at all times. And if a company is lucky enough to afford its own theater, then it had better find out what people who can get to that theater will and will not find intriguing. This is not pandering. It is listening. And it has been a long, long time since our big companies listened.

There are many questions to ask, about a theater’s entitlement to so much money. I keep thinking: If people give that much to one company, how likely is it that they will also support small companies? Because most people in this town know how to put on a damn fine show for $12,000 and they could put on a huge show for $50,000. How many shows can a theater produce, for two and a half million dollars? Or is that money required because of inflated salaries and a company’s desire to be the biggest and best in this region, even at the cost of starving out half a dozen smaller companies where the artists work for free?

Realistically, this community will only fork over so much money to save theaters. Should the money go to the people who make shows carefully on a tight budget, or to a showcase theater that makes the city look more glamorous than it really is, and routinely imports actors, writers, and directors from other cities?

Maybe I am crazy, but I think even grant money that comes from the state, county, and city ought to have strings attached, requiring that the beneficiary theater company employ a certain percentage of local artists. Otherwise, they are paying out-of-town artists to take grant money away from the community.

In all likelihood, nobody cares about this. No one ever asks these questions in public. But the city is paying a heavy price for choosing the coolness of big imported names over homegrown wisdom and talent. I’ve seen those big names come and I’ve seen them go—fast, so the revolving door won’t hit them on the way out.

I’ll break all theater etiquette now and say it: In most cases, the imported ADs don’t want to be here. (I’m talking all the way back to the early 1990s and I am speaking as a theater insider.) They hate Seattle, and their families hate it. One AD could not even persuade the family to live here during the AD’s tenure.

They are biding their time until a better offer comes along. They may have some fine achievements, while they suffer and fret in the backwoods of Seattle and try to make coherent shows for people they regard privately as middlebrow, in a city they can’t wait to leave. But they will leave, no matter how much praise we lavish on them. And the people who are from here, or who have lived here for decades, will labor on, uncelebrated.

There are so many talented people here, giving their lives to theater, and they hardly ever get any recognition, and most of them make little or no money for their efforts. They never will, so long as theater administrators and board members who ache for a more sophisticated culture keep missing what is already beautiful here.

Truly vibrant and beautiful—and it doesn’t cost two and a half million dollars.

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