Thursday, April 12, 2007

Class and theatre, the right stuff, having it all

Most of the conversation going on about theatre and class right now in the "theatre blogosphere" is centered around money with a strong emphasis on school debt.

I've indulged in this kind of thing, too.

However, I think something is missing - which is what the pshychographics of class do to our heads with regard to how we make a living and how we judge "success".

Most people in this country, whether they qualify financially for membership in the middle class or not, have a middle class mindset, if not an upper middle class mindset. Even the so-called "working class" who, while their work may put them in the stereotypical blue collar bracket, almost always want the same things "middle class" people want - homes, cars, stereos, college educations, boats, coffee tables, Playstations, etc.

And, more importantly, they often want these things for the same reasons - to impress the neighbors.

Television sitcoms and advertisers have done this.

Specifically, advertisers have done it by always presenting an idealized lifestyle in which what you have - especially when it's their product - is what other people want, thus making you attractive, desireable, etc.

In television, with few exceptions (MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, ROSEANNE), everyone lives in a huge apartment with all the right stuff. In fact, the most working class family on TV right now is to be found on MEDIUM - though Joe IS a rocket scientist at NASA and they seem to have enough money for high end NOKIA phones and VOLVO's.

THE OFFICE describes most of our lives pretty well.

However... back to the subject.

Theatre - to me - certainly has a lot of class issues.

But WHAT you find playing in theatre is not the biggest of these issues. If anything, I think the moneyed people who go to theatre are more open minded about different perspectives than you'll find in the visual arts where a lot of direct commenting on culture has been largely blunted by abstraction and irony.

What I mean is, if you look around at regional theatre programming, you don't see only old white men getting produced. You have the Culture Clash at Berkelely Rep and La Jolla. You have Dael Orlandersmith at MTC. You have Cassandra Medley at the Magic and elsewhere in NY. You have Suzanne Lori Parks winning Pulitzers. You have Tracey Scott Wilson all over the place a few years ago. You have all the programming at The Public - even with Neil LaBute plays there. You have Nilo Cruz and Octavio Solis at OSF and elsewhere.

In other words, you have anything BUT a homogenized group of voices being heard and seen on some of the biggest non-profit institutional stages around the country.

(Weirdly, I've even been told that being a white male could hurt my chances of being produced - indirectly when it came to theatre and directly when it came to television.)

To me, the largest issue concerning class and theatre is NOT how much we borrow to do it.

It's how much we expect to get back from it when we put our blood and sweat into it.

After all, have we not all been raised on the very common middle class idea, "Do what you love and the money will follow"? Have we not been told to "follow our dreams" to exclusion of all else? Have we not been indoctrinated with the thought that "success" means "making money" to live on and buy stuff with?

Theatre does not owe the people working in it anything. It doesn't owe me a living, even if I want it to give me one. It doesn't love me because I love it.

And graduate writing/acting/directing programs don't usually reveal percentages of "successful" (ie, people working in the field) alumni because it would be embarrassing to do so. Most aren't "successful" in the common middle class definition of that term.

What we think we want comes from a place of the ego - ego formed in a cultural environment where middle class values and aspirations are as inescapable as air.

Part of that is a sense of entitlement.

Or, put another way, when we're honest about why we want to do theatre - and for me, it's not to make a living - then we can move forward.

But if we're hoping that theatre will fulfill the middle class dreams we have, we're deluded.

Theatre is not a middle class profession - even if it's the middle class who buy tickets to those shows at the non-profits.

It's not designed to buy all that stuff I talked about up there.

Its purpose is to do something else entirely.


Jeff Shattuck said...

Wanting money has been a curse to me I've finally decided. Money does not buy happiness or love or much of anything else really. Perhaps it buys a freedom from worrying about money, but I'm not so sure about that either because the more money you have the more thought you have to put into managing it. Anyway, not sure what my point is here, but great post.

Anonymous said...

excellent post

Anonymous said...

Did most of the posters in the blogs you've read this week discuss how many financial benefits they hope to receive from theatre work? Or, rather, did they discuss how financial constraints mark how vigorously they pursue theatre work, at all?

Conflating hopes of stardom with the opportunity cost of doing work that does not contribute to a living wage blurs the issue of lower class theatre workers and their concerns into a palatable mush: We're doing this to be better people, not to pursue filthy lucre.

But how do we earn the money to do the work that won't earn us money? How do we dig out of our holes, or not make existing holes any deeper? How do we develop the institutional respect to talk about these issues openly, without making funders and board members clench as if with faced with a Mapplethorpe portrait?

Laura said...

Is it a middle class value to want to be paid a fair living wage for work? I don't think so. How else are we supposed to eat?

Before, when I was less attuned to the realities of life, I didn't care all that much about making a living wage in theater. I didn't think all that much about it because material comforts weren't a concern.

But needing to eat is another problem. During my early days in theater, I had to live on a pound of sugar for a weekend. That's all I had to eat. It sucked, and I seem to think that many of us have stories like that.

The problem is that theater people have been expected to act like court jesters. We're allowed to entertain, as long as we don't ask for anything in return.

As for me, I have broached the idea of the class issues around audience. There's not much more to say about it, other than there are other types of theater that reach out to different kinds of audiences.

And by the way, I have you on bloglines but your feed never comes up. What's up with that? ;)

Scott Walters said...

Well, you raise an interesting question, Laura. Right now, I am trying to decide whether the arts fall under the "wage for work" model. In some ways, it turns art into a commodity, and I am not certain what effect that has on the art itself. What would happen if we thought of the arts in terms of gifts, or in terms of the old image of the storyteller who wandered the countryside telling stories for food and a roof for a few nights? Not our usual economic model in this country, and almost incomprehensible -- and surely objectionable on many levels -- but as a mind game, how might such an orientation change things?

Malachy Walsh said...

To anon2:

"Did most of the posters in the blogs you've read this week discuss how many financial benefits they hope to receive from theatre work? Or, rather, did they discuss how financial constraints mark how vigorously they pursue theatre work, at all?"

There's a lot of posting about constraints, but in this is the hidden assumption that a living wage is deserved.

If only it were. (I'd like it anyway.)

Unfortunately, our culture pays people for selling something of value to others, but in a market flooded with story/idea options (tv, film, etc), more and more often, value is not set by the seller, but the buyer.

Trying to reverse this is difficult, but do-able.

The people who seem to have done it, well, they don't seem to have asked this question immediately. They just did what they had to do to get going. The folks at Steppenwolf come to mind. I don't think there's a Richard Foreman in that original group. (If I'm wrong, please, someone correct me.) Their success was not overnight though they were recognized early on as having a lot of talent.

Your question also makes me think of the cliche that necessity is the mother of invention. For me, some of the best work I've done has been done when I acknowledged the limits of what I could do and made those limit work for me to enlarge what I was doing. (I hope that makes sense).

I'm simply trying to bring to light what I see as an issue underlying all this talk of how much everything costs and careers and all that.

Laura, I don't think we shouldn't get something for what we do. I just think we should be careful what we ask for.

Also, I'm not sure that theatre is the only thing you start in with no money. When I got out of college, I had no debt, but making ends meet was still almost impossible eventhough I worked at the Washington Post.

Later, during my first two years in advertising (and I had a large debt for schooling to get into the industry) I had to borrow money off my credit card to pay rent every month. It was terrifying.

I guess I'm saying that no money is sort of usual when you're young in any industry - though for a while in the 90s, some kids didn't learn that and ate a lot of crow when the tech economy collapsed.

However, I don't know anything about the bloglines thing. Maybe I'm just being shunned for my opinions by the software.

Scott - I often bristle at the idea of art as a gift. I think I've been negative on it at Isaac's blog in the past and at yours, too. For some reason your comment here makes me understand it better than I have elsewhere.

I've started to sort of think of theatre as an event where I'm the host, throwing a party. This means dropping the buy a ticket, see a play model - or leaving it for others anyway.

It's crazy, but what the hell. I'm a playwright. SO I'm clearly crazy.

patrick said...

Very intriguing post. I'm still trying to puzzle it all out (my own post on my blog on the subject was about the old making money stuff).

I think the definition of class that you use is fuzzy, which makes sense because class is a fuzzy issue in America anyway.

I think it's important to be clear that a desire to earn money for doing work is not a class issue (it's a capitalistic issue). And commercialism/materialism is also not a middle-class value (and you point out it's common to people in all classes).

I suppose that in America, since class is not rigidly defined by birth, it's defined by wealth (which is not the same thing as money or possessions), which in our country translates into power, the power to control and influence our own lives and that of others.

Most people writing for theatre have enough access to wealth (say they're middle or upper class) that they can afford to work in a profession that doesn't pay a living wage. Working class people, almost by definition, find that much more difficult to accomplish.

I sometimes wonder if the notion of theatre as a semi-holy calling has arisen as the economics of working in theatre has gotten worse and worse. The people writing for Broadway in the 1930s expected to be paid. Neil Simon and Arthur Miller are both from a generation when many new plays were produced commerically in New York and they supported their families by writing plays, along with many other colleagues.

I think you're right to say that theatre doesn't owe you a living. (And I'm certainly guilty of feeling that way.) But I don't think it's wrong to desire to earn a living from writing plays. The difficult part, as you point out, is that the economics of theatre as it stands, make it nearly impossible to do so. So if we want to keep writing plays, we have to make sure that we're doing it for other reasons, which can be satisfied, otherwise we'll just be perpetually frustrated.

I think, in my case, that's driving me more towards writing more novels and books. I can't give up theatre entirely, because it's a part of me, a part of my blood. But I think my artistic life, as a writer, needs to mean working in a variety of artforms, in order to get what I need. (Sorry this is so long and rambling--you've really got me thinking.)

Dave Tutin said...

Leonard Cohen once said "I never wanted to work for pay but I want to be paid for my work."

It's about as much as we can ask.

He also said...

"I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He said to me you should not ask for so much
I saw a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door
She cried to me hey why not ask for more?"

What we want, what we need and how we get it are as different as fingerprints. But you are absolutely right when you say that moving forward with any artistic endeavour has to do with accepting that we are not doing it for the money. If money follows, it's simply being "paid for my work" which is fair and normal. If that work is appreciated and demanded by an audience. No audience - no pay.
Not in today's world.

Laura said...

I was thinking about you this morning, Malachy, and hoping you didn't take offense to what I said. I was wondering if I sounded harsher than I meant. So, I apologize if it came off that way.

I've been doing this for close to 20 years and *still* have not made a living at it. I have, however, made a living at other forms of writing. But not theater.

And that's what urks me, personally. There comes a point when you have to stop paying your dues.

I'm not the only one that feels this way, I'm sure. I was warned going into theater that this is the way things were. To a certain extent, I didn't mind it because I loved doing it.

Looking at art as a gift is terrific, as long as you have another means of money. Of course, art requires time as well, so perhaps all of this is best left to the independently wealthy. ;)

And what about insurance?

Since we live in a society that treasures capitalism so much, we should ask for the same consideration. That's just my opinion...

malachy walsh said...

Laura - no offense taken. I'm living in the same house most of us are living in - lots of bills, work that's unsteady, etc.

Here's a clearer picture....

malachy walsh said...

Hard not to love Cohen.