Songs for the Struggling Artist

“The work must be really good, mustn’t it? Since so many people are doing it for love?”
January 12, 2015, 1:22 am
Filed under: art, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

My friend was over from the UK doing a show here in New York City. In a chat over coffee, I mentioned to him that the bulk of the theatre work here in NYC was unpaid, that most of us were just laboring for love. He wondered if this made the work exceptionally good.

I believe it’s the opposite. Love doesn’t make good theatre. It can help, sure. But making theatre without resources doesn’t make it good. In fact, resources can shine up all kinds of things to look like good art – even when it isn’t. Resources can be art-making magic. If you have resources, you can take the time you need to make something good. You can rehearse in a space that contributes to the atmosphere you’re attempting to create. You can store your stuff somewhere. With resources, you can spend your time working on the piece and then work on another one. Art gets better the more opportunities you have to do it.

When you’re making work on the fumes of love, much of your focus is on finding ways around the lack of resources. So many underfunded theatres spend more effort on their crowdfunding campaigns than they do on their shows. And while crowdfunding was supposed to be the panacea for small indie theatres  it rarely functions that way.

I took a brief tour of the IndieGoGo Theatre section while doing some research for a crowdfunding campaign. The website was littered with tiny companies asking for between $2000 to $5000 and almost none of them were anywhere close to funded. ($5000 is nowhere near enough to money to produce a show in New York City, by the way, which makes it even more heartbreaking.) Meanwhile, I saw that a highly funded Regional Non-Profit Theatre had successfully raised over a hundred grand on IndieGoGo for its production.

Will that $100,000 show be better than those shows only asking for $3000? The odds are good, actually, that it will be. Not because those working at the $100K theatre are better artists but because they have 100 grand to make it. (By the way, I’m well aware that $100K was probably nowhere near what that Regional company needed to make their show either. Probably $100K for them is like $3k for me.)

When you’re making your work with nothing but love, everyone involved comes to the table overbooked and underpaid. Almost everything you do is a compromise. And while this happens in funded theatres, the size of the compromise is different. A funded theatre may compromise the size of the set, the unfunded may compromise in having one at all.

Think of it like cooking. If you’re skilled, you can make a delicious meal out of ketchup and ramen noodles – but most cooks will make a better meal with better ingredients. In fact, I think the more opportunities you have to cook with good ingredients, the more your cooking will improve, and perhaps only then can you really work a miracle with ketchup and ramen.

But more than the material things, I think underfunded work suffers the most from time and space scarcities. Doing it for love means doing it around the things that will make everyone a living and very often the work suffers from that diffusion of attention.

Is everything made for no money terrible? Of course not. Occasionally, an artist can overcome the obstacles and make something tremendous, against the odds. (All my theatremaking friends, I’m looking at you.) But it is very difficult. The mainstream media loves the story of an artist who had nothing and rose to an exalted position but if you scratch the surface of these stories – the artist is NOT someone who had nothing. He (and it is almost always a “he”) usually had a privileged upbringing, is the child of a successful parent in the field or married into financial security. Most of the time “the struggle” was really just a couple of years after college when the artist had a roommate and ate some ramen noodles. The story is usually how the love of his art form kept him going until he arrived at the point where we read about him in the New York Times. So I can see how people start to get the idea that love makes good work. That’s what the media reinforces.

And personally, even though I definitely don’t do this for the money (there isn’t any,) I also can’t say I’m doing it for love. At least not in the way most people mean it. I am devoted to the theatre. I throw my whole heart and self into it. But I hate that my work is not as good as it might be if I had money for artists, space and development. I hate working in the theatre as much, if not more than, I love it. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Love is a powerful, wonderful thing. It helps with EVERYTHING, I’m sure. But it needs resources to turn it into really excellent theatre.


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