Songs for the Struggling Artist

Theatre, Celebrities, Hope and What We’re Doing Now

Part of the reason I just went ahead and went full steam ahead with this podcast idea of mine a few months ago is that I thought, well, with all the theatres shut down, theatre journalists will have absolutely nothing to talk about – so maybe a little indie theatre company making work in the middle of this storm will suddenly be of interest. Maybe, I thought, this is our opening. We are, after all, still making theatre of a kind – even if it’s in solely audio form. Theatre lovers will want to hear it, I naively thought.

Turns out what theatre lovers want is celebrities. Turns out theatre lovers would rather watch cast reunion zoom meetings. They would rather gaze at Kristin Chenowith’s bookshelves than engage with some off-off Broadway something or other. Big companies would rather air the stuff in their vaults than point the way to smaller companies who may have already been working in the digital space. Theatre lovers would rather listen to a podcast of people talking about famous theatre than actually listen to theatre via podcast.

With all of theatre sitting on the sidelines, it has become incredibly clear who has been driving this bus the whole time and it isn’t the non-profit world or the fringe.

A collection of interviews about the future of theatre made the social media rounds among my theatre friends recently. And a lot of them found a great deal of hope and comfort in it. I can see why – there are a lot of people reading idealistic, formative texts like The Empty Space and thinking about how to boil theatre down to its essence. They are dreaming of a new and better theatre and I really hope that can be true – but I am incredibly skeptical. It’s not because I don’t believe it’s possible to do things differently; I 100% believe it is possible. The reason I’m skeptical is because it’s already not what’s happening. The funds and resources and attention are, for the most part, going to Broadway and celebrities and theatre celebrities. The National Theatre in England is asking for donations in sharing its work and getting them. Meanwhile, that is a publicly funded organization. So, we have a major, tax payer funded organization sharing its work internationally and raising money. Not to say that I’m not enjoying getting to see shows I couldn’t get across the ocean to see but an organization like that has a built-in audience, thousands ready to click on it and has already invested buckets of money in high quality filming of their work.

The digital space is being dominated by the winners in just the same way that our live space was. The winner take all philosophy has been ruling our theatre world for ages and given the way things are going digitally, it does not look likely to change. I’m glad people can be hopeful about it and that they’re re-reading Towards a Poor Theatre – but I can tell you, as someone who has been making theatre without many resources for the last two decades, resources are what make the difference.

It feels to me like folks are interested in a Poor Theatre Empty Space sort of world as long as they can have Patti LuPone in it. They want to make “poor theatre” but with all the usual rich ones. (Not that I wouldn’t get a kick out of seeing LuPone in some freaking experimental basement empty space production. I would.)

And, of course, I started writing this piece before American theatre really started reckoning (or, in many cases, pretending to reckon) with its racism and watching that continue to unfold might give me a kind of hope, except I have yet to see any particularly profound shifts. Everyone is saying, “We’ll do better when we get back.” But I don’t see a lot of people doing better now.

Look, I know there is no theatre right now. But a lot of places still have budgets and are still paying their (mostly white male) artistic directors while their artists are unemployed. There are things to be done. Instead of writing up toothless diversity statements, maybe they could commission some BIPOC writers to create some new work or hire some BIPOC directors and designers to begin pre-production work on a socially distanced show of some kind. I know there’s no theatre. But I’m a tiny theatre company with a four figure budget; If I can figure out how to make something, I know that the million dollar organizations can, too.

I have yet to see a leader in American theatre do anything even remotely close to what the guy from Reddit did and actually give up some of their own power. It’s all well and good to write a diversity statement but it’s meaningless without action – and action is actually still possible even though theatre as we’ve known it is still on lockdown. What we do now is a clear reflection of our values and interests. If all we’re promoting are celebrities on Zoom, then that is what will we have upon our return to the stage. What we nurture will grow and it’s become clear to me that celebrity, even just theatre celebrity, is what drives the clicks so it is what is driving our theatre. I get it. I like clicks, too.

So – I have a solution. We just gotta lean in to it. If celebrities want to help and “take responsibility” like they said in that video, then let’s do that. Let’s give every major theatre a celebrity sponsor. And that celebrity sponsor lends their name and their platform to the show and pays for it. They pay for the BIPOC writer and director and cast and they get to say, “Julia Roberts presents” over the title but that’s it. The theatre gets the celebrity boost, the clicks and the cash to make sure they actually keep their freaking promise to produce more work by BIPOC artists.

Or – and this will be a lot easier to get going – we go ahead and start promoting the BIPOC artists and work that’s already being done right now.

Or – and this is the one that I know that nobody’s going to do – all the white folks who’ve been leading our major institutions all these years and drawing six figure salaries and above, can quit those jobs and name BIPOC successors, preferably artists, who can run those institutions in their place. And it’d be okay with me if we just broke those big institutions up and just funded a bunch of artists instead. The buildings aren’t doing anyone any good at the moment.

But that’s me dreaming. I know how unlikely it is that change that dramatic could shift what’s happening. It’s never been more clear how the theatre business has actually worked thus far and it is rather dramatically a winner take all world.

The way things are now, theatres that survive this will be the ones who can suck up the most resources. The ones who can survive long enough to grab all the funding that might be left in a year will be the winners. And maybe those of us who are used to making things with a cardboard box and a piece of string will survive, too.

Cardboard and string have gotten us this far without resources – maybe there’s hope for us, too. I don’t know, though. I would love a more meaningful theatre climate but based on what’s happening right now, I think we’re looking at a future of Google, The Musical and Amazon! The Story of Jeff Bezos! And it is unlikely to move a single one of us.

The Theatre Development Fund is raising money, not to develop theatre, but to keep itself afloat. There are currently no grants for making things, just grants to cover rents and administrators for our big buildings. Those who are innovating in new venues are unfunded. What we do now is what we will do in the future. If we want a more accessible, open theatre when we return, we can’t just hope for it. We have to be working toward it now. We’re in the middle of a good conversation, where artists and freelancers are finally feeling free to tell some of the truths about working at these big institutions but until there is actual action, with actual resources, until someone with power hands some of it over to someone without it, we’re just doing things the same old way. We can’t just hope that when we come back things will be different. We have to make it different. It’s already started. It’s already happening. We have to make it different now.

I keep thinking about this passage from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark:

“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”

Now is the moment to give ourselves to the future.

One of the most inspiring theatre things I’ve seen during this time is the Virtual Toy Theatre Festival by Great Small Works. Someone give those folks a pot of money please! (This is a toy theatre from the olden days.)


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