Songs for the Struggling Artist


WTF with Jake Gyllenhaal

Granted, I’m a little wound up. Theatre’s been on (really stinky) mothballs for a year and I’m really tired of my tiny apartment. So. Forgive me if this response to a little podcast episode I listened to is a little overblown. But – WTF! Actually the name of the podcast is WTF and that is also literally how I felt after listening to the episode with Jake Gyllenhaal.

It’s not Gyllenhaal’s fault – or Maron’s fault. (Marc Maron is the host. It’s his podcast.) It’s just that their talk about theatre made me feel a lot of things and most of them weren’t good.

First, a couple of people who spend most of their time in the Film and TV worlds waxing rhapsodic about theatre is always a little triggering. Like – Yes. You’re right. There is magic in a theatre with an audience. It is the greatest. Damn it. Ouch. Now go back to making your money.

Second, and this is the bit that is getting me all itchy and twisted, Gyllenhaal was describing how the show Sea Wall/A Life came about – and on one hand, it is a super sweet story about how a collaboration became a show that a lot of people really liked. (I did not see it.) On the other hand, it is an infuriating journey through the fame-hungry annals of American theatre. I mean. Listen, Gyllenhaal is a movie star. I like a lot of things he’s done. I got no beef with him. He seems nice and he’s fun to look at on a screen. It’s charming that people fall asleep next to him on the subway.

But lord have mercy. This movie star loved a little personal piece by a writer he worked with and wanted to perform it, even though it was not written to be performed. But the movie star wanted to do it so he eventually persuaded the writer to let him do it and that writer was buddies with another writer who also had a short monologue that wasn’t really for the stage and so they put the two pieces together and voila! Play! Which – you know – cool! That’s cool. Put on whatever you want!

But. Then there’s the part where the movie star gets a year’s worth of development of this piece at the Public Theater. He got to fuck around for a YEAR at the Public, with all its resources at his disposal, discovering what this piece could be.

And FLAMES. FLAMES on the side of my face!

Why, Emily? Do you not WANT to go see Jake Gyllenhaal on the stage? I mean, I’d go if someone gave me a ticket. I can’t afford those prices! But that’s not it. I don’t object to a movie star getting to put on a play. I don’t object to him taking all the time he needs to make something he loves. But what I DO object to are our non-profit institutions giving time and space to movie stars when there are so many worthy, unsupported theatre folk out there who would take a year residency at the Public and absolutely murder it. I know that’s not how the Pubic works. I know that it will give space to celebrities because they’ll bring in audiences later and it’s all very logical.

But it does rather feel like if a movie star read a cereal box that they thought might be a fun show, the Public would give over all its resources so we could all see the story of Honey Nut Cheerios or whatever. Maybe we got lucky and Jake Gyllenhaal’s buddy’s piece was really the best thing seen on a stage and so yay! (Again, I don’t know. I did not see Sea Wall/A Life.) But it is indicative of how stuff goes on. Or went on. I don’t know what sort of theatre we’ll get back when we get back.

I don’t expect the Public to let me come develop a show there. It’s not about me. (Though, give me space in a major institution with their resources behind me and watch the fuck out!) But what it IS about are all the resources that artists need to be able to get a leg up in this theatre world being given over to celebrities and corporate interests and more and more narrow pipelines. The Public wants to be seen as an inclusive diverse bastion of creativity – but when it comes down to it, their choicest reserves are for a group of a white movie star guys. Also, the guy who runs the place is a white guy whose compensation adds up to a million dollars a year. He gets paid that money to give space to movie stars.

And it’s not even about the Public. Any theatre in the country would have given Jake Gyllenhaal space to develop his little idea. But anyone who’s not a movie star will probably have to go to Yale Drama School first and even then no one will give them a year to develop something.

And listen – I know Gyllenhaal is not unaware of his privilege. He knows theatre is elitist. He explains that that’s why he became a Broadway producer and produced Jeremy O Harris’ Slave Play. And that is a good thing. It is good to see a play by a Black playwright featuring Black people on Broadway. And congrats to Yale grad, Jeremy O Harris for breaking a barrier. But this barrier breaking play took a Yale grad AND a movie star to get there. Also – I was struck by the fact that in the WTF conversation about elitism on Broadway, the extremely unaffordable ticket prices never came up.

Anyway – whatever. It’s fine. It’s really just a silly little reaction to a podcast I listened to and then couldn’t stop thinking about and feeling things about. There might not even be any theatre when this is all over. There’s no reason to get all worked up right now.

But after listening to that podcast, I worry it’s going to be JUST movie stars in our theatre from here on out. They’ll be the only ones who can afford to do it at a certain point. And all the theatres will line up to give them space.

Usually WTF stands for What the F**k and it does here, too – but maybe also Well, Theatre’s F**ked

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