We received the following impassioned letter from one of the storefront directors featured on fuse:five. To say that we are thrilled to have hit a nerve would be the understatement of the century: we need to hit nerves, folks, or what we're doing is just another boring podcast.
Read what Berry has to say below and let us know in the comments section how you feel. Don's reply immediately follows.
And, if you haven't listened to the podcast yet, you can do so here or here.
Hey Guys -
Well Don – not surprisingly, I DO think that you are, indeed, in this particular instance, full of shit.
In the same podcast, you manage to say both that actors should be compensated for their work, and then, that any artist who works for money, or who desires compensation and promotion, is somehow a lesser form of artist. And that an artist who desires the funding that comes from a larger institution is somehow artistically compromised.
The notion that we, as artists, are somehow making less pure art by insisting that our art has value, and that that value can be expressed in a monetary figure, is indeed self defeating and reflects our country’s inability to value the artists’ integral place in the community.
Since we are living in a capitalist society, and since there is no real funding coming from the government to support the artists who are producing work, the ONLY way that we can make our living in the art is to insist ourselves on the work’s intrinsic value. I believe that we SHOULD look at the art we produce in the world as more than our hobby – I believe that MOST Chicago theater artists are working jobs outside the field, only to generate enough income stability to be able to continue their artistic pursuit. And that we lose the voice of many brilliant artists who, at some point, decide that the desire for the basic life that is afforded to non-artists – consistent income, home ownership, the ability to raise a family or go to the doctor when you are sick – supersedes the desire to create.
We shouldn’t be thought of as lesser artists to desire the luxury of focusing ONLY on the art, without having to put ourselves in sever economic peril. There is something that can be gained by being able to go into a rehearsal with a fresh mind that has not been worn down by the toil of another job or the crippling concern of from where the rent is going to come. The singularity of focus on the art has a chance for the work to grow and flourish based on the critical attention that can create, by all the collaborating artists. And yes, certainly, sometimes a challenging situation creates a crucible from which vital work can emerge, but then who sees it? One of the primary functions of established institutions is not just the living wage they can provide for the artist, but also for their breadth of reach they provide the work.
Theater is an exchange within the community, a group of artists reflecting on the needs and trials of the community and inspiring thought or dialogue in response. That is the goal, ultimately of the work and when we look at institutions who have more finances, we are finally talking about impact. Ideally, we could create great art and just by the very nature or its creation, people seek it out and buy tickets and fill up seats and take part in the exchange. But the reality of the situation is that, many brilliant artists are creating work that then goes virtually unseen because it proves inaccessible to a wider audience. (By that, I mean not that the art is inaccessible, rather I mean that, literally, it’s impossible to reach a wider audience based on the lack of marketing funds, or available hands to promote the work.
Larger institutions, with financial support and a broad and reliable audience base provide the ability to put a megaphone to younger voices, both artists and audience, and the vitality that comes from that. The British system, as discussed by Seth in the podcast, of shifting artistic directorship of the primary institutions and providing outlets for the next generation of theater artists, not only creates a more diverse theatrical market, it also allows the voice of a younger generation of artists to speak directly to its immediate peers. If we are having trouble in the US inspiring young people to go to the theater, it is perhaps because so little of the work that they see is produced by and for members of their generation. THAT is the ladder, in which I speak. I WOULD love to pay my rent doing this, but more importantly, I would love younger artistic voices to be championed by older institutions so that we can actually build an audience base that will grow into the next generation of theater patrons. I would LOVE it if larger institutions would recognize and nurture the voice of the next theatrical generation by providing for them an opportunity to work in a situation where they are fully supported.
In my career that I am terribly grateful for, I have, in the same year, been paid $5,000 for a job and $300 dollars for a job, and I can tell you, my approach to the work in both situations is the same. I still believe in what the play is saying, and I still work to create the most collaborative and creatively motivating working relationship possible, and I think that the end product is remarkably similar. The difference is that, in the supported situation, everyone can focus more on their actual job, and it’s more possible to share the work with community at large.
Long winded, I know. But you hit a nerve. If we don’t insist on our own value, than who will? If we don’t continue to challenge our larger and more supported institutions to champion the voices of emerging artists, then how will those voices be heard?
Thanks guys – its exciting to be a part of the conversation. Thanks for having me and keep on keeping on.
And Han Solo responds...
To clarify, I believe that if money is charged for admission or received from grantors, the artists should get paid. I also believe that an artist who requires payment in order to participate is not a "lesser form of artist" but a "Commercial Artist." If that moniker feels icky, that really isn't my problem but your own. It is just a reverse of the "Professional" vs "Amateur" labelling that favors those who pursue money with their talents vs those who make a choice not to pursue money.
As for the compromise that money almost always requires in return, an Artist willing to make compromises to either play to the broadest possible audience or increase his or her possibilities of box office gold or even spend his or her time and talent on work that is compromised by the influence of monied interests is exactly that - compromised.
Simply put, the Artist (and the Art) is either compromised or not. The fluffy, feel good answer is that one can compromise but not a lot or take the money and boldly defy compromise - both great ideas but in practice are as likely as a virgin in Vegas. Possible? Sure. Even remotely typical. Not on your life.
Institutions exist to primarily support the institution - staffing, infrastructure, grant writing, promotion, upkeep on the physical facility - and support of the artists is almost always tertiary to administrative needs. Fact of life in a capitalist model. The value placed upon the Artist is and has been established, not by the Artist, but by the Powers with Money. In our society, Art has only the value it can bring economically (even though the frequent refrain of the Arts Community is how wonderful it is for kids and society, the reality is far more pragmatic - does it fuel the economy or not). Go read some grant proposals.
While some institutions champion the voices of the young, it is exactly that championing - placing young voices in the financial exchange with aging, white audiences - that is actually more damaging to those voices in spite of the exposure. A young playwright gets a taste of what that economic compromise holds for her and that compromise becomes the Green Dragon, always chased after, never fully gained.
Interestingly, you reveal an awful lot of your own ethical stance by insisting that Art, if not valued in economic terms, is merely a "hobby" which is far more pejorative to Artists who create for the sake of creation that my reverse of terms is to Commercial Artists. Stamp Collecting is a hobby. Paintball is an activity. Creating art that one spends his or her own money to present without expectation of financial reward is definitely NOT a fucking hobby.
No artist starts creating something new because of the dollars they'll receive for it save the Commercial Artist. The act of creation is intensely personal and what makes an actor noble is his willingness to expose all he is, all he has, in service of that creation. I'm a fairly critical sonofabitch when it comes to theater, but I refuse to openly criticize art that has been given freely to the audience, the only transaction being attendance and response. It is when money comes into play, when the transaction becomes my money for your art, that my vitriol comes in to play - by charging me the money I have earned at my job, you place a dollar value on the creation and the value is then weighed inclusively with the experience of the creation itself, often overwhelming the simple beauty of the act with the exchange.
Simply put, art is not a job. Art is an act of nature. If God charged me five bucks to create a tree, the tree is no longer merely that living, breathing part of the world - it becomes my possession and is subject to my value judgments in the same way that my shoes or desk are.
The quality and value of a work of art has absolutely nothing to do with the economic status of the artist and everything to do with the honest endeavor to create something new and personal to share with the world.
Now, don't think I've suddenly gone soft in the head, sitting here in my apartment office, in a haze of incense and chimes, a fat, naked cherub over in the corner playing a harp. Artists gotta eat or they die. Artists, like every human being on the fucking planet, deserve nothing less than the CEO who makes 411 times his lowest paid employee (and the artist gets to keep his humanity to boot). No one - NO ONE - deserves to starve in a world with so much fucking food, or freeze outside with so much fucking land to live upon. No one deserves to go without the limited sense of well being and security that basic preventative health care can provide. Artists who can earn money with their creation have every right to do so but the fact that they earn does not in any way place a higher value on the art.
There is no question that the system sucks. That the game is rigged against anyone who does not value the acquisition of the Almighty Buck. That, in pursuit of that elusive bank account, the product of the act of artistic endeavor often becomes nothing more than a thing to be bought and sold, to be sold for the very highest price, and to be valued exclusively by the price tag. But as I say, that system is fucked.
The strange conundrum is that I would create and produce theater for the rest of my life without ever making a single dime doing it. Most artists would, too. I think of Bob Fisher, spending the money he earns at his job to put up shows. I think I know the man well enough to say that he would go through the agony and joy of putting up his work even if he was guaranteed he would lose money on it. I suspect that Mike Daisey would continue to write and perform his monologues even if no one paid him a cent. I know for myself that the best theater I have been a part of - be it writing it, performing in it, directing it or producing - is about the work and not any sort of financial compensation.
The narrative that we live by is one that tells us that those who Have - money, power, possession - are the winners and that those who Have Not are the losers. That's a shitty narrative and in all the best stories that inspire us, those who Have are most often the Bad Guys. In our reality, most of those who Have are the Bad Guys because in their narrative, everything - EVERYTHING - has a price tag and exists solely to buy and sell.
Change the narrative. Tell a different story.
If you've made it all the way here and not listened to fuse:five, you can do so here or here.
dollar sign photo credit: Trig's via photopin cc