Money and the Arts

What would you do with ten million dollars?

In 2011 PIFA spent $10 million dollars on their first festival.

Think about the impact of $10 million dollars on an arts community. What can (or should) that look like? If that number just seems beyond imagining, take these few stats in to help give it some perspective:

$10,000,000 is 25% more than all of the Pew Charitable Trusts annual budget for a year. It’s roughly all the assets of The Arden. It’s about 100 years of Swim Pony work if I continued at last year’s pace.

And as this article says that’s also

  • The total combined cost of the four years of the Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe leading up to PIFA.
  • The combined grants that will be given out this year by the state’s Pennsylvania Council on the Arts ($8.1 million) AND the city’s Philadelphia Cultural Fund ($1.6 million)

Chances are you aren’t a millionaire. Which means that unlike the folks over at the Kimmel, you don’t get to decide where that money goes.

You can argue how PIFA is spending its money (and from the looks of Facebook a whole bunch of people are) but imagine instead what it might be like you didn’t have to. For a moment, imagine that you had to give away that 10 million dollars tomorrow to theater artists or companies. What kind of work would you want to support and why? Would be to companies with an established track records or would it be to scrappy folks making stuff that a little less predictable? Who are the people who you know are awesome that just can’t seem to get the dough?

The question is at its core: where do you think the money belongs and what kind of work do you want to see in the future?

The Wall Street Journal did just this thought experiment in NYC with some interesting results.

I think that chances are the money in the real world is not allocated the way that artists might decide if they had the control. And while on the one hand, we could look at the difference between where the money does go and where we think it should be going and despair, I think that there’s another take away here. Artists are often out front of what’s coming down the artistic pipeline. How could they not be? They are witnessing the development of the future leaders and successes before they get there. And I think because of that, we should concentrate on doing a better job telling the outside world not only about our own awesome work, but about the awesome works of the fellow artists that we admire and respect. The folks that we know you need to know.

There’s a trend among smaller companies these days to have a section of their website that lists of other people that they think are great with links to their info.

I think this small gesture might be the first signs of something bigger.

I think it’s a signal that the monolith arts organization is ending. I think it’s a sign that in the face of a crowded ecosystem, rather than trying to fight the largest predators on the landscape, new makers will give up on the traditional company and instead seek out loosely affiliated groups of creators, folks who respect and admire and promote each other rather than trying to take on all of the resource and producing themselves. I think it’s a sign of a larger, and perhaps more diverse ecosystem of artistry in the future.

At least, that’s what I hope. Because it’s the future that I see people like myself surviving in. I dream of a future with more opportunities for cross-pollination between individual artists or collectives and institutional organizations. I wish for a Philadelphia in which the possibility for getting one’s work to an audience doesn’t depend so heavily on one’s institutional building capacity. And In my mind that means more money directly to artists AND presenters/curators that are not their own primary generative source.

In addition to this, I think there are organizations in town that do a huge service to the landscape with little to no monetary or accolade recognition. They diversify our audiences, educate us as artists or create unimagined resources that help us immeasurably more than their budgets would belie.

So with that context, here’s what I would do if I had PIFA’s cool 10 mil to divvy up to Philly theater and affect change the way I want to. I’ve listed the company or person, divided roughly into categories of how they’d serve the city’s future arts interests and why I want them to have that moolah.

–       Hidden City: $2,000,000

–       Fringe Arts: $1,500,000 earmarked for local artists only

These are the folks that have the possibility to take on a bulk of administration for artists so that they can really focus on the art. HERE Arts, PS 122, The Kitchen, La MaMa. NYC is lousy with places you can apply to without a 501 (c) 3 to help get your work out there. We need more places like this.

–       Team Sunshine Performance Corporation – $500,000

–       Applied Mechanics – $700,000

–       The Berserker Residents – $500,000

–       The Bearded Ladies – $300,000

I love these four companies. They are doing the new exciting work and they are each doing it in a totally different way. If you don’t know these people, go look ‘em up right now. Bigger bucks to the Mechs in part because their stuff is super tough to explain and raise money for. Little less to the Beards because they’ve done pretty well on the institutional support and grant front.

–       The Mantua Project – $500,000

–       PlayPenn – $500,000 – earmarked for a spot every season to a local playwright

–       Shakespeare in Clark Park – $1,000,000

Talk about people who do an awful lot with very little. Chances are you don’t know Mantua, which is too bad because it is one of the most exuberant, genuinely empowering and artistically excellent youth theater programs in Philly. You probably know Play Penn. And as much as I personally tend not to spend as much time in the traditional script world, I think it’s great that they’re making this town a place that people think of when it comes to developing them. And lastly, chances are you do know Clark Park. Now take a second to think about what their presence means to this city. It is hard to deny when you look at a photo like this:

clark park

Remember that what they do is 100% free. I defy you to argue how much that matters for theater’s future in this city.

–       Artists U – $1,000,000

–       Culture Works – $600,000 – earmarked for offering free membership to mid to small size organizations for a year or more

–       White Pine Productions – $300,000

If I could endow AU forever, I would. I think there’s probably no better program for artists out there. I am sure that there’s nothing making a deeper more sustainable impact on creators in this city. Culture Works I know less from the inside, but they are asking some big questions and thinking hard about what arts will look like in the future. White Pines is in an even younger state of development, but anyone that is trying to transform an empty Gilded-Age mansion into an artist haven and offers its incredible beauty to selected resident companies free of charge is bueno in my book.

–       $75,000 unrestricted fellowships to Charlotte Ford, Sarah Sanford, Lee Etzold, Manu Delpech, Leah Walton, Jess Conda, Gwen Rooker, and Jenna Horton

Think about the possibilities that open up when a year or more of your living expenses are subsidized. There are more women than men out there and they are fighting for fewer total jobs. No offense to the talented guys on the theater scene, but can we get a little cash to these ladies, already? By the way, Pew whose fellowship program actually does do this for real people has awarded 16 men and only 4 women Fellowships in theater based on the listings back to 1993 on their website (with 47 men to 26 women granted across all disciplines from 2007 to this year). So you know, the ladies actually need it.

And finally shout outs to Headlong, Amanda Damron, Scott McPheeters, Green Chair, Johnny Showcase, Les Rivera (aka el Malito), Megan Mazarick, Mike Kiley, and Nicole Canuso who I love but didn’t include for the purposes of this because they aren’t officially theater.

I think about how different that list is from the amounts of money that is actually dispersed. I think about the real impact such a gift would make. And I think it’s important for us to do imagine and articulate a vision of the world where the money does go where we’d want it to. So that when we’re asked to be a part of that conversation, we’ve thought as long and hard as the people that generally get to decide.

I’d be interested to hear, where would you put all that money?


Grad School

How is it possible? Can it really be that I’ve been writing here this long and I still haven’t made it to the subject of Grad School?

Well, ok. Let’s dive into this sucker.

Let me start off by saying I am the product of two pHd’s.

My parents met at a small college in southern Illinois where they made up the majority of the psychology department. On my father’s side, all eight of my grandmother’s living children graduated from college, many going on to terminal degrees in their field. While my mother’s mother may have chided me about not being able to getting married if I got too fat, she was also very clear that a girl goes to college for more than her “MRS” degree.

I say all of this for context. I say all of this because I suspect this decision is  difficult because I have a serious lack of perspective. Education for its own sake is a value that made its way into me at an early age. And the idea of evaluating whether “higher learning” is “worth it” feels a little weird.

Full disclosure: I had the luxury of a college education search in which the academic quality of institution was the only consideration. It never occurred to me not to go to the place in which I would learn the most and hence become my best. It was deep in me that learning is something you do for its own sake, not because it is a means to justify the ends. I am lucky to have had a mother that was willing and interested in devoting hours of research and travel to help me make my way through the educational application process. I worked very hard, but I did so in a context that valued the effort I was making.

Similarly, the kind of knowledge that I chose to pursue was always something that I felt free to follow with an uncomplicated curiosity. Love chemistry? Awesome! Feel like shifting into classical music? Totally cool! Decide at the end of the day that theater is where you belong? A-ok.

I have never had to understand of the kind of sacrifice that people who love art so much they have to betray their parents’ wishes to make it. It never occurred to me that anyone would think less of me if I picked one learning path over another. So long as I loved and excelled at whatever I wanted to learn, that was all that mattered.

So ultimately, though I had offers of scholarship that would have meant far fewer student loans for both myself and my mom down the road, I picked a very expensive, very demanding, very very very good and small liberal arts school that had the perfect mix of intense theater studies and undergraduate research opportunities in science.

It remains one of the most formative experiences of my life. Simply, and unequivocally put, I would not be the artist and thinker I am today if I hadn’t had that opportunity.

It is a really lucky and wonderful thing to have been given.

And it puts me in kind of an awkward position now. How to explain why… This may take more than one post I think. But this is definitely part of it:

The only condition that my mom gave me on school selection was that I was definitively not allowed to go to an arts conservatory. She believed, and in my opinion rightly, that there was plenty of time for me to choose my path but that the college years were a chance to broaden my exposure to knowledge rather than to deepen a specific narrow channel.

I can’t speak for every artist of that age, but I can speak for myself, and I know that my taste and sensibilities at 18 were terrible. Or rather, they were unformed, uncomplicated, and driven by external forces that I didn’t yet have an eye to look at critically.

“Mom, I don’t know if I can go to a school that doesn’t have a musical theater program.”

I said these words out loud.

More than once.

This is my karmic retribution for putting up that fight over a decade ago: I now have to remember saying them and how much I really deeply meant them.

The person I was then couldn’t know that some day it wouldn’t be Sondheim and Bernadette Peters that inspired me to create every day. That person didn’t know that she would be so much more opened up and fulfilled by the prospect of creating her own voice and vision rather than stepping into someone else’s. She couldn’t know that all the things that seemed so important and special about those high school productions of Into the Woods and Steel Magnolias – the fancy costumes and glare of lights, the audience oohing when she cried real tears in that last scene – would ultimately become symbols that she would question on a regular basis in an online blog for her experimental “should I even call it theater” company.

It was the context of the learning, the people she met and the teachers she had and all the experiences that place gave her, that made her change. It was all those things that made her believe in the arts as more than a hobby or entertainment, but as an avenue of expression equally important in the larger scheme of the world as science. It was that place of learning that did that.

And because it did, now she is me, and I sit imagining the future in which I do appropriately narrow and deepen the specific aspect of art-making that I want to pursue. I think about the learning environment that I have created in my work and life. I think about how it would change if I allowed myself to spend a lot of time working towards someone else’s definition of what theater should be. I think about whether the work that those institutions teach is work I think is useful to the field. I think that even at places where it is work I believe in, is it the place or the people that make the work that way?

And I wonder things. Things like:

“I love learning. I love being in academic institutions. I love the idea of taking time to sit and think deeply about things. I would love grad school. I should go!”

And then:

“But it’s so expensive at so many places. Can you really justify the cost? Can you really say that it’s worth putting that strain on the rest of your life? Do you really believe that what you will receive is worth that much money?”

And then:

“Well there are places that don’t cost as much. There are cheaper programs. You could do one of those. Also, you have to think about the potential positive outcomes. You could teach more. You could make more doing the teaching that you already do. Education is not just learning, it’s also a tool.”

And then:

“I have never thought about learning that way, as a commodity. It was always just for its own sake. That makes me uncomfortable. How do I evaluate cost/benefit analysis in this context? Are cheaper programs a better deal? What if they take me away from my career for two or three years? What if everyone moves on? What if no one cares when I come back?”


“So maybe I should just go to the program that I really love, one that I think will make me the best no matter the cost. But what is that program? There aren’t a lot of super experimental devising academic programs. And the few I’ve visited so far seem, well, not so awesome.”


“Also, do I even want to do more teaching? Do I then have to get a pHd? That takes forever! And those jobs are super scarce and hard to come by. And even if I got one, none of the people who are academics in a full time way really make enough art. Not as much as I make now, and even that feels like WAY too little.”

And on and on and on to the point where it seems absurd that I’d even consider more education.

But then I think about how much I loved that context, that stretch, that drive and push that I got the last time I was in a setting where I was forced on constant basis to deeply examine what and how I make and the cycle begins to repeat.

Here’s what I fear: I fear I will get a degree that is cheap but doesn’t help me much and that in the process I will become a worse artist.

I think that is literally possible. I think that being around too many people who make their work without depth, without questioning or thinking hard enough will make you like them. You cannot help but acclimate to your circumstance. The world you are in becomes your standard. And if the standard around you is low so eventually will become yours.

I also fear that I will spend a lot of time on something that is rigorous and demanding but that is ultimately not what I want to do.

This is why I have stayed away from some of the big names, the places with the awesome reputations and decent funding programs. The ones that make the best work in the standard traditional model. The ones that in a way I blame the most for taking the best and brightest and reinforcing aspects of theater that I think are dying a painful death and need to be revamped.

I also fear spending all the money I have and will ever have for an education I could love but will be chained in debt to for the rest of my life.

This is why I haven’t entered the few programs that seem totally right but so very expensive. The ones with the world famous experimental mentors and alumni that are the exact kind of people I want to emulate. Or the ones that allow you to design and direct your study however your process dictates but require you to pay your own way. I went to an info session for one of these last kind of schools and asked someone how much debt they would have after they came out. They couldn’t say. Not wouldn’t. Couldn’t. I think they literally couldn’t let that number stay in their heads or it would so overwhelm them that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy the experience. The number must be huge. A hundred thousand, maybe more. Maybe a lot more.

So that’s where it has sat for years now. Me running from these different specters of grad school future. Continuing to soldier forward without them and wondering if it’s needed, what it’s use is and then feeling sad for needing to define the use of knowledge at all.

Each year I feel just a little bit further away from exactly what in my career I think grad school could change. And every time I go to one of those info sessions the potential applicants seem less similar to myself. Earlier in their artistic path, eager to pick up the traditional model, needing that paper for some specific reason.

I always assumed it was somewhere I would head.

But every year I seem not to go.


PS:  If you’ve gone, are you glad? What did you gain? Are you poor? If you haven’t yet, why? And do you think you will? If you know you won’t, what‘s the reason?

Seven hours

I have an aunt and uncle who are professional artists.

I have vivid memories of being a little kid and having sleepovers at their house. Almost all of those sleepovers included a trip downstairs out of their living space and into the studios they owned in the same building. Walking through those two adjacent rooms, seemingly filled to the brim with potential and possibility, I can still feel the part of my younger self that looked around in amazement and thought: “Woah. This is what ART with a capital A looks like.”

In this room we created beautiful things that I was genuinely proud of. Miniature paper dolls of myself and my sister that we dressed in wild and colorful handmade clothing. Bottles covered in extra bits of mosaic tiles that we designed, glued and grouted ourselves. Bas-relief clay carvings that we snuck our initials into that went into a real life public sculpture park on Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Surrounded by the incredible sculptures of my uncle’s nestled on every flat cabinet top or file drawer I developed a sense of how artists lived. Amidst the wall-sized design plans for my aunt’s next mural, I found myself thinking, “This is the kind of life I want to lead someday.” Art was never a distant concept to me, it was something that one moved through and existed within. It was a place one created for themselves. I sensed that there would be a time when I too had a room full of potential-ness that I would go to every day and create new and exciting things.

This was my idea of how art worked: You were inspired and you spent time playing and laughing and creating something would cherish for years to come.

My aunt, I now see as an adult, is also a serious academic and a leader in the national discourse on art education. My uncle not “just” a creator but the executive director at a leading public art non-profit. They are both deep thinkers about the way that art works integrate with the community they exist within. They are leaders in their fields. In so many ways I see them as I see many of the people in my own artistic niche that are a generation ahead of me: They are the people who have made the communities that I (and those like me) became part of. I thank them for it. I appreciate their immense efforts.

But…You knew (you had to know) a “but” was coming.

The thing is, when I was a little kid and I talked to my aunt and uncle about making art, all we talked about were colors and shapes and beauty and feelings and making. When I started seriously making work as a teenager and early adult we talked about ideas and influences and impulses. Now as a “career” artist roughly a decade into my work, almost all we ever talk about is professional development and money.

I wonder in retrospect what those two rooms was like when I wasn’t there. I wonder how often the spirit of freedom and play that I felt so strongly was still present when I wasn’t around.

Let me back up for a second.

I know this isn’t news to anyone. I know that it isn’t even a new topic to this particular blog forum. But it’s still the thing that continues to confuse and bewilder me.

How the hell do I keep the art in my artistic career?

I remember a few years ago this guy from NYFA, a nationally recognized fiscal sponsor organization, came to Philly and offered free one on one coaching sessions. I signed up and was encouraged to bring in questions that I wanted professional advice on. I think that what I was supposed to ask where things about taxes and health insurance. I think that’s what this guy was prepared to help with.

But I know that I can look up more info on that kind of stuff. By that point, I felt confident that if a business type problem arose I was capable of solving it. Not that it’s always easy, but at least it’s usually pretty concrete. There’s information listed on the internet about these things. Effort-full, yes, but in someways blessedly defined. And the truth was, I already had no shortage of the “business” side of stuff to do.

What I really needed guidance on what the panicky feeling that I got when I looked at the amount of time I spent actually making the work. Especially compared to the amount of time I was spending doing all the other stuff it seemed the work required. It was to the point where there were days that I sort of wondered if I even knew what making the work was any more.

What I asked this guy was, “How do I stop my administrator brain from ruining everything? How do I keep enough hours of artistry in my theatrical business?”

He looked at me quizzically and said, “You mean, how do you make sure you have time for your studio work? Uh… I mean… Just do it. I don’t know. Maybe I’m not understanding what you need help with. Scheduling? You could set up a calendar…”

The total unhelpfulness of his answer blew me back a little bit. I wanted to yell at him and say, “Really, buddy?! You have no idea what it feels like to have the business side of art start to eat up everything that you used to devote to creating? You’re telling me that it’s just as easy to find the energy to make stuff as you used to? The answer to how do I keep motivated is ‘Just do it.’ If so, I guess I’m just crazy then.”

Apparently, this guy had a similar experience with a whole bunch of Philly artists that day.

And then a really really tense info session following that.

It’s about as close as I’ve seen collected Philadelphia creators come close to a mob riot.

This past weekend during a round of auditions for The Tempest, even under the stress of time, I was struck with the sensation of how much fun it was to spend time with these actors and these scenes. When I made myself relax a little and stop worrying about auditioning “right” and really just have fun looking at possibility, I started to see how the play could become so many interesting variations on itself. I started to love the different versions of the characters people created and started to note all the little additions and interpretations they brought. I wrote down dozens of ideas that struck me or lines that could potentially open up in new ways I hadn’t imagined.

At one point it struck me that I was actually thinking artistically. It struck me how much I was enjoying myself and how long it had been since I felt that.

And then I went home and wrote a bunch of emails following up on 1099 tax forms, looked at the grant plan I created last week, thought about how behind I am on sending info about another set of auditions coming up, about prepping for 3 separate presenter meetings, the new class I need to promote so I have a teaching gig next term, the grading I need to do for the class I’m teaching now…

The list goes on.

With it out in front of me, I see that all the things on my “artistic” to do list are not art. Following up on funding, seeking new sources of income, thinking about how to use a new intern effectively, laying out budgets and schedules, even when I have figured out how to pay myself for the admin time, even when I’m diligent about not letting these thoughts infect the rehearsal room when I finally get there, I still find myself overwhelmed by a lack of time I have for the work itself.

We artists are constantly bombarded with “career” advice about updating websites, polishing work samples, cleaning up mission statements and promoting ourselves in the various medias social. There are so many lists I’ve made of people I ought to invite and promoste my work to. I think we all get a lot of professional development advice. And the people who tell us to do all these things aren’t wrong. These things are important.

But we need to remember that they are not the work. They are tools, useful ones, but they cannot be the focus. They are not the work. They are work. But they aren’t the work. They are effortful and time consuming and attention demanding. But they will only matter if you remember that your work is thing that creates the need for them and that they are extra and will be only useful if they support of that central core goal of art making.

It’s got to be a daily mantra. You have to keep reminding yourself. Your work is the work. And if the other stuff takes a few years more to get in gear because the work is still the work, well, maybe that’s fine. The other stuff will get there. There’s always time for that. The thing we most cannot afford is to lose touch with the thing that drives all the other things.

We have to make time for it.

The funny thing is that now, as an adult, I have a room in my house like the one I always imagined. I wake up many days with an open calendar and room to laugh and create and grow as I always imagined I would.

But I often don’t. Sometimes, I feel like I have forgotten what the room is for.

And when I think back to that guy from NYFA, misguided as he might have been, I think there was a weird kind of truth to his “calendar” statement. In fact, I’ve been thinking lately about how transformative it was for me to know that I had to commit the 60 to 90 (120, 180) minutes a day towards writing in this space. Now that I am not officially “required” to write something it is a choice each day whether to write anything. And I wonder if it isn’t time to actually require creativity every single day.

I wonder if it’s time to force myself to make a commitment to even just an hour every single day of some creative effort – researching, writing, sketching, conversing, whatever – that moves my theater work forward in the same systematic and “professional” way that the money and administration seems to require.

Maybe it is time to set up such a calendar.

So I think I’m starting with 7 hours. An hour a day. 7 hours every week that go into written form on my schedule in the same way meetings with producers and grant deadlines do. Because if it isn’t as solid as that meeting, how can it stand up?



Quick note : for those interested in the women in theater conversation there’s more coming your way. I am trying to get some more data together and want to also include some thoughts about the data that I’ve already put out there, so stay tuned later this week for that.

But for today: Something I’ve been thinking about lately is efficiency.

On some levels one could say that theater isn’t efficient at all. There’s nothing easy about creating work, in fact the easier the work is to create, the more rote or robotic, the less I personally tend to be interested in it. This is efficiency for efficiency sake alone.

This is not what I mean when I ask, “Can we be more efficient?” No, I am asking if we can be more streamlined in the path to the goal we strive towards.  In other words, how can we be most efficient at the need we are sating?

And to do that let us first ask: why do we do it, what is the base need to create artwork? I think it’s something to do with our own necessity to express and the need of others to listen. We are telling stories, making music, and moving bodies and in experiencing those things our audiences uncover something about themselves. It’s like a communion of infinite variety – magically shifting the experience of one into the bodies of many.

On one level, the standard four week process is rather efficient, isn’t it? We all know what to expect, when things will arrive, how the art will progress from start to finish. There are, of course, deviations but there is a kind of simplicity in knowing how the process is supposed to work. But is it efficient at delivering this communion? Does this process get us closer quicker to the ability to give a piece of ourselves with those that might take it in?

I don’t know.

Increasingly, in this time when many theaters are losing funding and audience base, I hear stories of shows with rehearsal process that are condensed to three (two?!) weeks of rehearsal. There is this way that we say, there’s simply less room, less resource, less money, so we have to be more efficient with our time. But. But. But… Is it? Is it more efficient? We have shortened the time we take, we have lessened the money that costs, but have we made ourselves more efficient at the ultimate goal?  Many days I look at that model and wonder if there’s actually a palpable difference in the outcome. Or is this simply a more efficient means to create something?

I don’t think so.

I think we can feel the difference. I think the audience can too. Even if they can’t articulate why, I think they just know when someone has just started working out a first good idea instead of the third, forth, eight, tenth, deeper and more realized choice. I think this kind of efficiency gets the “job” done, but to what end? I think it prizes the output over the process. I think it makes the external trappings of the product the parts that we place the most value on.

Naïve. Simple. Dreamer. Call me what you want. You can tell me that I don’t know what it’s like to work in the “real” world.

But I wonder if we all have to define “real” art in the same way. I wonder if we haven’t all deluded ourselves into accepting a much narrower definition of our form than is necessary.

When you started creating theater, what was the context?

Was it in a flashy space? Was it with hugely expensive surroundings? I doubt it.

If you’re like me it was in a class in a basement without any stuff. You fell in love with that first moment you saw an actor really transform into a character. You swooned a bit when a designer took a single light and flashed it across a wall in a way you’d never seen before. You adored the director that first changed how you thought about a scene. One found grandeur in such tiny things, and that somehow in all this nothing, something was able to emerge. It is in the midst of this dingy room with its banged up chairs that we find our capacity to create.

And that, I think, is the real efficiency. It’s that with nothing that is tangibly expensive or valuable we create beauty or pain, feelings that are deep and real and genuinely meaningful. We make something so real out of things that are so obviously made up.

The traditional stage with set and lights and sound and costumes and velvet curtain and seats and air conditioning, and lobby and box office – is it efficient?

I don’t think so.

What is theater? Ask yourself. Is it a script?  Is it character? Is it telling a story? Is it moving people through space? Is it visual splendor? Is it interplay of light, sound or object over time? Is it some combination of all of these things?

If you know what theater is to you, then ask yourself if you are getting there most efficiently?

Is that other stuff getting in the way of actually getting to the real thing?

Is that push towards “professionalism” actually pulling you from making the thing you desire?

Is it possible that theater is at its core something more basic, more internal, more directly accessed than we’ve made it out to be? If so, can we be brave enough to do it more efficiently?  Can we shed some of these trappings for efficiency’s sake and preserve what is most needed?

The past few months, I keep thinking about this question, about whether I could take all that money I spend on building things that I will tear down in a few weeks, and instead create something in a space that already exists. I wonder if I need to budget for all that stuff. I wonder if anyone would even miss it if the work was good enough. It seems so much more efficient. What if I could create a theatrical experience in which the audience interacted directly with the performance? What if I didn’t even need “actors?” What if I could put a “play” into a box and hand it to someone? Is that possible?

I don’t know.

But I feel like I need to ask the question. I feel like I need to find out.


Put the money where the people are

I was working this morning on some research and prep for Swim Pony’s upcoming re-working/re-mount of The Ballad of Joe Hill for the Live Arts this fall and I started thinking a bit about the stage hand strike (IATSE Local 8) that’s currently in progress at Philadelphia Theater Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre.


I have read the small bits of info that are out there for the public:

but beyond this surface level of information, I can’t say I know a lot personally about this particular situation. I don’t really know the ins and outs of this company (lord knows they are not in any rush to hire directors creating out of the box devised ensemble work) so I don’t really want to speak to the conditions at the place.

I have worked on both sides of the producer/gun-for-hire dividing line. I know the intense weight and pressure that a producer has in keeping the boat afloat. I know the resentment of feeling unfairly compensated for your work. I think both of these emotions are understandable. I also think both sides ought to experience the others’ shoes for a few miles. I bet it would go a long way towards decreasing anger and frustration on both ends.

Unions are imperfect animals. I certainly have steered clear of AEA on many occasions because I find that they often make it impossible for me to create in any way outside of the traditional system. Artists create works in many kinds of ways, but there is incredibly restrictive limits on the kinds of contracts I can engage an actor in. In a devised process the difference between training, research, writing and rehearsing is super muddy. That’s what’s wonderful about it, that the work is so unique to the participants, but it can be near impossible to work that out with a union rep. It’s often exhausting and not possible to create in the standard 40 hour week. 8 hours of generating isn’t doable. It just isn’t. But for AEA, a week is a week. I could cite any number of other irritations and frustrations (don’t get me started on site specific work and the equity cot) but the point is this – in theory a union should allow the workers to lobby for rights that serve them better in the professional world. That world of theater is changing rapidly and the union in some cases can actually hold an out of the box thinker back. This is one example of one union. I’m sure you could cite a multitude of others in the arts with just as anger inducing rules.

That said, in a system in which the employee has little agency – a situation which the traditional regional theater model can often engender – I totally understand the feeling of being an expendable cog in a massive system. The truth of the arts is that the supply versus demand equation is often skewed – there are too few employers and far too many people looking to be employed. Add to that a labor force that generally isn’t in it for the money. It makes sense that as foundation endowments disappear and budgets shrink that a producer might feel that ANY job is a good one when there are scant alternatives. It’s hard to bargain when you have little leverage. A union is a way to gain that amass that leverage.

Everyone knows there’s no money in the arts, right?


Here’s the thing. I don’t disagree that it’s reasonable not to expect to be making Wall Street money any time soon. But in the past few years I’ve sat on a few grant panels, and I’ve taken up the habit of really digging into the financial records of the companies I’m asked to evaluate. There was a trend that really bothered me, especially with small to mid-sized companies. More times than I’d have liked, I saw a company make a slow steady growth in budget size and increase the external features of the company – the amount of money spent on advertising,  materials for set and design rental, expense of space rental, etc – but keep the actor salaries consistent. I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk too specifically (for a whole host of confidentiality reasons) but I will say you can learn a lot in the 990’s that non-profits make public.

At the NPN conference last month I heard a representative from Doris Duke say that all artists worth their salt will be undercapitalized. If you have imagination you will always dream bigger than your resources. Or as I would put it, the idea expands to money allotted to it. And when we first start leaving that DIY phase we often immediately start dreaming bigger with the little cash we have. It’s so satisfying to put that money towards outcomes we can see and receive praise for – better theaters to rent, cooler lighting effects, fancier set pieces, etc. What’s harder is to do remember that the work someone did for free last time is worth more than free. Ditto for way under paying as well. It’s doubly hard when you are paying something to be objective about what that work is actually worth. I once worked at a company where the base actor salary hadn’t been raised in 10 years.

I get it. We acclimate. It is hard to pay more for something and have the product be the same. Which is why something I almost never saw in those grant panels was the same level of production value and an increase in salaries for the people they were working with.

There’s the old “industry standard” line that I hear floated around. Look, the simple truth is that $250 or $300 a week is not a living wage.  But I hear people actually excited about numbers like this all the time. The truth is we’re often working far more than our income alone would justify. We do it because we love it. We do it because we care about the companies we work for. We do it because we’re asked for favors. We do it because it’s what everyone around us is doing.

But if we institutionalize and capitalize on that, we get artists and crew who always feel like they’re doing too much for too little. And that, in turn, breeds resentment and burnout. It’s the thing that starts making one hold a little part of themselves back from a process because you feel like you’re being taken advantage of. Or get unreasonable about schedule changes or breaks or little things that in most professions wouldn’t be as big a deal. It’s easy to get lazy or pissy when you’re on the defensive and when you feel like you can’t be honest about your needs.

Let me say I am all for entrepreneurship. I understand that a company that has just started will have to go through a “I’m paying you less than you’re worth phase.” It’s like any start up: you begin with blood and sweat and tears. The difference though in the arts, is that we institutionalize that initial phase. We make business  models of over working and over extending. That’s fine when you’re just beginning but when you are hitting year 5, 10, 20, you shouldn’t be hearing the same kinds of complaints. We stay in the “do more with less” model forever. As Andrew Simonet of Artist’s U says, “Let’s start doing less with more.”

We producers need to really take time to think about the reality we’re asking our peers to take part in. Can you really afford that show if doing it means everyone involved needs another job in addition? Is that actually covering your costs? Even if someone will do that much, do you want to be the person that asks them to? We should be asking the people we bring on what it’s like to work for us and then really trying to listen to them.

I think we all need to seriously put our money into the people. Your set design will shrink or expand to the money you allot to it. Clearly, we can adapt, because we all had to do it after the housing collapse. What if you just committed to $50 more a week to the actors in the cast? What if you just promised to pay a TD a little more each time they worked for you? What if you gave a designer enough so that they could really just concentrate on your piece? Each of these shifts might be a couple thousand dollars. In the larger picture, it’s really not that much. I know this is hard. I raise every single dollar that gets paid out by Swim Pony. I stare at budgets all the time. But if you want it to happen, you can do it. That’s why you’re in the arts, you get shit done.

You might say that now is not the time, with the economy the way it is and so many companies reeling from the fallout. I say now is exactly the time when we need to get clear on how we want to operate, now when there are so many forces that might push us in the opposite direction. And while we can’t all jump immediately into the ideal situation, we can make incremental changes Because the truth is, if we endow people and not product now, we pay into a long term stable investment. If we begin from trust and principle, then we have a place to start talking from. If your workers know you have consistently valued them and their work, they’re going to be a lot more flexible when you come to the table with them in the future.


UPDATE – Just saw this posted and figured I’d add it to the mix