Monday, July 14, 2008

Against a National Theatre

Like just about any theatre professional who's lingered in an unpaid Manhattan sabbatical, I've had tons of free time to blog and bitch about The System. I keep waiting to catch the crest of the perennial Why We're Screwed debates, but I always get to the beach at low tide. I also think I'm one of maybe three bloggers who hasn't seen or read Mike Daisey's How Theatre Failed America. But now that Isaac is dedicating four forthcoming posts to the subject, I figure this is as good a time as any to pull out that dusty screed I've been saving on my desktop for the last year and half.

A passage from Parabasis:
... better work results from a system in which more people are making a living from their art. I witness this every time I hold auditions or go into a rehearsal room. Many people who want to work in theatre and also not starve find one of several different options for subsidizing employment. They either (a) work a full-time day job that they do not care about, (b) work a full-time job that they do care about, (c) work a part-time or sporatic job (like temping) that they do not care about or (d) work a part-time or sporatic job that they do care about. I know very few people who belong in category b, who are capable of having two simultaneous work passions that take up fourteen hours of their day. I know a lot of people in Category A, and it is largely those people that I’m talking about here.

For the five years I worked in DC, I was happily lodged in the manic rush of category B. I was a screenwriter/film editor by day and an actor the rest of the time. The living wage came from the former and the latter received all the passion and commitment. My familial, fraternal, and romantic relationships suffered, no question. But I loved my work and felt too much gratitude for the opportunities in front of me to pause and critique the larger system. During this time, many extremely talented friends would call to report on the bleak prospects for meritorious advancement in the LA-NYC theatre scene. I never felt the need to leave the District and I would stump for DC each time they called, but no one ever believed me. Or, if they did, it was no matter because the nominal distinction had become more important that the qualitative distinction (Much has been written about this superficial bias, and it's not my real concern here).

The artist's life comes with an implicit poverty vow that gains extra charm because most of us are already some flavor of socialist. I'd like to take that view seriously for a moment to see if a simple inventory of our "means of production" would reinforce the general anywhere-but-new-york meme that's been gaining traction for the last few years.


We forge theatre in time, space, and people. The production of theatre, the actual live event, requires actors and real estate before it requires anything else. The presence of the playwright -- the very reality of the playwright -- is the first thing the audience pretends away when they suspend disbelief. Contra Albee (Mamet, et al) good writing cannot redeem bad acting the way great acting can redeem mediocre writing. A quick perusal of any New York theatre review will tell the same basic story: competent, even compelling acting put in the service of bad directing or playwriting. This critical distinction persists because it is not the actor's job to imagine the intentions or inner conflicts of the playwright. However, it is the job of the playwright to imagine the intentions and inner conflicts of genuine characters. To sustain the illusion central to live theatre, actors employ the (intensely creative) art of forgetting. We must unlearn the plot, the ending, the secret appraisals of other characters, previous productions in history and previous performances within the current production. In a sense, we must also unlearn the identity/pathology of the playwright.

Not surprisingly, the Mamet/Albee school loudly insists that actors are not creative artists, but interpretative artists. More compelling theorizers like George Hunka will simply say that the playwright is the Origin of the theatrical experience, but this amounts to the same judgment. Forgetting for a moment that the very phrase "creative artist" is about as redundant as "smart genius" or "strong bodybuilder," what possible distinction remains for the "interpretive artist"? True, we judge some actors against a literary Ideal when it comes to Shakespeare. But Shakespeare endures and earns this standard because interpretation remains an inexhaustible task. Any "definitive" production of Shakespeare -- satisfying and refreshing as it is when it emerges -- will always gather some friendly mockery in succeeding generations because we discover that Hamlet has as much to tell us about post-modernism and the War on Terror as he does about Freud and existentialism, etc.* As Walter A. Davis put it in Get the Guests (his wonderful analysis of Albee and others), "representation exceeds intention." Or, to paraphrase Marx, what we create is always ahead of where we are. If we accept and internalize this, we see that the quest for airtight interpretation has no place in live theatre. It is therefore foolish and insulting to relegate the actor to the status of "watchable" meat-puppet when a true understanding of their primacy only expands what is possible in dramatic literature and dramatic performance.

That's a much bigger subject, of course, but indulge me on this point for a moment because I think the mistaken primacy of the playwright comes to bear on Isaac's econ questions.


A quick hand count. The word "commodity" is still anathema to authentic theatre folk, right? We despise the corporate model that exports mass-produced, tangible widgets through a franchise system with some alienating bureaucracy at the top. Well, without veering too much into the debate about intellectual property or royalties, consider first that the script (primary or not) is the only thing can be mass-produced and disseminated with perfect fidelity. We hamper ourselves enormously and abandon all pretensions for a "National Theatre" or "American Theatre" when we treat actors as commodities instead.

The publishing industry requires a centralized-product-producing model to function. The Internet may be gradually undermining this model the way it's started to undermine the monolithic status of the New York Times, but that's only made things easier for the playwright. Actors, unlike scripts, are still living things that cost a lot of money to shuffle and relocate, never mind the interpersonal costs of migrant worker life (see, again, Isaac). This bizarre, inverted model -- where the lifeblood is commodified and the commodity is sacrosanct -- owes its continued hegemony to the New York Centrism that dominates our present conception of "American Theatre."

An example of the surcharges built into the NY-centric system. I was playing a supporting part as a local actor at Arena's Kreeger Theatre in DC and got $850/week gross. A good friend of mine was playing one of the leads and came to the project by way of NYC, where her agent had talked up her contract to $1000/week – but 10% of that new figure went right back to the person who secured it, leaving her with $900 gross. One of the other leads came to the table with an established history of DC theatre and Arena work and consequently, didn't feel the need to engage his NYC representation to get a fair deal. So an agency can help you get a part and pay for itself along the way, but the whole process of negotiation and commission is completely redundant for the community surrounding the venue.

For someone in their position, the real profit (and the second NY-centric surcharge) comes from the free housing and transportation provided by the theatre. Deft subletees can maximize regional work to live rent free for months at a time – which is great, as long as you don’t mind not having a permanent home. The Round House columbinus production had two out-of-town actors: one ensemble member from Alaska and one lead from NYC (Will Rogers, who had been with the project since he was a student at NCSA). Round House put them up at the Hilton down the street for three months. By contrast: when I was called to re-join the same project at New York Theatre Workshop as one of the leads, such amenities were not forthcoming. In fact, I was told I needed to have an NYC address, and my own housing in the city – in essence, to fund my own semi-permanent relocation and become a “local” NYC actor overnight if I wanted to keep my job.

So the NYC system doesn't just trade on expensive exports that have to be reinforced and mediated by an extra layer of bureaucracy in the form of agents and managers. The system is also hostile to imports. The exchange of talent is a rigidly one-way transaction. Some artists relocate to New York because their school plants them there; others move at their own peril and at great expense. At this time, it's worth introducing some figures from the closest thing I have to a control sample: the regional and NYC productions of columbinus.

The world premiere happened at Round House Theatre's Silver Spring, Maryland stage. This 150-seat venue charged $30 a ticket and paid $400/week -- I was non-Equity at the time. NYTW is a 199-seat venue that charges $60 a ticket and pays an Equity Off-Broadway contract at $500/week. As it happens, the NYTW salary falls just underneath the commission-able threshold for agents and managers. So an actor can work there without sacrificing 10-20% of their gross pay to their “people.” But even then, taxes and union dues leave you with, perhaps, $400-450/week. Depending on how farsighted you are with taxes, this money can go a long way, but $1600-$1800 net pay per month doesn’t leave much room for savings or Equity's new health care premiums, to say nothing of the disproportionate cost of living in NYC. By way of comparison, New York unemployment insurance caps at $405/week before taxes. And that number is purposely designed to be unlivable as a motivation for finding employment.

Try swapping any of the variables in those two examples. To find an Arena salary in a NYC theatre project, you’d have to be on Broadway, simple as that. All the mid-sized and larger venues in DC routinely cast the majority of their parts with local actors and pay a wage that has no NYC correlate outside Broadway. At any rate, if a 150-seat house in suburban Maryland can pay non-Equity actors a wage that keeps pace with an esteemed 199-seat Off-Broadway house we might want to ask where the 100% ticket price increase comes from and where it goes if its not being used to accommodate visiting talent or provide a more livable wage.


The answer is the second of the two main ingredients I identified as our means of production earlier. Real estate. Now I'm sure we all reserve some extra admiration for the ice sculptor who manages to carve a perfect Venus on the surface of Venus ... but surely this basic environmental liability isn't what makes it a masterpiece. The top-down orientation that informs Albee's script-bound view of theatre has a structural match in the NY-centric model surrounding it. If we dare to reverse this, we open ourselves to a founding recognition: The Theatre is a dynamic place bound in time before it is a piece of "timeless," easily-reproduced literature.

At present, New York is the only place where bad art constitutes a territorial affront** and good art remains undersold and oversupplied. In any supersaturated market, marketing itself becomes as prohibitive as real estate costs. So in addition to agency, casting and real estate, theatres must spend still more energy and money playing with reductive "brands" and vying for the fractured attention of audiences who already have a couple dozen masterpieces to chose from in any given season.

If we wish to exempt ourselves from the vagaries of the late capitalist system that keeps us beholden to markets and real estate, we have two significant internal revolutions available to us.

1. Theatre, as a medium, must recover its roots in dance and improvisation to escape from a script-bound conception of the aesthetic. As long as we insist on reducing the theatrical event to that which can be symbolically codified -- and as long as we appropriate musical, verbal or televisual standards to enforce it -- we will kill what remains of the medium's vitality and immediacy. We will make architecture, not art. I know actors can be annoying as fuck, but that's why the biggest challenge here falls to them. It would be nice if theatres returned to the company system, yes, but a truly radical theatre would build itself from the ground up, with performance, not text, as the ground. So rather than call for another lame moratorium on Shakespeare, I suggest that fellow actors become the proprietors first. Sadly, too many actors remain content to treat themselves as commodities, as sexy objects of fascination.

2. The Theatre, as a place, must find a place for itself that doesn't require submission to avoidable bureaucracy and scarcity. I have no doubt that there are more than enough amazing actors, directors, and designers to fully populate a dozen regional circuits, but that the overwhelming majority of them are sitting idle in New York. The same things that make New York an invigorating cauldron also make it an insulating womb. If one wishes to divine a sexy "American" imperative from all this, consider this next revolution our Manifest Destiny of the Bodied Soul or something. Artistic cognition can be contemplative, critical, cathartic, kinesthetic, and polysensual ... but it is also the site of something much simpler. It is sui generis and it is pure exploration. I've said this before -- we feel a kindred calling with priests, doctors, musicians, judges, social servants, and gym teachers. It's about time we recognized our kinship with explorers and left mom's basement. Because I'd like to think New York is the Heart, Brain, Soul, Womb, Tomb or Towering Cock of American Theatre, but more and more it looks like the Liver. Now before any of my colleagues bristle at that metaphor, recall: the liver is still the BIGGEST internal organ, and every drop of life blood must pass through it. So I freely validate any claims to size or universality. I only ask that we remember in turn the Liver's true function: to digest and detoxify.

But to back up that parting metaphor, I need to dust off another essay about the nature of criticism in New York and how all of the above fits with what thinkers as diverse as Christopher Lasch and Herbert Marcuse call "alienated labor." Suffice it to say that The Culture of Narcissism and Eros & Civilization both have a lot to teach us about what's wrong with "American Theatre." Far from being exempt from the workaday grind of professional drudgery, New York theatre professionals have crafted a masochistic system that outdoes its secular-corporate counterpart by a magnitude of 10. We work for $1/hour. We log 60-hours a week easily. We forgo relationships and families, health insurance and retirement and all voluntarily. And then we scoff when someone choses to work at Wal-Mart. It's time to take our critique of late capitalism and turn it back on ourselves.

More later ...

* Hamlets In the past five years, I've played Hamlet, and seen the Silent Hamlet, the Digitally Reconstituted Binary Iamb Wooster Group Hamlet, Jeffrey Carlson's directed by Michael Kahn, Wallace Acton's directed by Gail Edwards, Sean McNall's at the Pearl (by far the best of them all), and most recently Michael Stuhlberg's in Central Park. I find it hard, even painful, to imagine a similar string of Georges and Marthas. I don't want to spend all night arguing with my friends about whether or not the latest George effectively conveyed Albee's arcane dialog instructions -- but I can spend hours contemplating the subclauses paused into existence by a new reading of 2B or not 2B. Nobler-in-the-mind? Nobler, in-the-mind-to-suffer?

** territorial affront Could there be any doubt that Manhattan's island-economy scarcity creates the thuggish, gang-like enforcement of theatrical ghettos? Broadway, off-Broadway, Fringe, downtown, Brooklyn, showcase and Indie theatre? NYC is by far the most democratically mobile populace in the country. But you wouldn't know it from the bitching that ensues when someone suggests seeing a show in far-flung enclaves like Brooklyn or (gasp!) Jersey City. In the meantime, bloggers keep complaining about the commercialism of Broadway, but they still feel reverence enough for that 20-square-block chunk of Midtown to defend it from unwashed Midwesterners. I'm guessing most still regard Broadway as the pinnacle of any theatre career, too. I've been reading a book of Albee's essays and if I've learned anything from the dude it's that this gripe goes back as far as 1962, probably earlier. I don't get it. Either we move on or we add the Reformation of Broadway to our list of crusades.


George Hunka said...

Well, Karl, it will come as a surprise to many of your readers that I say anything simply, but I do want to correct a misinterpretation here. It is not necessarily the playwright that is at the center of my particular conception of theatre (and I fully appreciate that the actor is a creative artist), but the word; this created word is passed to the creative body of the actor. Though I dislike quoting myself, chances are that few will click through to read the Organum, so I'll point out that I write in an early section of the Organum:

"... it is the actor who embodies the image and speaks the music of the play. ... Actors enter fully into a collaboration when they draw the emotions and sensations that their costumes and the lines they're given evoke from their own deepest wellsprings of emotion, not those of the 'individual,' the integrated but kaleidoscopic monad, that one begins to see in Shakespeare. ... A performer must somehow acknowledge multiple consciousnesses at once: the integrity of the performance lies in how they embody the spaces and silences that surround these ambiguities and possibilities. They must feel the spaces and the silences in their bodies. They must define the space around them, use their words to make tender incursions into the silence, as in a painting by Bonnard."

This is far from saying that an actor is a "mere" interpretive artist, or that I consign actors to the status of watchable meat-puppets.

That said, an interesting post, Karl, however much I agree or disagree.

Karl Miller said...

Much thanks for the clarification, George. I confess I had a hard time finding the passage in the Organum, too, so I apologize for rushing to paraphrase it. I based my citation above on the shaky memory of Albee's comment in 2007 about the "forces of darkness," and what I vaguely perceived to be your general agreement with that position. I will correct that shaky-vagueness when I revise this essay later tomorrow.

As always, your analysis is more thoroughgoing and scrupulous than that, so I thank you for reproducing it here.

The Deceiver said...

This is damn good stuff Karl, and i have to disagree - I don't think this is low-tide stuff at all. It's a cresting wave. I suggest you check out this piece as well, while you are at it, which deals with the myth of credibility.

I passed on my one bona-fide chance to act in NYC many years ago, despite the fact that the opportunity bore many of the hallmarks of the theatrical experience I was looking for. There were many considerations that came into play: the high cost of living, the fact that I was married and putting down roots....frankly, a realization that my talent would only likely take me so far. But there was also this sense that it was a bad idea - in that the return on the investment would be wicked low in exchange for fighting a 24-hour war.

It took a while (and it took me finally realizing that I shouldn't settle for anything less than what I want to do) to get myself into that category where my occupation and avocation are both things I'm passionate for, but now I'm starting to wonder if there's any real future - or need - to chase the effing brass ring with any other theatre company other than my own. I know this is a Daisey thing too...the fact that actors have to bounce around from place to place is a model that exploits its own instability...but it's more than that. I just think I'd rather stand with my peeps. What other motherfuckers do these days just doesn't interest me.

Obviously, the election has a racheted-up intensity that forces me to exclusively favor the day job. But come December, I'm sort of thinking I might just come hard exclusively with one theatre on my battleflag.

Malachy Walsh said...

Great post. Thanks.

I think The Steppenwolf is a good example of a company of actors who were known for a distinctive style. They didn't completely abandon playwrights, or "the word", however, so I'm not sure "scripts" need to completely go.

And, of course, other things happened there too.

In any case, terrific thoughts here.

the artist formerly known as jess. said...

wow, interesting post.

There were a lot of things mentioned that I both agreed & disagreed with; I would like to insert some input here, in addendum to your analysis, but -- having just woken up about an hour and a half ago -- I'm a little less than lucid right now to really be able to give you a comprehensive comment. Suffice it to say, I think you're onto something here.

Great writing, as usual.

silent nic@knight said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Karl.

About our model. Shakespeare was actor first then playwright. And as the story has it, he would join the King’s Men on stage as old Hamlet, the Ghost. How appropriate as well that the Folio is produced posthumously from the actor’s memory. Script then as manifesto of actor under the influence. Vice versa.