Politicking

Last week on News and Notes, we got way far afield from the theater world after a nascent threat to future funding of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was leaked out of the new Trump administration (which is, by far, the leakiest presidential administration since Nixon hired some plumbers). Upon further reflection, I admit that I went way too far down the rabbit hole looking for other non-arts-related areas where an administration that was actually serious about cutting the federal budget should look instead. Not that I take any of that back. I wouldn't be a true-blue American if I didn't steadfastly refuse to admit that I had ever once made even the smallest mistake in the face of all blindingly clear evidence.

A reader commented last week "The threat to NEA is nowhere near as imminent as this column would have us believe." In fact, he was so adamant about it that he commented to say the same thing again almost immediately. That's another sure sign that you're dealing with a true-blue American, and I have to respect that.

That reader is right to say that the widely-shared article from the Hill is not reporting on any official budget proposal from the Trump administration. In the comments section, he shared with us (twice) a link to a statement from Minnesota Citizens for the Arts leader Sheila Smith that gives a level-headed assessment of the situation and assures us that it is still too early in the budgeting process to think that these proposals are super serious.

However, I have a hard time believing that, if that Hill article had gone to print and no one raised a big fuss about it, all those conservative daydreams of arts and culture funding wouldn't become realities pretty quickly. It's a grand American tradition to raise a big fuss, and we should be honoring it. In her statement, Sheila Smith urged people to sign up for alerts from the Arts Action Fund, and wouldn't you know it, Arts Action Fund is driving a petition against cuts to federal arts funding. In addition to that, the Performing Arts Alliance, a lobbying group that represents multiple national performing arts organizations and networks would like you to contact your elected representatives about stopping any theoretical cuts to the arts. And, for the bajillionth time, I am going to badger you all about signing up for Arts Advocacy Day here in Minnesota.

The last time I said to myself, "Oh, come on, don't worry. That couldn't possibly happen. They can't be serious," a loudmouth Know Nothing got elected to the highest office in the land. I prefer not to take my chances again, especially since artists are already starting to suffer under the current administration's ham-handed, meataxe approach to governing. For my part, I would much rather stand up today than wait for the cultural bulldozers down the line.

Stop: Hamil Time

But, hey, that's enough politics. Let's talk about theater. How about Hamilton? You folks sure do like you some Hamilton, am I right? Boy, that Lin-Manuel Miranda sure is something, huh? Yep, he sure gave us a clear roadmap for how to get political in your theater and still be entertaining.

Sorry. I seriously thought that I was going to get into a new section without getting into politics; but now, one paragraph later, I look back at my own youthful naïveté with a jaded chuckle. You learn so much as you get older.

Soon enough (in two years time, that is), you here in the Twin Cities are going to get a chance to see the touring production of Hamilton. Of course, to get your shot at that, you have to buy a subscription package to the upcoming Hamilton-less Hennepin Theatre Trust season, with its dense accumulation of Andrew Lloyd Webber shows.

Over in New York, at the original home of Hamilton, the Broadway production has made some strides to make itself more accessible to the common rabble by doubling the number of cheap lottery tickets they give out to each performance. As much as I am inclined to find some cynical angle on this, I am going to refrain, because that's a really nice gesture, and I applaud them for it.

In the meantime, the intense capitalist scrum around regular-price tickets has elevated to the point where ethics-challenged assholes turned it into the basis for a Ponzi scheme. While I feel bad for the investors who were duped by these jackanapes, and I hope that the perpetrators get a stiff legal beating, it is a strange and encouraging sign that a theatrical production could be so sought after and essential to the current American experience that the financial vultures would descend. It's been a long time since that was true.

In the further meantime, Wayne Brady joined the cast of the Chicago run of Hamilton and immediately hurt his leg during a performance. But, he went back on, both because he's a trooper, and because he's an actor, and every actor knows that they can't afford to miss out on a paycheck.

Equity fight (again)

Actors Equity Association has been on a big winning streak in the past few months. They convinced a judge to toss out a lawsuit that would have blocked them from changing LA's 99-Seat Plan and mandating minimum wage in small Equity theaters there. They negotiated substantial pay raises for their actors working in New York. They very publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, and that… well… OK, two outta three ain't bad, I guess.

In the past week, Equity went a' fightin' again, this time getting into a last-minute dispute with BroadwayCon, the little convention that premiered in New York last year in the middle of a blizzard that shut down Broadway and still managed to pull in thousands of attendees (and plenty of cash for this entirely for-profit enterprise, no doubt). AEA's dispute with BroadwayCon was over pay for Equity actors who were scheduled to perform at the event; and when I say it was a "last-minute dispute", I mean it literally. This was all going down just a few days before this year's convention.

Fortunately, BroadwayCon and AEA were able to resolve the issue with less than three days to go before the event, and the show went on after AEA lifted it's "DO NOT WORK" order on the convention. However, it happened to go on without many of the Broadway actors who were scheduled to perform show tunes actually performing them. BroadwayCon was unable to afford the contracts that AEA wanted, so much cheaper composers and songwriters were contracted in their stead.

Just so you know the score: Equity went in, fought like hell with tough rhetoric, got what it wanted through brash brinksmanship, and the result was fewer of the people they represent actually getting paid work; but at least a private enterprise is still making a buck. I guess we all play by the Trump rulebook now.

You mean we're supposed to get paid?

But let's not be too hard on Equity. They're trying to pull off a difficult dance. It's hard to make a buck as a performer, and there's just not enough pay to go around right now to support everyone with stars in their eyes. This month's edition of American Theatre Magazine is delving into the age-old question: how do we make sure performing artists get paid fairly for their work?

Starting off with an article that states clearly in its sub-header, "Nonprofit theatre may be driven primarily by mission, not the market, but that’s no excuse for inequity", ATM runs through a series of viewpoints about the thorny problem of theater artists actually making a living. There are plenty of large-scale organizations across America that exist off of a combination of public support and a willingness for artists for themselves to not earn a living, but, as another article shows, an increasing number of theaters are waking up to the fact that they can pay a decent wage to their artists if they decide to.

In the absence of enlightened management, it's up to artists to put it together for themselves. Another interesting article from this ATM series asks a number of working artists how they manage their finances to make their arts enterprise work. If you like your personal anecdotes more aligned to the romantic idea of the "starving artist", there is also another article specifically about how theater people make a living in New York. (Hint: it's not freaking easy)

But don't think that it's only New York we should be concerned about. By coincidence, the Star Tribune ran an article this week that looks at how local Twin Cities artists cobble together a living. (Once again, it's not freaking easy.) Long story short, you have to be creative, flexible and extraordinarily dedicated to your career. I'm sure at some point in your theater training, some professor told you this, but it's good to have a reminder now that you're a more or less functional adult.

Meet the new boss

Speaking of artists who are tragically underpaid for their work, we here at Minnesota Playlist have a new head honcho. Recently, Playlist founders Alan Berks and Leah Cooper, who have led this site for over eight years, handed over the digital reins to Damon Runnals. Twin Cities artists might recognize Damon as the guy behind the Southern Theater's ARTshare program. A few months ago, Damon stepped down from his post at the Southern, and we were all wondering where he'd go next.

Well, here he is. As of February 1, 2017, Damon will be running this dog and pony show here at Playlist, and I, for one, welcome our new overlord. Don't worry, folks. Playlist will still bring you all the features that you've come to rely upon. You will also still have access to News and Notes, should you feel especially desperate for content.

As they head for for the doors, I would like to thank Alan and Leah for keeping this whole shebang going for so long. It's been a vital resource for the Twin Cities theater community, and I can't thank them enough for that (and for putting up with me as long as they have). Several years ago, I ran into Alan at a bar during the Fringe Festival drunkenly accepted this position as the writer of News and Notes, and I have regretted it far less than almost every other choice I have made in my life thus far. They gave me a platform to mouth off about things every week, and a wide enough audience that I was forced to do actual research to back up those sloppy, alcohol-tinged assertions. I have learned more about the wider world of theater doing this job than I ever did at school, and maybe you all have learned something, too. You have Alan and Leah to thank for that, and I hope that you all send them the wellest of wishes as they head off to the next great adventure.