So… how is the resistance?
You have probably heard the ancient Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times." In case you haven't figured it out yet, you are all subject to that curse right now. Incidentally, most people who use that age-old saying don't realize that it is neither ancient nor Chinese, so it also conveniently doubles as a small example of why we are all living in interesting times.
So, what are we, like two or three years into the Trump presidency by now? What?! It's only been three weeks?! Are you sure?! Is there a large enough interrobang reserve to make it through four years of this?!
I hear that many of you are joining the theatre resistance. You're mad as hell, and you're not gonna take it anymore. You will not go quietly into the night! You will not vanish without a fight! You're staring down the flaming hellbeast plodding toward you and screaming at it "You shall not pass!" You have also apparently watched Network, Independence Day and The Fellowship of the Ring. All the best rallying cries come from movies.
Yes, you live in interesting times; but you don't necessarily live in unique times. In Michael Feingold's latest two-part Thinking About Theater column, he takes the time to remind everyone that political commentary has been a part of Western theater for its entire recorded history. Aristophanes was tweaking cheap political demagogues 2,500 years ago.
You're part of a proud tradition of arts resistance, so don't ever let someone tell you that you performing artists are just supposed to shut up and entertain everyone. (Or, as one extremely eloquent Facebook troll I ran across recently said, "Your our dancing monkeys! Dance monkeys dance!")
Be careful about alienating possible potential allies. You might not realize this, but the NEA's budget actually grew under the George W. Bush presidency, even during the years when Republicans had full control of Congress. Republicans aren't necessarily enemies of artists. I mean, they sure did like it when Clint Eastwood talked to an empty chair. Plus, in these next four years I'm pretty sure you're going to find yourself on the same side of an issue with a lot of people you never expected to ever agree with.
One of the best damn entertainment stories I've heard in a long time is about an American professional wrestler in Mexico whose villain stage persona is a rabid Trump supporter. Regardless of the fact that this is mostly just opportunism on his part to advance his career, he is doing his part to help guarantee that Mexico will not pay for that "focking wall". These are the kinds of opportunities and avenues that the largely liberal world of theater is going to have to look for if it hopes to change any minds. After all, Aristophanes wasn't writing high-minded dramas as protest. He was writing raunchy political comedies. Imagine if Bill Moyers teamed up with whoever made all those American Pie movies. I bet you millions of people would watch that.
So, as you struggle on, valiantly trying to puzzle out exactly what the theatre community is supposed to do now, don't just retreat to your base, writing fiercely unfunny and nuance-less political screeds disguised as "satire" or talky dramas where a handful of privileged people get drunk and accidentally reveal some societal truth we're not supposed to talk about in proper society. (Seriously, guys, we had plenty of this stuff before Trump ever even ran for office). Get out there in the world, meet a new audience and tell them some fart jokes! It's exactly what Aristophanes would do.
Still not getting paid
When I found that last article that I linked to from the Washington Post, it came with this Facebook comment attached to it:
"A good place to start would be for theaters to commit to a fair wage on stage. Without that commitment, everything else will be hypocritical."
Normally, I skip over unsolicited Facebook comments on news articles, but this one caught my eye, both because it was spelled correctly and because it declined to call anyone "disgusting", "idiot", "sheeple" or anything with the the suffix "-tard" attached to it. (This is my personal version of the Bechdel test for news article comments; and just like the real Bechdel test, it is an astonishingly low bar that an astonishingly low number of people fail to clear.) As an added bonus, it actually made a fair point!
If you only pay attention to New York theater, you might be lulled into thinking that it's just high times for actors right now. Broadway is booming. Demand is high enough that opening the first new Broadway theatre in decades has actually become a financially viable option. Actors Equity was able to win a pay raise for off-Broadway performers. In the past year, not one, but two original cast recordings of musicals have cracked the top 10 on the Billboard charts. A new health clinic is opening up just for actors. You guys, regular actors are getting health care! That's how weird this moment in time is.
But, I know you're expecting me to undercut all this good news, so let's get right to it. Much like the greater economy, this rising tide isn't lifting all boats. For the vast majority of us that exist as tiny little dinghies in the arts ocean, the water is continuing to wash over our gunwales and lap around the feet of our old rubber waders. Do you think I can't stretch this water metaphor any further? Don't worry! I don't have to. I'll let Minnesota Public Radio do it for me: "Smaller, diverse groups swim against arts-funding tide".
Though that article starts off with Mu Performing Arts and their particular trials and tribulations, the bulk of it is actually made up of an interview with arts consultant and researcher Holly Sidford. Do you happen to remember that major national arts funding study from 2011 that concluded that 55% of all arts funding goes to only the top 2% of arts organizations in the country? That was her study. According to the MPR report, Sidford also looked at the Twin Cities arts scene and determined that a whopping 77% of arts funding in the whole metro region goes to the 23 largest organizations in town.
In researching this week's article, I ran across a 1997 article from the Heritage Foundation listing ten reasons why the NEA should be eliminated. For those of you not in the know, the Heritage Foundation has traditionally been the place where the most terrible, heartless, pennywise-and-pound-foolish ideas of the conservative right go to be chopped and processed into clean, pristine white papers before being trotted out down K Street. Now, most of their reasons for eliminating the NEA are the same foaming, fear-mongering fever dreams that you've come to know and love from traditional conservative think tanks. (Of course, that old classic hit "the NEA funds pornography!" makes the list.)
However, I did find myself having some sympathy for "Reason #2: The NEA Is Welfare for Cultural Elitists". Now, for just a moment, ignore every obvious dog-whistle in that title and bear with me. In that section, the article's authors argue that since so much of the NEA's money goes to large, stodgy, old organizations that mainly cater to upper-middle class people, the NEA largely ignores the needs and desires of far larger swathes of lower-class people the NEA claims to be supporting with that very funding. Even though I think it's a terrible idea to just axe the NEA, holy crap, you guys, I actually kind of agree with the Heritage Foundation about something!
Of course, later on, they go on with some paranoid babble about "Politically Correct Art"; but for one brief, shining moment, there was kind of agreement! We need to treasure these moments.
As Holly Sidford pointed out before, the NEA's funding patterns jive with most of the major donors and philanthropic foundations: they hand out big checks to big organizations without many constraints and force small organizations with clear missions who serve underserved populations to jump through elaborate hoops to maybe possibly someday see a fraction of a percent of what the big guys get on the regular. This is exactly the same pattern of inequity in access to capital that your average left-leaning theater attendee would decry in housing, banking, urban development and choice of ice cream flavors, so don't be afraid to apply those same standards to philanthropic foundations and big regional theaters.
It's been two years since I did a research article on what kind of paycheck an actor can expect to make in the Twin Cities. It wasn't a very big one, and I doubt that much has changed in the past two years. Hell, just two weeks ago, we were talking about how lousy the pay is. Yet, whenever Equity "wins" at getting a pay raise for its actors, I can't help but feel like maybe it's not really the actors who are winning. If you look at the Broadway boom, you'll see that most of that money is going to producers and to scalpers.
In the California Gold Rush, it wasn't the miners who got rich; it was the merchants who sold them on the dream of hitting it big. There's a pretty good metaphor in there somewhere, but it's an awfully depressing one, isn't it?
So, for this week's moment of sanity, I will send you to read musician Ben Weaver's recent elegant essay at MN Artists, in which he asks for all of us to ditch the romantic notion of the starving artist and start working on ways to make our art work for us.
Are you done with this week's News and Notes and still looking for something to argue about? Look no further! Time Out New York recently published its list of the best plays of all time! Are you offended by the lack of representation of non-Western theatre? Do you think these cultural elitists unfairly eliminated mega-popular musicals from the list? Are you just so angry that the really awesome play you just agreed to do for a minuscule stipend even though you're worth more than that at this stage in your career isn't included? Go get 'em, tiger.