The Vom: A monthly diatribe, rant, provocation against the conventional wisdom

Would you feel comfortable with a part-time dentist? Someone who’s got some talent filling cavities and performing root canals but who only squeezes them in at night, after she comes home from the full-time job she does all day, typing at a desk, let’s say, to pay the bills?

Or, do you think, the work is going to be a helluva lot better if your dentist could concentrate on the job full-time, all year round? What about your plumber, lawyer, electrician, and accountant?

Why then do we accept a system where performing artists have almost no expectation of making a real career in their chosen profession?

Once, while I was having coffee with a reporter friend, he mused out loud about the usefulness of some of Minnesota’s more generous individual artist grants. Would it make an interesting story, he wondered, to find out what artists really do with that money?

I like him, so I restrained myself from jumping out of my chair and shouting: Aren’t you a better reporter because you work on it daily? What kind of question is that? What would I really do with all that money? I’d work at my job full-freakin’-time?

Another time, I listened to a friend who was on the board with the St. Paul Orchestra complain about the wage demands made by the musician’s union. They seem to think, she said with incredulity in her voice, that the orchestra exists to employ them!

Because I understood that she was concerned about the precarious financial viability of the organization, and because she is the type of essential arts patron who was willing to take on the thankless role that is an arts organization board member, I held my tongue again. But, again, I wanted to shout: YES! The orchestra does exist to employ the musicians so that they can actually be the best musicians they can be, so that the orchestra is an orchestra worth hearing at all. Without them, the orchestra is nothing more than a tax shelter!

And, this month, while conducting interviews with Twin Cities legends like Don Stoltz, Patrick Scully, and others for our July “Oral History” issue, I’ve learned – to my surprise – that there was once a time, even after the advent of movies and television, when a dancer or actor actually had a reasonable belief that they could make a career in this art form if they were just good enough at it.

I don’t see performing artists in my generation with that same belief. As a playwright myself, I wonder regularly when I’ll either give up writing seriously or move to Hollywood.

Simple logic keeps shouting back at me that if talented artists had more consistent and stable careers in the arts, then the product they produce would be better, would be more valuable, and would be purchased more. No one would keep going to that part-time dentist no matter how much potential she had.

Part of the problem – as it has come to be with so many things in our culture right now – is real estate. Mortgages must be paid, space found, insurance bought, and bathrooms cleaned – all things that have nothing to do with theater and that exist in a larger economic market where the live performing arts simply can’t keep up. (Don’t confuse the fact that something can’t survive in an inflated real estate market with a reflection of its actual worth.)

Do the foundations that patronize adventurous art know how much of the grant money that they provide to unaffiliated artists or small theater and dance companies actually go toward rent? While artists often get 200 buck stipends for seven weeks of work, if they’re lucky, landlords get three, four, six, even seven thousand dollars a pop.

Of course, the foundations know.They’re very smart. And pretty too. Foundations are. Angels, in fact, our foundations are. . . Pardon me while I butter them up a little bit before I ask one of them for a mighty big favor:

Dear Smart and Pretty Foundation:

Please buy a building.

Convert it to a three theater complex with rehearsal space and support its maintenance and management.

Then, convert one of your granting programs into a residency program.

Don’t change the way in which you judge grants. Continue to field panels of industry experts. Continue to look at missions, goals, and budgets. In fact, look at budgets to make sure that the promise of no rent redirects some of the extra money into the pockets of artists.

And call me if you need more details (612-886-2868). Seriously.

Cause I been thinking about this issue a lot since visiting Minnesota State University Mankato where Department Chair Paul Hustoles directs a program that produces large-scale crowd-pleasing musicals like Miss Saigon in a lovely 500-seat proscenium and odd, edgy plays like Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare in an impressive, completely flexible, 250-seat, black box theater.

The total budget for all this? 1.3 million dollars – which is, considering the amount and size of work they do, like nothing.

At Mankato, the theater and dance department keeps their ticket revenue – and used it in part to pay for their black box theater and to almost double the size of the department’s faculty. They don’t return to the university every year, with hat in hand, to subsidize their theater’s losses; they operate as much like a successful business – a theater business, no less! – as is possible and appropriate in a University setting.

They do not, however, need to worry about their facilities. While they maintain the two theaters they work in, building maintenance is handled by MSU Mankato. And the department, of course, pays no rent. (Yes, they get a boatload of free labor from their students – but, gimme a break, that’s not the point of this rant. They also pay a lot more professional artists then you think they do.)

The Workhaus Playwrights Collective, of which I am a member, also benefits from a residency arrangement with the Playwrights Center, and in our short history we’ve been able to hire more equity actors, often pay higher stipends to non-equity actors, build more impressive sets (if I do say so myself) and even bring in working directors from New York, at the playwright’s request.

Not only does the money saved in reduced rent get redirected toward truly fulfilling the playwright’s vision on stage, the psychological benefits are nice too. The Playwrights Center maintains offices, with copy machines, and more than competent administrators. As a resident theater company, Workhaus stresses over marketing and fundraising, etc., but still has less to worry about than other nomadic companies. We’re allowed to focus on the mission (rather than finding or maintaining real estate) and, I believe, it improves the product. If three years of solid audience growth is any indication, more time spent on the theater part of theater does, in fact, pay off with more people who want to see theater.

I don’t believe that everyone who wants to do theater deserves a living wage. For most people, theater is always going to seem like more fun than dentistry, so more people will want to do it. I think that a market that squeezes young performing artists a little so that they have to choose whether they’re really committed to it is probably appropriate.

But anyone who doesn’t think that theater is already a ruthlessly competitive market has no idea what an audition is.

Unfortunately, now, the best actors or designers or whoever can’t take certain jobs or too many jobs because there is no money in it. They have to make time for their day jobs. Or, they forgo roles they want for roles that don’t show off or sharpen their talents as much as they should because those roles pay – leaving no chance to expand the field and the audience base. If a little more money could find its way from the pockets of landlords into the pockets of artists, the natural competitiveness already in theater would function more the way a market is supposed to, i.e., the end product would be better and the less “better” aspiring artists will eventually be crowded out.

Of course, no idea is perfect. And no idea will solve all the problems in a complicated industry like live performing arts, that has in some ways been groping for its way since the 1960s, but – hell, we’ve tried a bunch of other stuff with little success, why can’t one foundation try this?❦