The Empty Spaces
Or, How Theater Failed America
Seven years ago, I left Seattle for New York—I abandoned the garage theaters and local arts scene and friends and colleagues—because I was a coward. I'd already tried to sell out once, by working at a shitty Wal-Mart of a tech company, but I knew I would not survive in the theater if I stayed. I fled to New York to bite and claw a living out of the American theater as an independent artist because I was young and stupid enough to think that would actually work. Today, my wife and I are one of a handful of working companies who create original work in theaters across the country. We're a very small ensemble: I am the monologuist; she is the director. We survive because we're nimble, we break rules, and when simple dumb luck happens upon us, we're ready for it.
We return to Seattle maybe once a year. During my first week back this time, I ended up at a friend's party, long after the rest of the guests had gone, in that golden hour when the place is almost cleaned up, but the energy of the night is still hanging in the air. We settled down in the kitchen under the bright light, making 4:00 a.m. conversation and, as all theater artists do, I asked the traditional question: "What are you working on?"
My friend's face fell, for just a moment—she's a fantastic actress, one of the best in the city, with an intelligence and precision that has taken my breath away for years. She corrected a moment later, and told me carefully that she wasn't going out for anything now—that she was giving it up. She has a job-share position at her day job to let her take roles when needed, but now she is going to go permanent for the first time in her entire life. After 15 years of working in theaters all over Seattle, she'd felt the fire go out of her from the relentless grind of two full-time jobs: one during the day in a cubicle, the other at night on a stage.
She said what really finished it for her was getting cast in a big Equity show this fall and seeing how the other Equity actors lived—the man whose work had inspired her all her life, living in a dilapidated hovel he was lucky to afford; the woman who couldn't spare 10 dollars to eat lunch with colleagues without doing some quick math on a scrap of paper to check her weekly budget. These are the success stories, the very best actors in the Northwest, the ones you've seen onstage time and time again. Their reward is years of being paid as close to nothing as possible in a career with no job security whatsoever, performing for overwhelmingly wealthy audiences whose rounding errors exceed the weekly pittance that trickles down to them.
My friend looked at me imploringly—she's close to 40, at the height of her powers, but the sacrifices of this theater ask for raw youth: When she arrived in Seattle, she'd eat white rice flavored with soy sauce for lunch for a month at a time. "Maybe if I was 23 again," she said. "Maybe not even then." She looked down at the table as she said this, and I felt a kind of death in the room.
The institutions that form the backbone of Seattle theater—Seattle Rep, Intiman, ACT—are regional theaters. The movement that gave birth to them tried to establish theaters around the country to house repertory companies of artists, giving them job security, an honorable wage, and health insurance. In return, the theaters would receive the continuity of their work year after year—the building blocks of community. The regional theater movement tried to create great work and make a vibrant American theater tradition flourish.
That dream is dead. The theaters endure, but the repertory companies they stood for have been long disbanded. When regional theaters need artists today, they outsource: They ship the actors, designers, and directors in from New York and slam them together to make the show. To use a sports analogy, theaters have gone from a local league with players you knew intimately to a different lineup for every game, made of players you'll never see again, coached by a stranger, on a field you have no connection to.
Not everyone lost out with the removal of artists from the premises. Arts administrators flourished as the increasingly complex corporate infrastructure grew. Literary departments have blossomed over the last few decades, despite massive declines in the production of new work. Marketing and fundraising departments in regional theaters have grown hugely, replacing the artists who once worked there, raising millions of dollars from audiences that are growing smaller, older, and wealthier. It's not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don't want to actually make any theater.
The biggest reason the artists were removed was because it was best for the institution. I often have to remind myself that "institution" is a nice word for "nonprofit corporation," and the primary goal of any corporation is to grow. The best way to grow a nonprofit corporation is to raise money, use the money to market for more donors, and to build bigger and bigger buildings and fill them with more staff.
Using this lens, it all makes sense. The worst way to let the corporation of the theater grow is to spend too much on actors—why do that, when they're a dime a dozen? Certainly it isn't cost-effective to keep them in the community. Use them and discard them. Better to invest in another "educational" youth program, mashing up Shakespeare until it is a thin, lifeless paste that any reasonable person would reject as disgusting, but garners more grant money.
Every time a regional theater produces Nickel and Dimed, the play based on Barbara Ehrenreich's book about the working poor in America, I keep hoping the irony will reach up and bitch-slap the staff members as they put actors, the working poor they're directly responsible for creating, in an agitprop shuck-and-jive dance about that very problem. I keep hoping it will pierce their mantle of smug invulnerability and their specious whining about how television, iPods, Reagan, the NEA, short attention spans, the folly of youth, and a million other things have destroyed American theater.
The numbers are grim—the audiences are dying off all over the country. I know because every night I'm onstage, I stare out into the dark and can hear the oxygen tanks hissing. When I was 25, the Seattle Rep started offering cheap tickets to everyone under 25. When I turned 30, theaters started offering cheap tickets to everyone under 30. Now that I've turned 35, I see the same thing happening again, as theaters do the math and realize that no one under 35 is coming to their shows—it's a bright line, the terminator between day and night, advancing inexorably upward. A theater I'm working at this year is hosting a promotional event to coax "young people" to see our show. Their definition of young? Under 45.
There are clear steps theaters could take. For example, they could radically reduce ticket prices across the board. Most regional theaters make less than half of their budget from ticket sales—they have the power to make all their tickets 15 or 20 dollars if they were willing to cut staff and transition through a tight season. It would not be easy, but it is absolutely possible. Of course, that would also require making theater less of a "luxury" item—which raises secret fears that the oldest, whitest, richest donors will stop supporting the theater once the uncouth lower classes with less money and manners start coming through the door. These people might even demand different kinds of plays, which would be annoying and troublesome. The current audience, while small and shrinking, demands almost nothing—they're practically comatose, which makes them docile and easy to handle.
Better to revive another August Wilson play and claim to be speaking about race right now. Better to do whatever was off Broadway 18 months ago and pretend that it's relevant to this community at this time. Better to talk and wish for change, but when the rubber hits the road, sit on your hands and think about the security of your office, the pleasure of a small, constant paycheck, the relief of being cared for if you get sick: the things you will lose if you stop working at this corporation.
The truth is, the people in charge like things the way they are—they've made them that way, after all. Sure, they wish things could be better. Who doesn't? They're dyed-in-the-wool liberals, each and every one of them, and they'll tell you so while they mount another Bertolt Brecht play. The revolutionary fire that drew them to the theater has to fight through so much shit, day after day, that even the best of them can barely imagine a different path. They didn't enter the theater to work for a corporation, but now they do, and they more than anyone else know the dire state of things. I've gone drinking with the artistic directors of the biggest theaters in the country and listened to them explain that they know the system is broken and they feel trapped within it, beholden to board members they've made devil's deals with, shackled to the ship as it goes down. I've heard their laughter, heard them call each other dinosaurs, heard them give thanks that they'll be retired in 10 years.
Corporations make shitty theater. This is because theater, the ineffable part of the experience that comes in rare and random bursts, is not a commodity, and corporations suck at understanding the noncommodifiable. Corporations don't understand theater. Only people, real people, understand theater. Audiences, technicians, actors, playwrights, costumers, designers—all of them give their time and energy to this thing for a reason, and that dream is not quantifiable on any spreadsheet.
As I drove home from my friend's house that night, I felt myself filling up with grief. There will be some who read this who will blame her, think she should have sacrificed more, that this is a story of weakness. But I stand by her. I know in my heart she has given full weight, just as so many other artists have given over the years. Much of the best theater of my life I have seen in the garages of Seattle, unseen and forgotten by many. But I remember. Theater failed my friend, as it is failing us all, and I am heartbroken because we will never know the measure of what we've lost.
Mike Daisey is a monologuist, author, and working artist.