The Empty Spaces

Or, How Theater Failed America

The Empty Spaces

Rob Ullman

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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. recommended

Mike Daisey is a monologuist, author, and working artist.


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I hear ya man - to a new model!
Posted by JERRY on October 24, 2008 at 6:15 PM · Report this
I am sitting in a cubicle, exhausted from having to get up early in order to get to this cubicle on time after a late night of rehearsal, which will be followed by another late night tonight. I am 50 years old. I have been a so-called professional actor since 1988. I am quietly weeping as I read and appreciate this article.
Posted by Ramona on May 28, 2009 at 8:47 AM · Report this
don't join equity and you have a better chance at working, especially if you're older.
Posted by myself on May 30, 2009 at 10:04 PM · Report this
Thank you so much for saying all of this!

Articles like yours are the first step forward to a new system that will support the artists, not the buildings and the boards.
Posted by an artist on August 26, 2009 at 2:16 PM · Report this
I've tried to say a similar thing, to many friends and former co-workers, but Mike does a nice job here. Theatre is business. Show business <-- see, it's baked right in!
You have to treat it as such if you want it to be a livelihood, a calling, and not a mere hobby. All in all, perhaps the best analogy would be: if you were a coffee artist, would you rather work for a corporate coffee factory like SBUX, or would you rather work for smaller-scale Vivace? Would you want the comatose up-at-4am-for-the-commute clients (aka audience) of SBUX or the slightly-appreciative post-bohemian audience at Vivace?
The problem is, from my POV, so many theatre artists (in Seattle, ...ok, in anywhere) don't even strive to work at the indies; they work the equivalent of the freeway reststop coffee cart or the church soup kitchen: they don't work for companies, they don't work at all: they volunteer for charities, and consequently are expected to give it away.
A friend of mine summarizes it nicely: "it's ok to be a whore for theatre, but never a slut". When you give away your goods, you devalue it for everyone and contribute to the death of the livelihood. And No, I don't believe unions solve it: they also behave as corporations, so they are merely 'Democrats' to the 501c Regional Theatre's 'Republicans'. Neither are indy thinkers. Nor is theatre supposed to be a 2 party system. The Rep's toxic formula of 5 and 6 digit salaried office workers holding the FT jobs and the actors and designers shipped in from NY, Berkeley or Carrie Fisher's house is outdated and will die with its expiring subscriber base. It's for people who want to play 'company', not for artists. A certain old hand at SRT once told an entire touring freshman class of theatre artists, before saying anything else, even so much as a "hi": "for fuck's sake, don't get into this business. Run. ". We were naive and optimistic. We laughed then. Oh, if only the rest of them were so sincere.

Then, I ask these fed-up artist friends, why strive to work for a top-heavy corporation OR for a non-valuing charity - why not build a small company? Of your own? Why not make a business out of your show business? Create a model that actually pays, sans government handout-slash-grants-requirements? "That's impossible"! I hear. Yet, I've been running a tiny for-profit theatre company since 96. Does it pay all the bills? Some years, yes. Do I live modestly? Oh hells yes. Do I get to make the art I want, how I want, to some of my favorite audience? YES , and I value that more than health benefits, pensions, union bargaining, long resume credits and name-recognition combined. I'm in it to make, to create, to tell stories: (and I feel that those in it for fame and money forgot to upshift to film); I want a living and I demand one, and through stubborn/creative means I've grabbed it much like Mr. Daisey and his wife. Self employment is hard, and those federal dollars are tempting, but there's great satisfaction in making your own way. I'm not sure it's a living to carry you well past middleage, but I'm sure as hell it is the right way (shy of having a noble as an altruistic patron) to make theatre right now.
Posted by Smithy on August 29, 2009 at 1:07 PM · Report this
just some late night thoughts…

you seem to forget that at any other job, many employees would still experience infrastures/power structures that seem unfair to the “little guy”, you have to deal with “politics”, etc.

you say garage theatre doesn’t do it, you say regional doesn’t do it. pick your poison…you either do it for the art or the money, and you probably do it for a combination of both. so you make the best of both worlds and carve out a life.

sorry your friend couldn’ hack it, really. but that’s not the point of the argument, it’s demogogery. we all have problems and we all suffer. but the world is 90% our outlook on it. you can choose to be defeatist, or victimized, or a sourpuss…or you can take what comes your way, make the best of it, and be grateful for what you do have. my career is a big challenge, but hey, i’m healthy and i have some good people in my life. compared to a war-torn country or some third-world countries, that doesn’t sound so awful does it?

don’t blame the soldiers, fighting the good fight, who jet off to these places to work, and those who book our flights. we’re not exactly killing babies, here. we’re trying to make a living. most people in this world is trying to do that in some fashion, by some definition. you clearly learned to work the system, but put on an alter those who suffer because they can’t or won’t, and put up on a chopping block those others who do.

the best defense we have is our attitude. can you handle working the system to your advantage so you can afford to carve out the time and space to do what you want? you could do the same thing by having a “day” job and doing shows in your free time. tons of people do that every day with their interests and passions.

at least regional theatres are trying to operate and create what opportunities they can. if you want to play the blame game, pick the government or some other overarching support source whose absence makes it necessary for these other institutions to struggle along as they have been on development and donations.

ps…when you stop taking checks from regional theatres, then we can talk.
Posted by amy_30 on September 4, 2009 at 2:56 AM · Report this
"most people in this world ARE trying..."

sorry, grammar mistake above. it's late.
Posted by amy_30 on September 4, 2009 at 2:59 AM · Report this
I completely understand your friends exhaustion and your grief. About a year ago my "little engine that could" theater company had to fold because it had become clear to those of us trying to fight the good fight that our little engine was never going to make over the hill of making any money. We all looked around as small companies like ours but with more experience than us were dropping like flies and realized we didn't want to be starting all over again at 45 the way our friends were. The larger "regional" theaters here in Boston are the same in Seattle, cast almost exclusively from NYC. Mind you that's also thanks in no small part to the fact that we are too "close" to NYC to merit being an Equity town in our own right so even local Equity members have to maintain timeshare apartments in NYC in order to have a place to live so they can be available for casting calls for shows in their actual hometown. (The shows in Boston are nearly exclusively shows from NYC so honestly what's the dif?) Those who can't afford that scratch and claw for the handful of jobs Equity allows to cast locally. Many the actors in Boston let their union status expire just so they can act more often...for little or no pay of course.

My day job was working in a cubicle at one of the regional theaters here (at least I could see the shows for free) and I watched them celebrate as they stayed in the black not because of the brilliant shows they put on but because they bought up the main performance spaces used by smaller companies and raised the rent through the roof. Sure they made money that first year, but six of those companies went under because they couldn't pay that rent and make enough to break even, so who's gonna be renting that space next season? Who else? Corporate event companies who are thrilled such prime real estate became available. The spaces in Boston that were the centers of artistic discovery, experimentation, and new work, will soon be home to cute little improv sketches about an insurance agency's IT department. I suppose in the end when the theaters have completely cannibalized themselves and there's no one left but the administrations then they can hire out the spaces for their own corporate events. At least that will mean SOMEONE will be in the theaters.
Posted by LDuP on September 4, 2009 at 12:29 PM · Report this
I too, like at least one of the commenters above, am a little baffled by your position.

You claim the dream is dead, having abandoned the dream yourself by leaving the beloved movement and performing your indictment of the state of theatre in the US in theatres in the US. It is a little like chasing AND biting the hand that feeds you.

You are correct on so many levels. Corporations, bloated by marketers rather than artists, do not make for good theatre. Repertory companies have found little sustainable support. Audiences are older and dwindling. Ticket prices should be lower.

Why sit back (from your reviews, I understand that is your actual blocking) and condemn the system? You have apparently found a way out. If you love the original spirit of Seattle's theatre scene and the talent you believe exists there, jump in, sir. If a corporate milieu has taken over, take it back. If young audiences are staying away, find ways to make theatre compelling and relevant to them. If you find the Union unsupportive, REALLY pay your dues and become a voice within Equity that will not stand for the chipping away of contracts and benefits. (Perhaps you do; I'm presumptuous there, but have never seen your name on any ballot personally.)

I point the finger at myself as well. It is we actors, directors, and writers all who have allowed the theatre to be taken away from us by producers who have a better mind for business and a smarter realization that everything in the world boils down to economics. (The Actors' Theatre of Louisville is anything but.) We let them redraw the models, re-write the rules, redefine the meaning of success.

If doors are closed, build new ones. Commit to community. Unify under the union rather than forgo it and work outside of it. Decide if job security and a lovely home are more important to you than art. Artists have had to do grapple with that decision throughout the history of civilization. If the decision is yes, petition vociferously, relentlessly, for governmental support. (We have an arts-friendly President!)

Or get out of the pool. But don't toll the death-knell of the dream for all of us. It's a bell that's been rung so often it is cracked and out of tune. Let's make better music.

Posted by J. Thomas on September 7, 2009 at 6:32 AM · Report this
yes, come on ! This way to buy darkfall gold
Posted by darkfall gold on September 10, 2009 at 3:17 AM · Report this
Unpopular thoughts:

Cut the marketing budget. How then do people find out about the shows? How do you put butts in seats?

The parts of the corporations that grow are the parts that bring in money. Actors don't bring in money. There is not a single doubt that actors are valuable artistically. What are the actors doing to make themselves more valuable financially?

All people who think they can run a theater company better should start one and put their money where their mouths are. The failure to do so is what allows mediocrity in management.

If the artists are not in control of the theater they have themselves to blame for ceding control of management decisions to professional administrators. If artists think they can do a better job they need to get off the barstool and start doing it.
Posted by McIver on September 16, 2009 at 8:11 AM · Report this
Hi, thanks for posting this. I have often wondered why regional theaters cast from NYC. Makes no sense to me at all. That process hinders the potential to create and nuture local artists. It also creates a dearth of artists in cities all over the country. I know that where I am located, in a New York city outside of NYC, there are few local actors or directors. Our local professional theater casts exclusively from NYC. Because there are so few actually working in the city, the imagination and hunger for art is quite low. A sad state when the only solution is to move to NYC. I don't blame you for feeling and acting how you did.
Posted by Eustacia on October 13, 2009 at 1:11 PM · Report this
simple, truthful, and heartbreaking.
Posted by agreed on October 17, 2009 at 10:19 AM · Report this
So, What do we do? As young, dump-poor, stupidly eager and inspired artists? I know everyone says do Your work. But, I don't want to do anymore theatre for the sake of theatre, my own need to express in front of friends and family. I am an artist. I am lost. But, I am hopeful.
Posted by sugarcohen on December 5, 2009 at 10:46 AM · Report this
Thanks for this POV Rob. Your anger and pain have been a part of theatre from its very beginning. Clearly the Bard had to toady up to the Crown to keep his theatre solvent. And ancient Greek and Roman theatre centered around religious festivals and plays exclusively financed by wealthy patrons. The ancients paid actors but *gave* the theatre to the people. So public theatre performed in front of 17 thousand people - cost audiences nothing.

And women were never allowed onstage until the renaissance - and death scenes in Rome were performed by condemned convicts who were actually killed! (rather alarming for Equity actors today)

What the history suggests is perhaps it is time to try an old model. Perhaps theatre angels who have access to enormous wealth should focus on developing free theatre that speaks to new audiences. These are the audiences that will become the paying audiences going forward - because they have learned to love the theatre through free performance. We simply cannot expect theatre with $50-60 ticket prices to compete with internet, TV and video games. Like it or not theatre is still entertainment (occasionally enlightened entertainment) and it must enthuse kids the way movies, TV, vid games and music do. Hopefully, once they've been to the "city" they'll keep coming back.

But there are so few "angels" willing or able to finance such an undertaking. True, apparently. Unless we view our corporations as uneducated angels. In great need of instruction on corporate responsibility, community outreach, and profit contribution of good will. In that case, the corporation, currently viewed as the pinnacle of evil, CAN become far more active in supporting the arts.

None of this helps your woman friend who at 40, retires from the struggle to survive. There is little to be done for those who have served the arts well for twenty, thirty years and choose to be comfortable for once in life. It has to be enough to have served well. And we should all be grateful for those who do so. Acting will always be a profession at the edge of life. There will always be thousands for each single opening. But for those who burn with the art and desire and fever of performance - there will be work. Not compensated well or at all - but work. And the history of art tells us that is the sacrifice that comes with being an artist. It sucks, yeah. But it is also not the debilitating struggle to find food that millions of dirt poor face daily.
Posted by Artimus on December 6, 2009 at 12:00 PM · Report this
I'm originally from New York so getting acclimated to the Pacific Northwest arts scene was both a blessing and a curse. As an up and coming playwright, there was no way I could compete with NYC. However,I'm trying to hang on and not feel so pessimistic about the state of indie theater in Seattle.

I don't mean to be a comment spammer, but I'm directing a play I wrote at the Henry Art Gallery (Univ of WA campus) on June 24, 2010. It's a FREE event. RSVP at http://syllogismindietheater.eventbrite.…


Posted by LA-TONIA DENISE WILLIS on June 15, 2010 at 7:16 PM · Report this
@5, me too. Last dress for the show I'm in is tonight, and I am exhausted as I sit at my desk this morning, at my full time admin job. I am basically paying to be in this summer park show because of the long commute and the prepared meals I need to buy to get to work and rehearsal on time. And the occasional vacation hour I need to take off work to make the early call times.

No one forced me to go into the arts, and theater is not the only art form that requires its practitioners to make financial sacrifices. The thing that really irks me is when local politicians refer to Seattle's thriving arts scene as one of the pros for moving one's family or business here, when performers generally have to work for free in order to work at all, and when they are paid, are generally not given standard employee benefits like L&I and unemployment.

Thank you for this piece; it's good to know that there are others who feel this way, and that being a non-union actor who has a day job IS being a professional actor in Seattle.
Posted by Margaretta on July 22, 2011 at 1:13 PM · Report this
Dear Mike,

I've owned live and movie theatres, put up shows in Hollywood, as Producer and Player, and performed in shows in New York, Chicago, and Seattle. You are so right in this piece, as depressing as that might seem.

Maybe things "should" be some other way, but there is no "should." There is only "what is."

With very few exceptions in specific niche markets, things are terrible in Theatre.
You are right, "How Non-profit Corporations Are Run" is a big part of the problem.

I see the other big part as "Too Few Ticket-Buyers To Pay For Everything," which is the bottom line. Plenty of Supply, as long as Players' day jobs hold out, but virtually No Demand.

You're passionate, I'm passionate. If somehow more persons were passionate, it seems it "should" work, but our passionate drive to create great Theatre doesn't matter. Americans spend their entertainment dollars somewhere else.

Theatre has indeed failed America, by being too expensive, and America reciprocates by staying home. The competition is unbeatable.

Who REALLY is our Competition? Other theatres? No. Other Performing Artists? No. Our unbeatable Real Competition is free radio and tv, and movies on computer, and DVDs. That's what we're up against.

How do you get somebody out of his house to come see your show, when he most easily entertains himself just by clicking his mouse or remote? You can't.

There are a few remedies, and I'm applying them. Those only come after recognizing our Real Competition.

Throwing public money at the wrong problem certainly doesn't work, and now there's no more of that. Don't blame the American public, they're doing the best they can.

There is nothing wrong with Theatre People throwing themselves at an Impossible Dream, if that's what they want to do, and as long as we all know it's impossible. Bless 'em all!

Just don't make yourself crazy by calling it a Career. Without a paycheck, it's a Hobby, and that's okay. Hobbies are good. Everybody needs a Hobby.

Sam Longoria
Posted by Sam Longoria on July 23, 2011 at 1:10 AM · Report this
As we Quakers say, "You speak my mind, Friend."
Posted by JeanmarieSimpson on November 30, 2012 at 8:48 AM · Report this

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