Theater

The Empty Spaces

Or, How Theater Failed America

The Empty Spaces

Rob Ullman

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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77
This 6 year old article revealed a few things I discovered in my own struggle to run a theater. 3 and a half years we did 54 different productions, usually 6 to 9 performances each. Usually children's productions attended by family of the actors, who had time to transport their kids to rehearsals and to their performances, but not to actually bring the kid in to SEE a show. I can count 6 times I saw one of my actor kids in the audience. I lost $10,000 a year plus $40,000 to adapt the building but never asked for grants. If people had just bought tickets my 73 seat theater would have survived. Anyway, I have some great scripts for dirt cheap prices at theaterfunscripts dot com that can save a struggling theater a wad of money.
Posted by jnetjquish on December 1, 2014 at 10:30 AM · Report this
76
I think that there is a certain amount of blame to be placed on the artist. Theaters are categorized as "not for profit" for the reason that somewhere along the line they are to provide a service for the community. If the audiences are coming to the shows, then I think the artist needs to look at whether or not they are actually serving the community or their own artistic desires. Time after time I sat in production meetings as the "powers that be" were choosing the shows for the next season. The usually started their pitch with, "I always wanted to do..."

So I asked a silly question..."Did anyone bother to find out what the audience/community would like to see? I bet you could count on one hand the number of arts organizations that actually make a REAL effort to find out what their audience (and perspective audiences) would like to see.

I think that failure to know the market, survey the market or even care what the market thinks is one of the biggest failures of ANY arts organization. Yet serving the needs of the market (audience) is the reason the theater has the not for profit status in the first place.

Just my two cents...
Posted by Alkire on October 22, 2014 at 3:41 PM · Report this
75
Full national subsidization of the arts in the US is probably not ever happening.
Posted by El Steven http://misterstevengomez.com on October 19, 2014 at 11:30 PM · Report this
74
Is this guy actually blaming artists and hardworking administrators here? To even utter the phrase "theatre failed America," is disgusting and reprehensible. America--The only developed nation in the world without a nationally subsidised theatre. Who is failing whom?
Posted by namark on October 8, 2014 at 12:04 AM · Report this
73
I'm from central Ohio, which is a hub of theatre (mostly community and non-profit based), and I have lived in this theatrical realm for 10 years now. I'm only 27, but I have felt the weight of my day job vs the passion and love affair I have with the theatre. I have already sat down with myself and fought myself, debating on whether this almost thankless passion is really worth pursuing. Luckily, I'm crazy enough to drive myself through each production, reminding me that there is a reason I possess the talents I was given. This article brought tears because I see this same crisis here and it breaks my heart. I appreciate your words and will be sharing them with others.
Posted by tahrea_maynard on October 6, 2014 at 1:24 PM · Report this
72
Ok, I'm 81 and still acting and have watched it go around and around. Sometimes I have made a very good living and sometimes .... Ah, what a drama. I just want to ask... were you promised a rose garden? Did someone tell you that talent and stick to it ness will win the day? Grow up.
Posted by Sva on October 5, 2014 at 10:11 AM · Report this
71
I feel a little weird that you're railing against the admins- rather than the audience. If theater is dying, it's because TV is doing it better. That's where your market went.





Don't get me wrong, I love live theater, but there's no point in being bitter. If you can't produce a live performance that's more interesting than high-production value TV, it can't be sustained (except in those super-post niches where wealthy patrons "support the arts" as a status signal.)





I'm afraid live theater is going to end up in the same bucket with tabor-throwing and square dancing. Dedicated revivalists. The mainstream has moved on.
Posted by Metoo_BOO on October 4, 2014 at 6:59 AM · Report this
70
Rep Theatre companies are in the same boat pretty much everywhere, this includes places outside the US. Many things have contributed to this, and there is no easy fix. As an artistic director of a small independent company in the Bay Area I have to think about rent, paychecks, and PR with almost no budget. I also have to think about who is my audience and what can we as a company sustain? Who are you trying to reach and how are you going about it? the arts are no longer taught in the schools in the US and we have to fight to get them back, this might help. Know who you are trying to reach helps a lot.
I cannot in good business sense join the union even with a small contract it would eventually force me to add more contracts than we can sustain and by so doing raise our ticket price and in so doing go against our mission statement of affordable theatre, don't get me wrong the union is important but they have lost their way and clearly are more interested in getting their own paycheck than making sure their members get work. So if you are a union member what are you doing about this problem? The model we are using is broken so together we have to figure this one out.
Secondly we try to at least once a year to have a new works festival, new work is important but not every new work needs to be produced, many need a lot of work before it is ready for a full scale production. I have found in the US people are very precious about their work and have great deal of trouble separating their ego from the work, and will not take any form of criticism, so it becomes impossible to develop new work and sustain a company.
Lastly business plans are needed San Jose Rep folded this year their debt was out of control, who let it get to that point? If you are sustaining a space and a season what do you have in place to make sure that works? You must do your best to stay in the black, it means building a sustainable model, something we are all trying to do. I also think there is no hub of theatre in the US New York has priced out any artists attempting to live there and create something new and San francisco is very close to doing the same. This has a direct affect on what does get produced.
More...
Posted by JGB on October 3, 2014 at 11:51 PM · Report this
69
PS. To the above comment - San Jose Rep went dark in June 2014, after 34 years of playmaking. This is happening, and has been happening, all over the country for too many years.
Posted by D. Wiener on October 3, 2014 at 11:20 PM · Report this
68
Here's a letter published in the San Diego Union Tribune in June that directly addresses these very serious issues (and no, the situation ISN'T "stabilizing" or "improving"):

To The Editor:

As a Board Member of the Horton Plaza Theatres Foundation, I’m delighted the Theatre Communications Group conference is here in San Diego (“Starring role,” June 15); our local theater scene is flourishing.

However (I’m speaking as an individual now, not as a member of any Board), the national outlook is different. The National Endowment for the Arts stated “...theater attendance (musical and nonmusical play-going) declined significantly since 2008 [9% attendance drop for musicals, 12% for plays]. ... the first statistically significant change in this activity [musical attendance] since 1985. Nonmusical play attendance has dropped at a 33 percent rate over the last decade.” Early in 2013, research firm IBISWorld ranked “Live Performance Theaters” as No. 8 on its list of the 10 industries expected to shrink most in 2013 (San Jose Rep closed just this month!).

With government arts funding slipping and audiences dwindling, it increasingly falls to major corporations, philanthropic institutions, and family foundations to fill some of the gaps.

Are they willing to do it?

David Wiener
Posted by D. Wiener on October 3, 2014 at 11:16 PM · Report this
67
The NUMBER ONE BEST piece written on this topic!





In the Police department in NYC , if you're on the job it's called "the Life"





Mob guys call their line, " The Life"





In theater it is " The Life"





We feel, see and take in humanity. The rest of the planet are like mice.





The theater is supposed to be truth about society, they don't care, the mice, gotta get that cheese.





What a beautiful piece.





FXVitolo
Posted by FXVitolo on October 3, 2014 at 7:13 PM · Report this
66
Thank you for saying all this publicly. Theatre artists live in a world that the rest of America knows nothing about (at least, that's the way I've always felt.) How many times have well-meaning friends said to me, "You're so good! Why don't you get a job with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival?" Or even, "...with the RSC?"



And *most especially*, thanks for expressing your compassion for your friend, and your understanding of her situation. There's always a voice in the back of my head saying, "You should have sacrificed more" -- though I know that's crazy. I like to hear that voice argued with by someone who understands. :-)
Posted by freya221b on October 3, 2014 at 6:27 PM · Report this
65
I'm curious about what LORT theater out there isn't working heavily with IATSE personnel. Last I checked it was as uniform as working with Equity actors. Perhaps it's a similar situation where shows do have some non-union people on a production?

I do realize that IATSE is quite fragmented due to the many backstage disciplines, so that could be a factor behind inconsistent representation.
Posted by El Steven http://misterstevengomez.com on October 3, 2014 at 4:24 PM · Report this
64
@El Steven: Some LORT theatres are unionized with IATSE. Many aren't.
Posted by lindag on October 3, 2014 at 3:26 PM · Report this
63
Let's stop griping in private forums about a public art that has gone into private pockets.
Posted by minkaere on October 3, 2014 at 2:55 PM · Report this
62
Don't LORT techs work through the IATSE union?

Not that this doesn't preclude them being paid even less, but the actors are not alone in having a union behind them.
Posted by El Steven http://misterstevengomez.com on October 3, 2014 at 2:20 PM · Report this
61
I worked for one of the biggest non-profit theaters in the U.S., with an annual budget of $25 million. All that money only went to one place. The top level executives.



I had a mid level management job that I get paid $70k per year to do in the private sector. When I worked at the theater I barely made minimum wage. And when you factored in all the extra hours my employer forced me to work (cast parties, corporate dinners) I actually made LESS than minimum wage because my employer did not pay me any overtime.



So where did all the money go? Mostly to the Artistic, Managing, and Producing Directors. They all made $250-300k/year. We had 7 or 8 VPs on staff too who made between $120-180k/year. No one else made anywhere close to six figures. The theater also spent a lot of money to give them huge expense accounts, so that they could dine at 5 star restaurants every day and take vacations to New York City on the company dime.



The next level down (director level managers) made $45-60k per year. Below them, everyone else scraped by on minimum wage or less due to unpaid overtime.



The rest of our budget went to paying to fly in "professional" actors from NY and house them. These actors not only took jobs away from local artists, but we also had to pay them much more than our local talent because they were "professional." Meanwhile our execs and board were patting themselves on the back for casting local actors as ensemble members.



The theater employed roughly 200 people, almost all of whom were living hand to mouth, while the 5-10 highest level staff lived the good life, making 10 times more than the people who actually made the theater run. They justified this by constantly telling us how grim our financial situation looked, and that that was why they couldn't pay us market value for our jobs or give us annual raises.



But what about perks? The top staff making six figures all got 6 weeks of vacation, versus everyone else's 2 weeks. They also required us to work during the holidays, so those of us from out of town couldn't even go see our families. No vacation restrictions for the execs, though.



Professional theater is not for artists anymore. It is for the elite, the 1%. Those making it are not in it to make art--they are in it for their own personal greed, and they don't have any problems with stealing from their staff and artists to please themselves. I, for one, will no longer support professional theater in this country until there is a serious change.
More...
Posted by DisillusionedChick23 on October 3, 2014 at 2:13 PM · Report this
60
You think actors are paid poorly? At least they have Equity behind them. Try being a theatre technician!



The three Seattle theatres mentioned in the article are LORT B+, B, and C, which means every equity actor there is paid AT LEAST a weekly minimum of $753 (C) to $883 (B+) in addition to having housing provided.



The backstage crew at the LORT B theatre I work at make about $400 per week. Full-time staff of carpenters/ costumers/ painters/ props who physically make the shows come to life earn between $600-700 per week. I'd gladly trade that in for an Equity actor's salary.



That's not to say actors are overcompensated, but that other artists in the theatre world face even worse realities.
Posted by lindag on October 3, 2014 at 2:07 PM · Report this
59
Overlooked in the kvetching about regional theaters going to places like NY for acting talent is the fact that regional theaters, by virtue of being the most "professional" outlets in their communities, have a higher bar to clear as far as the talent they put in front of the gray-haired, wealthy audiences (a lot of whom have been to and seen shows in places like NY or London). Not to say that there aren't talented actors/designers/directors/writers that call Seattle home, but the pool of talent gets pretty shallow pretty quick (particularly when it comes to casting minority roles, but that's a separate issue). Yes, this is a self-fulfilling cycle (local actors don't get good work on big stages, don't get better and, invariably, leave town), but it's hard to ask a theater to cast all-local for the sake of principle when it's obviously going to have an effect on the quality of the product they produce.
Posted by Hutch on October 3, 2014 at 1:31 PM · Report this
58
Before anyone tries to downplay the institutionalized racism of Seattle theatre, explain to us why it seems every relevant fringe and LORT theatre group is 90-100% white in a metropolitan area that is no more than 70% white.
Posted by El Steven http://misterstevengomez.com on October 3, 2014 at 12:12 PM · Report this
57
And no, I am not talking solely about social justice issues, although it would be refreshing to hear white people talk about their racism, especially the ones recoiling at this suggestion. And what about that economy? How's that amoral capitalist paradigm working out for you? We may be the richest and most powerful country in the world, but have we got anything to say that anyone really wants to hear? That's where the death of the theatre begins.
Posted by minkaere on October 3, 2014 at 11:31 AM · Report this
56
Being non-white it became apparent to me coming out of drama school that the theatre that needs to be done does not happen in regional theaters, since the people running them and the entire theatre establishment were so very disconnected from the hard problems of everyday life, especially for non-white and working class folks. One cannot wait for the phone to ring anymore if they ever did. Truth is everyone bought into an elitist notion of the art thinking that someone was going to look out for the interests of the actor. Of course the theatre is disconnected and irrelevant. Most everyone in it, including most of the actors don't have anything to say to an increasingly sophisticated multicultural young audience. Colbert is popular because he is filling a nitch that belongs to the theatre. He is saying things that matter with joy.



Being on the outs and away from the herd of a vapid American theatre have served me well. If I have something to say onstage then I do it and I say it with the same joy that I have when I go fishing. And no, I don't need to deal with Artistic Directors whose phony smiles about including me in some upcoming Latino outreach nonsense. More actors might want to try to reach out to other actors and create from more modest means. Of course that would mean they are actually artists and not jobbers waiting for the phone to ring sipping their kool-aid.



If film belongs to directors and theatre to the actors then its up to the actors to prove it.
Posted by Louis on October 3, 2014 at 11:12 AM · Report this
55
If regional theatre is to survive, for makers AND audiences:


-tickets need to be cheaper


-the work has to be great


-the stuff that's put onstage needs to be the most valued aspect of the organization.





So:


-artistic directors need to make less money


-executive directors need to make less money


-core administration needs to be streamlined: an AD, exec direct, production mgr, tech director, devo director, mktg director. They all need to work a little harder, but only on the main business of the theatre: which is putting shit onstage. Cut independent education departments, artistic should be concerned with bussing kids into the theatre, that's it. Read a new play, produce a new play. No lit department, no dramaturg. No assistants. This will right-size the output of the place based on human capacity, which is a great way to control growth.


-convice great acting talent to commit to that theatre for 2 years. Recruit. Pay them well. Have them become local. See where the relationship goes.


-don't produce crap. I'm talking about directors. There are many, many bullshit directors walking the earth. Take away their dramaturgs and teach them how to read a script on their own again.


-be willing to beg people to come.


-believe in the theatre as a popular art form


-discontinue subscriptions. Use membership models.


-find your patrons and challenge them to really believe in your theatre.


-have no more board members than admin staff, and really put them to work. Why do we exploit interns so badly when there are actual adults who specialize in these areas? Bring back volunteerism.





That's it, I swear to god.
More...
Posted by fedupwithwaiting on October 3, 2014 at 10:59 AM · Report this
54
It is also worth noting that, since Daisey wrote this piece in 2008, local LORT companies have gotten much better about using local talent in lieu of the old habit of importing talent from elsewhere. But the problems regarding the lacking compensation for talent, especially given admin staff continue to make much larger living wages, remain.

Equity ensures that LORT artists are paid, but those artists are still not paid anywhere close to what constitutes a reasonable living wage in Seattle, and part of that is that Seattle is just a very expensive place to live.
Posted by El Steven http://misterstevengomez.com on October 3, 2014 at 10:52 AM · Report this
53
Jenny, the main issue is that the modern theatre business model is unsustainable.
Posted by El Steven http://misterstevengomez.com on October 3, 2014 at 10:23 AM · Report this
52
ahahhahahhahahahahahhaha. No.

No.

No.

I think Mr. Daisy should look at the regional theaters' books (he can do that - the tax returns are right there online!) and then try to make his claims again.

I'm not exactly getting rich here in my regional theater cubicle, giving my ALL to try to make it possible to support the actors.

We've made cuts every which way. We've cut staff -- everyone has.

You know what we haven't done? Laid off any actors. We couldn't reduce salaries if we wanted to (unions). So we fire our staff. So all of us work harder. So we all leave. So the theaters are taken over my younger, cheaper, more idealistic, young people.

And then they leave.

There are lots of problems in the nonprofit arts / regional theater world. Mr Daisy has failed to offer a solution that would help any of them. How hilarious to think that anyone came out of the recession with any extraneous staff! That corporations are still subsidizing the art! ahahahahahahahah.

Corporations support the education programs.



Also, I don't know about the community in Seattle, but in my city, which is not NY, there are dozens of theaters doing new, original, exciting, invigorating work. Some are focused on specific interest groups, some on specific topics, some on the world at large, some on traditional texts. There's room for everyone.



This article is infuriating BS presented as fact.
Posted by Jenny Beans on October 3, 2014 at 10:16 AM · Report this
51
Also, while society has changed and our various forms of artistic media has changed... theatre itself has not. Theatre as a whole is not only still doing musicals and stage plays, but nearly all of what's produced is simply a rehash of work produced before.

Theatre needs to rethink how it fundamentally creates work and communicates with communities and audiences.
Posted by El Steven http://misterstevengomez.com on October 3, 2014 at 10:00 AM · Report this
50
I agree with Mike Daisey and with a lot of the comments here. The main thing I'm grateful for is that people are talking about it! I have felt like a speaker with an audience of one, then two, three, maybe a few more, for several years now. To this day when I post a similar article on FB, I get very few responses. So, HURRAH for Mike and ALL of the commenters. Keep talking! -- although this will not get solved from the ground up. This problem is much, much larger than all of us.
Posted by Melba on October 3, 2014 at 9:54 AM · Report this
49
BTW guys, this is a repost of Daisey's 2008 piece.

It's still true today. And that in itself is a sad commentary of what we've been doing with the last six years.
Posted by El Steven http://misterstevengomez.com on October 3, 2014 at 9:42 AM · Report this
48
Whoops. Somehow I posted that twice. Sorry, didn't mean to do that, I thought the first one didn't work.
Posted by Cyrano J on October 2, 2014 at 10:49 PM · Report this
47
Non-profit "corporations" are not in fact vast chugging enterprises that take smug joy in the misery visited upon the working artist. They are mostly on a never-ending treadmill of grants and fundraising from ever-more tight fisted and punctilious sources, and are essentially at the mercy of those funders and funders' prejudices.



So, yeah. It is frankly f**ked up that this article is talking about these institutions like they're the Koch Brothers living high off the hog at the expense of the working man. The bulk of their staff are would-be artists living the same impossible multiple-jobs grind as the actors are. If they're focused on building stuff and "filling it" (hahahahaha) with staff, you should be looking at the priorities of funders. They're ultimately what dictate the parameters within which these companies operate.



The whole thing is depressing, and I commend you for shedding some interesting (and saddening) light on the plight of professional actors. I do not commend you for throwing everyone else under the bus. Not cool.
Posted by Cyrano J on October 2, 2014 at 10:48 PM · Report this
46
Non-profit "corporations" are not in fact vast chugging enterprises that take smug joy in the misery visited upon the working artist. They are mostly on a never-ending treadmill of grants and fundraising from ever-more tight fisted and punctilious sources, and are essentially at the mercy of those funders and funders' prejudices.





So, yeah. It is frankly faucked up that this article is talking about these institutions like they're the Koch Brothers living high off the hog at the expense of the working man. The bulk of their staff are would-be artists living the same impossible multiple-jobs grind as the actors are. If they're focused on building stuff and "filling it" (hahahahaha) with staff, you should be looking at the priorities of funders. They're ultimately what dictate the parameters within which these companies operate.





The whole thing is depressing, and I commend you for shedding some interesting (and saddening) light on the plight of professional actors. I do not commend you for throwing everyone else under the bus.
Posted by BobDobolina on October 2, 2014 at 10:42 PM · Report this
45
meh. its a little more complicated than all of this. "staff" at these theaters are exactly rolling in the big dough either. the way theaters are running now is def not sustainable but again its a much more complicated and nuanced conversation and actors are not the only ones getting screwed...
Posted by tsige on October 2, 2014 at 10:24 PM · Report this
44
A wise man once told me, with regard to choosing a church, to check the parking lot. Find out what the preacher drives. Is it an old pick-up distributing charity to the needy or is it a new Cadillac in a private spot because he thinks he's the Pope? Now when I go some place, I check the parking lot. That tells me everything I need to know about any 501c3 with a ticket price I can't afford and a bunch of empty seats.
Posted by SRMDzynes on October 2, 2014 at 7:23 PM · Report this
43
Except for a very, very small and lucky handful of practitioners, Art (pick your poison - painting, dance, sculpture, acting, music, etc.) is NOT a financially viable way to spend a life. It has almost always been this way (a little better for artists in some centuries than others). Nothing has changed. The whining tone of the article is highly misleading in that regard.



As a "reformed" visual artist, I was lucky to learn very young that I could either choose to have food, shelter, warm clothing in winter, and health care by pursuing a more mundane path or dedicate my life to art. I chose the former. Of all my artistic compatriots from those days, only one has achieved any success, that is by landing a tenured faculty position teaching painting at an Ivy League university.



Art is not valued by society as a whole (all the proletariat rhetoric about art is just the ultimately empty idealism of youth), except as an investment for the wealthy who support it.



Mid-life crisis happens to almost everyone in America, including artists. It's a time when all the choices made seem to have been the wrong ones because the world we knew and hoped to make a mark on is gone, or it has radically changed, or we discover it was rigged against us from the start.



Yeah, even software developers and MDs and engineers and teachers often feel the same remorse and anger at their professions as the author of this piece does.



He has some valid criticisms, but they're overlaid with the inevitable disappointment of middle age, to which everyone eventually succumbs.
Posted by Purrl on October 2, 2014 at 6:03 PM · Report this
Michael J. Curtiss 42
Mike Daisey's what we up here in the sticks call "a shit-stirrer".



Granted, he does shine a light on issues within the theatre community which may otherwise go under-reported or swept under the rug, but most times he does it as part of an agenda which is heavy on self-promotion.



Daisey also has a casual relationship with the facts as evidenced by some of the egregious errors and outright false claims he makes, most recently in his one-man show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs"- so grain of salt where Daisey is concerned. If not the whole damn shaker.



I'm no so sure that his charge that the industry fails actors is accurate. There's a hundred factors as to why the industry can't sustain as many actors as it arguably should.... a surfeit of actors on the market, possibly, or old and inefficient business models, or even a fundamental paradigm shift as prosaic as changing demographics and tastes.



There's a million reasons why an actor stops pursuing roles with the same zeal that they may once have had, so again, I think that the decision itself is personal and pretty much tied to the choices the person makes. I don't think there's any one thing you can blame for how theatre "fails", if indeed it does.



The article makes some good points, but shoots itself in the foot with its sweeping generalizations- and of course Daisey never really offers anything in the way of concrete solutions to the so-called issue of how theatre is "failing" America- only that in so doing, it allows him to remain firmly fixed in the spotlight while he lobs brickbats at a problem that was largely invented by, then conflated all out of proportion by, him.
Posted by Michael J. Curtiss http://caughtintheact.blogspot.com on October 2, 2014 at 5:34 PM · Report this
41
I don't really know how I feel about this article, there are some truths sure, I know a lot of actors in their 50's without a penny in their pocket who have dedicated their lives to theatre. Audiences are predominately grey hairs. Most corporate executive don't understand theatre or it's value.



But hold on, lets take some responsibility here. I've performed on a professional basis in some 20 plus shows, I'm currently working full-time outside theatre as I have a family and just bought a house. I chose those things. As I said, I know many actors who have chosen to give up everything else in their lives, the opportunity to have a family, buy a house, travel, for that next break or gig. That's been their choice to do that, no one is putting a gun to their head insisting it. For me, that wasn't a choice I was prepared to make. I wish I could make a living in the arts at the moment where I didn't have to get work outside theatre, but it's up to me to find a way to make that happen. And of course not everyone is so fortunate to.



I would love to see actors, as a professional working group, coming together to make a stand and tell the industry they wanted to be treated better. I would like to see more actors behave and treat their job like it's a professional profession. I know many that don't, even some who behave like entitled divas, which, in my professional opinion, is completely inappropriate. I have sometimes felt, and this is a generalization, that if actors presented themselves in a more professional fashion then the rest of the industry and the outside world would take them more seriously. I think the change, like any other change, needs to come from within the industry itself.



As for the grey hairs, at least they are coming to shows, paying for tickets, it's to our detriment we scoff them. It's our responsibility to bring in new and younger audience. It's not the fault of the grey hairs they are paying for shows they want to see which bigger companies produce.



It's professional theatre that needs to adapt and find a way to work in modern society. It's up to us to get more interest in localized and community theaters. It's up to us to spark our imaginations and then fuel the imaginations of it's audience. It's a process, a day by day process where there is no magic fix, but it might just take on production to set theatre on fire a make it a trend, a "must do" event.



I recently had two friends who had never been to a play come and see me in a show. They made huge effort to dress up, even though I told them repeatedly it was completely unnecessary, and they couldn't believe how entertained they were and how much they enjoyed the production. So much so, that they were hungry for more theatre. It's our responsibility here as well, to attract people who don't go to theatre, because of a mis-perception they won't understand it or it's "not for them." Theatre has so much to offer to every single facet of society. But we need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves, and we need to start making some bloody good, financially rewarding, entertaining theatre that finds new audiences and brings them back repeatedly.
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Posted by forbesg on October 2, 2014 at 3:49 PM · Report this
40
You say corporations aka non-profit theaters aren't making theatre because they're too concerned on making money that does not go to the artist. I agree, money should go to the artist rather than the budget for more donor related get togethers.



However, money toward educational programs is not a sinful thing; theatre is educational, so I think money towards educational programs is still following the goal of a theater.



Also, if you are against "corporations" (who do have the talent of making money for the company), how will an artist benefit financially from "garage theaters"? It's a catch 22: for artists to make money they should go to bigger theaters but for them to make theatre they should go to smaller theaters (for the record, I believe large "corporation" theaters/regional theaters have the artistry to make proper theatre according to your standards).



I've seen great work from community theatre. Are the actors getting paid? No. Are the audience demographics the same (older, white, wealthy)? Yes. So I don't think the cause you point out is the cause we should be fighting against. Big, small, equity, non-equity, doesn't matter. What matters is showing people how much work goes into a show (many don't have a clue) and why their money should go towards the artists.
Posted by lsalva on October 2, 2014 at 2:24 PM · Report this
39
I loved this piece. But i think Daisy's suggestion that Theater is dying because it's not taking on social issues is totally not true. Sure there is too much same 'ol same 'ol. But the new works are more often than not insufferable.

One of things that stopped me — and good number of people I know — from going to local theater regularly was the number of new works that were just laborious rhetorical cudgels thinly disguising somebody's pet social justice issue. The story, the characters all became tertiary to a tedious lecture.

There is only so much "fuck you, evil middle class white people" shit an audience of mostly white middle class people can take before they kind get sick of projected pointless self hatred.
Posted by tkc on October 2, 2014 at 12:35 PM · Report this
38
"Today, my wife and I are one of a handful of working companies who create original work in theaters across the country."



Really? You make some great points, but I know a few hundred people in theatre companies who might disagree with you. Are they all making a living at it? No. But they are certainly creating original work.
Posted by pklucas on October 2, 2014 at 10:14 AM · Report this
37
As a member of a 55 year old, Tony-award winning, Equity theater collective that does free shows about current political issues from a workers perspective, I can say there is another way. It is possible to survive, and even thrive, with no artistic director, no corporate sponsorships, paying a living wage (or what what would a living wage if we weren't in the most expensive city in the world), and doing original, impactful shows about current issues. So many of our major regional theaters started as just that - theater collectives or actor ensembles - but at some point (normally to raise money from corporations that only want to talk to "The Boss") these companies de-evolved to what has come to be accepted as the traditional Artistic Director model, which has then to led to domination by a Board of Directors (which are basically a group of rich people or corporate representatives that have no interest or motivation to fund anything that questions their rule over us). There is increasing interest in replicating our model, to create more theater collectives of empowered artists, rather than the rule-from-the-top down, corporate power structure. But that would require Artistic Directors to either help replace themselves with actual, empowered acting companies, or for the actors to form their own companies. In the first case the toughest part is that the Boards will never back the kind of revolutionary changes needed to create actual, worker-run companies, or address in an active way the real-life, often-caused-by-Capitalism problems that are effecting the communities. Theater is a hammer with which you can shape the world, but in the hands rich Board members and cowed Artistic Directors is a spatula with which to make colorful yet soporific cookies. Regional theater is a chance for the working class to talk to itself; for workers to clarify for themselves - in an entertaining way - the myriad of challenges confronting us - and to do it without the for-profit, big buck filter that controls Broadway and Hollywood. But it requires the artists who make the art to be valued more than those who raise or have money, and for those onstage to have the power to tell creative, revolutionary stories about the communities they live in. But as long as the corporate mindset rules theater the actors - the only essential aspect of theater - will be seen as widgets, an easily replaceable part that should be gotten as cheaply as possible. And theater itself will not be seen as the vital place people come to see the problems of the world passionately debated. It will continue to degenerate into a simple, bland diversion, and as such it cannot compete with the comfort of a couch, or the latest streaming spectacle on a big screen tv.
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Posted by michaelgenesullivan on October 2, 2014 at 10:09 AM · Report this
36
Mike Daisy's show on Steve Jobs and how he was exposed by This American Life should call into question the viability of any position he takes as empirical reasoning. He begs the question by making up "data" that resembles reality then smuggles his conclusion to his premise without offering any systematic solution. He is Rush Limbaugh for the Left-Leaners and has about as much insight. He provokes to build his brand - this entire column is self-promotion through the damnation of a well-established emotional cliche.
Posted by coconnor1017 on October 2, 2014 at 7:31 AM · Report this
35
I'm nearly speechless at the lack of understanding, and the "blame the victim" attitude of this.





Completely missing from the article is the abandonment of arts by traditional funding sources-- • the government, which people continue to think massively support nps (and yet account for less than 5% of the budget at most arts organizations); • locally-based corporations, which are simply gone-- the banks, the small manufacturers, the insurance companies, hospitals, even doctors and dentists offices that used to support local and regional arts are all now owned by remote corporations with no stake in the local community and do all their fundraising through national scams like the Aids Walk and Susan G. Komen events. • Foundations, which only want to support "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" because they are incapable of making the connection that to teach art you need artists, and who have swallowed the conservative vilification of creative people.





At the theaters I currently work for, those educational programs are the profit center, funding the actors and the tech needed to keep the art on stage at a premium level, so you bet your ass that's what I'm trying to get funded. Corporations and foundations don't fund the pure art any more, shall we just stop raising money for the artists entirely?





Furthermore, they are a way for us to employ our artists, since, no, we can't pay them what they're worth.





So sorry that my sacrifice of my own art career so that I could raise money for people like you was "selling out" and "ruining theater". I'm so inspired to go to work today, knowing that the people whose salary I raise think I'm the problem.
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Posted by olgasdaughter on October 2, 2014 at 7:30 AM · Report this
34
There are some bright spots, Michael Moriarty sat the Dallas Theater Center for example.
Posted by mambeaux on October 2, 2014 at 7:00 AM · Report this
33
As for the film scene in Seattle: There are a lot of awesome projects that are made there, however, there are also way too many production companies. Most production companies make a few films and disappear due to financial problems.

If all of the production companies came together under one name, it would increase the chances of the "public" to know where to send their money. Example: Instead of having one hundred companies like "Burger Orchard" etc. come together under "Puget Sound Productions", and put that moniker in front of every film made in the PNW.

And, release the darn films after the festival circuits! A lot of great films that people want to see never get seen because they do the festivals and thats it. There's no excuse not to have people access your work, especially with the internet.

You don't make money by making a pizza every now and then on random street corners. You make money by making a lot of pizzas with a specific brand and a specific location.

This is pretty much how ZOE was able to be successful. I think it would be a great idea for ZOE to post the films made in the PNW on their site; they have a following, and it could act as the "Puget Sound Productions" thing.

Also, put trailers of other PNW films in front of your films to let people know that if they like the film they are watching now, that there are other films made in the PNW that are also good! It works damn well for Hollywood, doesn't it?

It's not that hard!
Posted by Thrallxiss on October 1, 2014 at 6:29 PM · Report this
32
And that is why I left Seattle. Had to get out of there before I became a crabby down on my luck actor.

Here's how you fix it, (in my opinion) actors and technicians: absolutely refuse to work for free. They (the producers etc) will be forced to figure it out or die. At least it won't be a slow desperate sinking, and you will be forced to figure something out or move on.

I've moved on to a market that will allow me to make a living at it, hopefully.

Also utilize your space: There are plenty of hotels that would love to have live entertainment. Why not stage plays in hotels? It worked out great for Vegas.

Also, also: Churches thrive off donation platters. Pass around a donation plate that goes to feeding the talent during the show or intermission.

I've suggested this specific idea several times, and the response is always "yeah but we can't do that because our tickets cost 20-40". When I hear this I hear "I'm too afraid to ask for money, and am letting you starve because I don't want to shame myself into begging".

Ask for money during the show! Don't be afraid of asking for it! If I can make 20$ for a ten minute pedicab ride, folks will shell out money to support performances. It is not a weakness to ask for money; every other profession asks for a lot of money, and they get it.

I worked at a small cabaret in Colorado and they took donations and the actors all took home 40$ on average per show! And this was in a small town with very little "theater" or "art" patrons.

If you don't ask for money for your services, of course you won't get it...
Posted by Thrallxiss on October 1, 2014 at 6:18 PM · Report this
31
It's not failing BECAUSE it's a corporation, it's failing AS a corporation. Like any business, theater has to keep up with the times. It hasn't. They're asking for ticket prices most people don't want to pay for shows most people don't want to watch at venues they don't want to go to.

Music is probably the best example of a corporate structure moving with the times. You might have hated Justin Bieber but hordes of screaming girls with their parents' cash loved him well enough. Every generation hates the music of the younger generation but the music itself marches on, as alive (and therefore changing) as ever.

Theater is dying because the corporations are not engaging in good business. The suggestion seems to be that they would rather die than see "their art" change. It's like the music industry deciding that if people don't like Elvis Presley, by God, they'll let the whole thing collapse before they endorse a single Justin Bieber. Noble for sticking to their guns or reckless for killing an entire art form?
Posted by Northern Paladin on October 1, 2014 at 5:36 PM · Report this
30
I am very conflicted on this article. I complete agree that the outsourcing of artists from NYC is horrible. I think it is destroying the theatre community nation wide. I love the sports analogy (when do I EVER say that) discussing how we no longer have teams to root for within our communities. It is becoming less and less about meeting the needs/desires of the community and becoming more about what will be the most commercially (but not...) successful. Outsourcing is also making a statement that nothing outside of NYC is quality which is removing all artists from these various communities and making audiences less interested/passionate about their local arts organizations.

Where I am troubled by the article is this notion that arts administrators are reaping giant benefits over the artists they bring in. For one, thousands, if not MILLIONS of dollars are spent annually shipping artists to and from New York. Not only do they have to pay Equity wages (often higher than you would need to pay local actors who are living in cities with lower cost of living) but also, shuttling them to and from AND housing makes the cost of an artists twice (or more) expensive than hiring local artists. Additionally, the number of trips the casting directors, artistic directors, associate artistic directors, etc take to find said artists, add thousands more to the over all price.

Being a full time arts administrator, I can tell you that most of our artists make much more (sometime twice as much) as I make weekly. Yes, this money accounts for time off between jobs and is almost ALWAYS being shared with Equity, agents and managers BUT what I am making still barely covers living expenses and I work 60 hour weeks on average. I couldn't even get a part time job if I wanted it because of my sporadic and extensive schedule. Now, I am new to my position and I know those leading the organization are easily making nine to ten times what I am making, but the notion that arts educators, marketers, literary managers, etc are rolling in it is ABSURD! The system is totally fucked but making the administrators the reason for why artists can't survive is ridiculous.

Going back to the original outsourcing conversation, I am 100% for building stronger artistic communities throughout the nation that can sustain themselves. Actually, one of the biggest things I see standing in the way of making this happen is the regulations Equity puts out (for the record, I do like much of Equity...but some things to reconsider). At a regional theatre, there are very few non-Equity contracts available. Add on top of that, training programs (apprenticeships/colleges/etc) tend to take most of, if not the rest of, the available non-Eq contracts the theatres have. Since it is near impossible for local artists to be Equity in these smaller markets, the local artists don't even have a shot at getting hired even if the theatre wants them. The unions put in place to support the New York artists are starting to diminish the potential for local artists. Because of this, theatres are becoming even more reliant on the east coast and thus having to put their money towards helping the over populated New York market, rather than supporting its small local artistic pool. I am just waiting for the day that the theatre community in NYC explodes and its artists start migrating back and enhancing national markets. If anyone knows of ways to help support this, let me know!
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Posted by Rooney5646 on October 1, 2014 at 3:35 PM · Report this
29
It's very easy to bitch and moan about a problem, Mike. But if that's all you do, you're not helping anything. Let's hear your plan to save American theater, instead of just your rambling complaints. You didn't offer a single viable suggestion in this blog post. And you either ignorantly or intentionally omit a very important fact: theater companies today are competing with forms of entertainment that have never existed before in the history of the world. The Internet, streaming television, music and movies that you can take anywhere in your pocket. And we're doing the best that we can. We're evolving. And sure, some companies are doing it more slowly than others, but it's not as grim as you make it out to be (not surprising, given your track record for exaggeration of facts). This isn't a done deal, as your dramatic title would have us believe. "Failed". This story doesn't take place in the past tense, Mike, because there are still people out there who truly care, who are trying new things and growing. Not all of us have the luxury of sitting back and accusing and placing blame. Some of us ACTUALLY care enough to change things.
Posted by theatermatters on October 1, 2014 at 3:07 PM · Report this
28
Replace the word "actor" with "faculty," and you'll get what's happening in many university theatre departments, as well. I mistakenly thought teaching would be a good way to supplement my artistic career, but am watching as the administrators get rich and marketing budgets swell while our classrooms grow over crowded, and faculty are diminished to "instructor" levels (ie, without support or benefits).
Posted by ElizabethII on October 1, 2014 at 3:05 PM · Report this
27
Wow, this was amazing. I have two thoughts about this.
The first is it's terrible what regional theaters have done to the idea of a theater company. I remember Trinity Square in Providence, RI, and the may still follow the company idea, and seeing Richard Kneeland in all sorts of different plays and Richard Jenkins and Peter Gerety. It was so awesome seeing them do all sorts of different kinds of work. And I LOOKED FORWARD to it.
When ACT in San Francisco abandoned that model many years ago I kind of stopped going. ACT has a wonderful school, but what does it say about what ACT thinks of their own school when they basically bring in road shows cast in NY?
Posted by owenbf on October 1, 2014 at 2:15 PM · Report this
26
Thanks Mike for honest and heart retching appraisal. Reposting here in Minnesota, where some of this is also true. My partner and I attend lots of small and large theaters in the Twin Cities. Sometimes there are are wonderfully packed houses, and other times there are disappointedly empty houses, where the best art often happens. Reading your article I recalled some of the best productions, where too many seats were empty. Mixed Blood Theater has a Radical Hospitality policy, which is expanding the faces of their audiences. If you want a guaranteed ticket, pay for it. Otherwise, pay what you can. Have not seen an empty house in such a long time, which make me very happy!
Posted by Marie G. Cooney on October 1, 2014 at 10:49 AM · Report this
25
I work for a professional theatre company in Oklahoma City. The Artistic Director's model is a combination--he hires good people, and often one or two of the Equity contracts are let to folks from out of state, although rarely out of the region. The company runs in the black. I am the company dramaturg (few companies have one) and no, I don't make my whole living from this one job. But the company survives and is locally supported, which is better than most. It might be interesting to look at the working model of Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre company. All that said, i do wish they would hire local people for the leads all the time, and not just sometimes.
Posted by hadhufang on October 1, 2014 at 10:39 AM · Report this
24
Given the age of this article, michaela_Seattle, I think that perhaps the resurgence in the Seattle arts scene, recently covered in an issue of Backstage, is more recent than the author's experiences. Perhaps we are not living in the grim, dark future of the grimdark just yet.
Posted by sparf on October 1, 2014 at 9:50 AM · Report this
23
I see Seattle actors performing on Seattle stages all of the time. Are you only going to the Paramount to see touring shows?
Posted by michaela_Seattle on September 30, 2014 at 3:40 PM · Report this
22
As we Quakers say, "You speak my mind, Friend."
Posted by JeanmarieSimpson on November 30, 2012 at 8:48 AM · Report this
21
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
http://samlongoria.blogspot.com
More...
Posted by Sam Longoria http://samlongoria.blogspot.com on July 23, 2011 at 1:10 AM · Report this
20
@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
19
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.…

PLEASE SUPPORT INDIE THEATER BY SHOWING UP!

Posted by LA-TONIA DENISE WILLIS http://syllogismproductions.weebly.com on June 15, 2010 at 7:16 PM · Report this
18
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.
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Posted by Artimus on December 6, 2009 at 12:00 PM · Report this
17
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
16
simple, truthful, and heartbreaking.
Posted by agreed on October 17, 2009 at 10:19 AM · Report this
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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
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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
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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.

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Posted by J. Thomas on September 7, 2009 at 6:32 AM · Report this
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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.
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Posted by LDuP on September 4, 2009 at 12:29 PM · Report this
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"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
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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.
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Posted by amy_30 on September 4, 2009 at 2:56 AM · Report this
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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.
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Posted by Smithy on August 29, 2009 at 1:07 PM · Report this
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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
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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
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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
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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
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