The Theatre is Not Dead, and Other Truths

In the past several months on a few different occasions I’ve found myself in a sort of theoretical debate with an old colleague from college over the nature of working in the theatre world. I’m not quite sure why but the whole thing has left me a bit unsettled and bothered. Nothing’s got out of hand or anything like that, but I find I keep coming back to the topic, in my head, and wondering about it.

Back at school I was an undergrad acting major, he was a grad student in the MA program. My recollection is that he was a very smart, very approachable, funny and friendly guy. I suspect none of that has actually changed.

Today, I’m…well, I’m me—the guy from this blog, a theatre artist with a wide range of experiences, including acting, directing, producing, adapting and writing. My friend went on to earn a PhD in the field, author many articles, online pieces and a book (or two?), and today is a full fledged professor at a university.

As is the norm these days, I’ve not seen him in over twenty years but we’re Facebook friends, and have interacted a lot online, with funny stories, liking each other’s posts, sharing articles, and enjoying the fact that we have friends in common from places other than our alma mater. (You know, that “what a small world!” Facebook factor?)

But lately I’ve found a trend in the things he writes that I can’t quite agree with. And as I find I sometimes must, I ask questions and challenge a person who posts such things. I like to think that I’d learn something from such interactions, or perhaps enlighten them too. In this instance I certainly have learned things—but probably not what he wanted me to learn. I doubt I’ve done any enlightening.

To sum it up: he ridicules and criticizes the nature of the industry (chafing at the use of such a term) and preaches there’s a better, more successful model to artistic and economic success. He despises that universities are churning out students in drama programs across the country only for them to go out in to a world, primarily pushed to the large cities, where their chances of succeeding in that business are slim-to-none. (Hard to argue with that one; it’s true, but hardly new.) He posits that it doesn’t make any sense to become one of the masses waiting for an opportunity, that one needn’t, in fact, shouldn’t move to the big metropolis, audition for everything and hope to be hired. (Yet, that’s often what happens in many professions—you go where the work is.)

Ultimately: He believes the theatre is dying, if not already dead, and that American theatre artists are ignorant of the phenomenon, or at minimum, unwilling to do anything to change the direction.

To me, his posts come off as condescending, pompous and insulting.

For all his knowledge, for all his study and all his perception, I feel that’s a very misguided judgement. While I might applaud the proposal of something new, such as the expansion of rural arts, there’s no reason to criticize and discount the value of the work being done in the more (for lack of a term) traditional loci, and it’s particularly difficult to respect such an opinion when his experience therein is so minimal.

He complains and spouts rhetoric for a change to the way an industry works, but he’s never actually worked in that industry. He says that actors are like sheep, following the herd, and waiting for an opportunity from someone else rather than creating their own destiny, but I see many actors and other theatre artists finding opportunities and new ways of doing things. He says theatre companies aren’t producing new works, reflective of their local communities, and yet he’s wrong there because that kind of thing happens all the time.

Are those things happening enough? Probably not. We could always use more. But the theatre world isn’t dead, and it isn’t stagnating. In fact, it’s constantly changing.

The frustrating part, besides being talked down to as if I or others like me know nothing, is that he doesn’t ever offer any real suggestions as to how we can create this utopia that he imagines. There’s no practical applications he can suggest, and I suggest that’s because he doesn’t have the practical experience to know. 

I have worked with everything from new companies to well established, Equity houses. I have been an integral part of developing two theatre companies, and worked with and supported a number of nascent troupes. Starting a theatre is some of the hardest work, and is sometimes an overwhelming task with major risks. Yet working for one’s self can also be some of the most rewarding work. Creating a company takes infrastructure, financial support, collaboration, luck, gumption, and a lot of sweat and dedication. It can take years to build an audience and a following, or to become financially sound, or to be attractive to grant makers. This is not something easily created in a vacuum, and still rather difficult within a supporting artistic community. And I won’t even get in to the whole “doing it while working a day-job to pay the rent” issue.

There are some things he’s right about—primarily that drama students today will not likely find tremendous rewarding success in the theatre, or, as I would state, certainly not until they can discover what success means to them. In fact, figuring out what success means is important when one works in the arts. After all, this isn’t your typical job and no one really goes in to theatre to make a lot of money or find stability—they do it for other reasons, each to his own to discover.

I recall many conversations around that topic of “why do we do this?” through my 20s and 30s. Discovering that answer helps one to figure out with whom to work, how to go about getting work or creating work, and setting goals. I can’t think of anyone who’d have answered “I do this for the paycheck.” 

That said, I should admit here I did one time do something just for the money. In my defense, I went in to it for artistic purposes, but it turned out to have little merit. I didn’t quit because I had a contract, and I’d already wrangled in others to the project, who I couldn’t abandon. And, after all, the pay was pretty good. I’m still trying to make up for it to those friends of mine.

Over the past several weeks I’ve wondered what kind of advice he’s giving his students, and how he inspires them (or fails to, if that’s the case.) I wonder how effective he can be when he presents, as I see it, such a cynical view of the real world, a blind eye to the facts and a deaf ear to those who have tried to defend the current ways of the nonprofit theatre.

As one of my acting teachers taught us: Cynicism kills creativity. So cynicism is my least favorite trait in any one.

Working in the theatre is a hands-on experience. It can’t learned in a book or a lecture hall, and learning to be a theatre artist is not the same as learning the nature of the art of theatre.

The future of our American theatre, both commercial and nonprofit, in cities large and small across the country, relies upon students being properly prepared. University programs which have professional counterparts, such as internships and apprentice programs, should be supported, developed and praised. Students need to get their hands dirty with the work.

It’s that extra bit of knowledge from the real working world, the cold and dirty rehearsal halls, the run down green rooms, the late nights, the long hours, the 10-out-of-12s , the demands of difficult or eccentric coworkers, the excitement of opening nights, the stamina of a 16-week run—that’s the experience that will give them insight in to the world they hope to join.

The effective teachers will be those who too have a visceral knowledge of these things.

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One thought on “The Theatre is Not Dead, and Other Truths

  1. Pingback: Teachers: Brilliant, Terrifying and Invaluable | The Man In The Yellow Hat Lives Here

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