It seems that every two weeks the last couple months I’ve been hitting the same exact wall around being a theater artist. It’s the common “Why do I do this?” existential crisis. At least that’s what it seems like. However, there’s nothing existential about it. There’s nothing philosophical about the economic reality of theater.
A couple days ago my wife demanded I take a day off. I had been going two weeks straight, sitting in front of a computer, spending a couple days on one project (chasing future gigs and relationships related to it) and then putting it down, moving onto the next. I’m used to this way of working but I know ultimately something about it needs to change, and fast. I’m constantly working uphill, against a current, fitting myself into a system that is corrupted by what is considered valuable.
If you’ve even flipped through the introduction of The Gift by Lewis Hyde or looked at the reports that come out through Americans for the Arts you will see that the priorities around the arts in the U.S. are akin to being in skewed version of Life of Pi, where the tiger half-way through the story jumps ship because he doesn’t even see the point of trying to survive anymore.
When the one being that has been keeping you on your toes for your own survival bails… when that threat has become your one and only friend… when that liveness gives up… you have the sky above you and a hold on hope. There is a lot of space in between those two places. Both are limitless and that is the very problem. There needs to be some constriction to work against.
Isn’t that the point of art ultimately? The argument that if life was fine and dandy, if there weren’t any conflicts art wouldn’t be necessary. If we could be certain (I mean scientifically) about what happens when we die most art would be irrelevant, right? Maybe. I actually think the arts would be a lot better off if we weren’t in a constant state of worry. It would be much more beneficial if that wonder took its place and worry was an occasional nuisance.
So when I get tagged in a Facebook post by a friend about an interview with a theatre artist who has decided (out of necessity) to give up her full time arts practice in favor of new path that can promise a stable income, my heart breaks in two directions. One is selfish, a “how long before this happens to me” break where every word I read I relate to and identify with way too much. It’s as if it’s three years down the road and I’m the one answering these questions.
The other break is so full of grief it’s hard to describe. How many more artists are we going to lose to the tenuous rollercoaster of competitive grants, gatekeepers and decision-makers whose priorities have been lambasted by needing to sell tickets; who honestly write down feedback that states “She actually thinks she can make a living doing this?”. Not only have some grant panelists hearts darkened to a point where they feel that making these statements is ok, but that they think that they can actually judge someone’s artistic process in this manner. Sure I’m not going to like everyone’s output (I probably don’t like 50% of what I see) but everyone have the right to make that art and express themselves however they see fit.
The title of the above mentioned (depressing and realistic) interview has the word success in it. As someone who has spent the last couple years investigating what success even means I wonder if the author should have put the words in quotes. Not as a kick in the crotch to the artist or out of unnecessary and unchecked irony but because when you dig deeper into the profiles of artists who are considered to be doing well, you find that most, if not all, the struggles and difficulties come down to resources whether that is time, space or money.
Really though, it’s about money. Every. Single. Time. How can I blame anyone for deciding to change directions when the most they’ve made in the last five years was $23,000? That total consisting of 60 hour weeks of scattered, demanding, exhausting (yet inspiring and beautiful) work.
I write and think a lot about systems. I draw out mind maps constantly, looking at patterns of organizations, festivals that work for an against me, presenters who back me now matter what and which ones I have to pretend to like smooth jazz in order to have a drink with…
I draw bubbles connected to clouds to boxes and semi-circles, seeing how it all overlaps and where (if any) there are end points. I can tell you each time I reach a seeming end to a system or pattern it’s where the money is ultimately chased to. A foundation, a board, an ultimate decision maker.
I do believe that these people are trying to help, to use their expertise to empower and liberate artists from the binds of this economic struggle, but the facts are clear. More and more people are identifying as artists and the percentage of those that will make a significant living from it are few and far between. Yes, there’s enough money to go around ultimately (I’ve heard and agree with that argument) but art is subjective and the funding for it is limited.
At this point I’m reaching a critical point where I’m taking a step back and seeing how the same questions, the same concerns, the same issues and stumbling blocks exist across the spectrum from start-ups and entrepreneurial ventures to small local businesses as well as all the creative industries. There’s a lot of begging and groveling. There’s a lot of posturing and expert-pretending. There’s a ton of “I-don’t-knowing” that isn’t based in a healthy agnosticism but in a “If I tell the truth, this will never get funded.”
Luckily I’m involved in a few ecosystems that are all about sharing, that are based in community, that begin with co- and goes from there. I’m going to be writing about those more in detail as they progress. Something is driving me to see the loopholes and bring in the people with skills that are missing, that look at the traditional system of the arts non-profit sector, recognize what is busted and cracked and see how it can mend. Some orgs are already making significant steps in creating platforms of real and true sustainability.
However, most of the systems at large are broken beyond being fixed and we have to be ok with letting those fall apart and starting anew. In my view, stories of abandoning one’s art practice need to be historical, not current. We shouldn’t be rehashing the “artist had to decide to go in a different direction” tale. It’s not about generating new ideas or thinking we have solutions. It’s figuring out how to ensure that the value of artistic pursuits are given financial credibility in as many ways as possible. That can be done. It’s going to take work and the ability to get out of own way, to Dead-Poet-Desk-It but… It. Can. Be. Done.
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