The Economics of Theater

In Mac Wellman’s Village Voice article this week, he gives a great overview of an emerging playwright’s community. Those of us who see theater regularly downtown have seen much of the work being created and can attest to the fact that there is an enormous amount of vitality and ingenuity. And no-one can dispute Mr. Wellman’s positive artistic advocacy and his pivotal role in nurturing this emerging community.

At one point in the article, however, Mr. Wellman says:

This type of theater community doesn’t seem likely to morph into a Performance Group, Open Theater, or Wooster Group. The real estate situation—and the weird financial paradox of a super-rich New York with a young theater movement whose poverty seems to be its sole inheritance—have made such fixed structures virtually impossible.

And while I’m in whole-hearted agreement with his statements about the real estate situation and its impact on creating “fixed structures”, I question the use of the term “poverty” in reference to this young theater movement. We are talking about artists who are coming from Brown, Yale, NYU, UCSD, and Brooklyn College, among many other institutions of higher learning. Many of these artists have, or are working towards, M.F.A.s. This is not exactly a roll call of poverty and disenfranchisement.

So while the likely earning potential of an M.F.A. is certainly not comparable to that of an M.B.A., people coming from prestigious universities will inevitably have been exposed to people with M.B.As and the world of access and privilege that has long been the wellspring of funding for non-profit organizations.

I’m conflicted about this. I have written at length, in different forums, about what I call “The Theater of Privilege” and the impact of that privilege on the art we create. I, too, come from a comfortable home, I went to a good school and even in the most bohemian, punk rock, “off-the-grid” phases of my life I never really risked poverty and disenfranchisement.

In the face of the very real economic warfare going on in this country and the persistent cultural biases in the arts, is it accurate to use the term “poverty” when referring to artists coming out of the university system?

What do you think?

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