The Theater(s)We Need Now
Okay. I wrote a really long discursive essay about The Theater(s) We Need Now – and I didn’t even dive too deep into the arts admin weeds – but I know how things are, I know what life is like, I know everybody’s busy so here’s the TLDR bullet point version of major takeaways on how we need to transform American Theater into the theater(s) we need now:
- Be Different: The world is insane! Pandemic, Trump, Christian White Nationalist Anti-Vaxx Nazi Homeschoolers on TikTok, Moms for Liberty on the local school board, Rapacious End Stage Capitalism, Climate Crisis, Homelessness, Poverty and just a general prevailing attitude of “fuck it and fuck you” by too many people who should know better, probably do know better, but choose to be assholes. Somebody, somewhere needs to model a different, better way of being in the world, propose new worlds and show how we might act in those new worlds; Joe Chaiken thought that was something theater could and should do. Listen to Joe.
- Be Communal: Theaters must think more expansively of themselves as communal spaces, not merely entertainment venues for stage presentations to ticket buyers; what does it mean to be a civic space, a public space, a “third place”? No, really. Not just to playact and pretend by using a bunch of grant language. How would you behave differently, speak differently, welcome people differently, allocate resources differently? How do you need to change as an institution and as a person to be a truly inclusive, welcoming communal space? How do we re-think the regional theater system (and Performing Arts Networks) as national communal infrastructure?
- Be real about money: Unless you are willing to charge exorbitant ticket prices (Broadway, commercial touring houses), then the performing arts are not a “sustainable” business, much less profitable, and they’re not supposed to be. (learn about Baumol’s Cost Disease, read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift). Embrace the idea that non-profit theater is a money-losing proposition that we must subsidize as a public good, for the public benefit, and plan accordingly, change the ways in which you ask for support, who you ask for support and what you ask them to support.
- Be More Local: Work with local playwrights, directors, actors, choreographers, musicians, technicians, designers, artists and community members regardless of where you live. Invest in building up the local talent pool. Incentivize talent to remain or relocate to your community (bring back resident companies?) and share their knowledge and experience with homegrown artists; build new work locally, at home, invest in human capital and social networks.
- Share Power. Really think about whether a single artistic director is the only or best model for leadership in your community. Concentrating so much decision-making power (and responsibility) in one person is rarely the best practice for a communal institution. Think more creatively about artistic leadership and find models that bring more voices and perspectives into programming and new work development. Even a single artistic director should rely on, and be held accountable to, an empowered advisory body from the local artistic community
- Be More Adventurous: Expand the palette of “theater” to include a wider variety of work that reflects different modes of making and invites audiences to ask different questions, have different conversations and offers more ways of participating in the theatrical experience
- Be Purpose-Driven (not merely mission-driven) – translate the mission and vision statements very specifically into action, not vague generalities that border on meaningless. We, as institutions, organizations and individuals, have a purpose on this earth, in this life. Our purpose, if we have chosen the path of non-profit arts, is to bring people together, to foster imagination and creativity in our communities, to build bridges and connections, in partnership with artists. One of the ways we do that is by supporting local artists and inviting artists into our communities to use their creative gifts to produce experiences that inspire, move, provoke, entertain and encourage us to be as alive and fully human as we can be.
- Be Generous. Be Creative. Be Brave. Be Utopian. Dream Big. Start from Love.
Okay, so it is not a 1:1 correlation between the TLDR bullet point version and the essay so proceed at your own risk. But I hope you’ll want to read the essay. Let us embark upon the Eightfold Path. Here we go!
- The Future Beckons
Back in November 2022 I wrote an essay about 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways, Part 3: An Assembly, calling it The Single Most Remarkable Work of 2022 and articulating why I felt that way. I encourage you to read the entire essay but here’s the gist of it:
“We were the show: the performers, the audience and the crew. As we enacted the narrative arc of the story, such as it is, we confronted challenges, observed the world around us, and interacted with each other. A group of strangers, we were invited to be creative together, to trust each other, to be vulnerable and through vulnerability and cooperation find connection and strength. We became, even if only for a short time, a community unto ourselves. That is truly remarkable [….] I think that if theater can be said to have a function it is to “make the stone stony” – to use the tactics of art to create the conditions for us to see the world in a new way, to reveal that which had heretofore been hidden, overlooked or forgotten. In some scenarios it may be about revealing underlying cultural assumptions and biases, in others it might be reminding us of the miraculous that resides within the mundane. There are countless ways that we may be encouraged to see the world in a new way and then return to the everyday world inspired to be in the world in a new way. One of the things that makes A Thousand Ways, Part 3: An Assembly so remarkable is that it not only encourages to see the world, and each other, in a new way, it creates the space for us to actually be in the world in a new way – to try it out, together.”
In light of current events I feel compelled to revisit that essay and those ideas; I feel inspired to propose a conversation about the present and the future: the theater(s) that we need now.
I have been following the conversations about what’s going on in the theater – the Public cancelling Under The Radar, CTG cancelling programing at the Mark Taper Forum, BAM laying off 13% of its staff and reducing its programming – with great interest, trepidation and growing frustration. In all of this conversation in the press and on social media, the one thing that I have not seen mentioned anywhere, by anyone, thus far – and I think this is revealing- is the audience.
Nobody is talking about the audience, about why attendance is down, about why donations are down, etc. It’s easy to blame the pandemic but these downward trends are longstanding, decades in the making really, and speak to a larger, mostly unexamined question of relevance, meaning and impact. The performing arts generally, and theater specifically, despite gobs of foundation money injected into the system to support “innovation”, “engagement” and “digital transformation”, remains woefully out of touch. It is not serving its legacy audiences and it is not attracting new audiences in any meaningful way.
I have very strong opinions about the theater(s) that we (and by “we”, I mean American Society in the broadest, most expansive, inclusive, sense possible) need now. But I’m old enough to know that in point of fact, I can really only truthfully speak to the theater that I need now, and extrapolate from there.
This essay is destined to be a mess, there is so much to discuss, so much history and context, but the essential thing here, now, is the future. As we witness the now-accelerating slow-motion collapse of the current system, those of us who understand ourselves to be part of the larger theater community – and really, I mean to include the entire field of performing arts, not merely NYC theater and the regional theater system – are being presented with an extraordinary opportunity to remake the field for our times and in so doing revitalize it.
The history of the performing arts in America is one of constant change; we have inherited a vaunted legacy of taking the scraps of broken things to make new, better, extraordinary things. Today, right now, is one of those exceptional moments of possibility and promise, a wonderful gift; let’s not waste this moment by consuming ourselves and our energy with self-righteousness, hand-wringing, vituperation and blame. Let’s celebrate the messy birth of a new era and work together to build something magnificent!
- Standing Up for the Audience
Over the course of my billion years working in the arts I have been a maker of performances (writer, performer, director), an administrator, a curator and producer of performances and festivals, and, most notably, a critic. But no matter what other roles I have played, I have always been an audience member. So, this essay is mostly from the perspective of that most spurned of lovers, the audience member.
I’ll begin with a poetic take on relevance. We as audiences think we want to be entertained, but we need meaning, purpose and belonging. Our screens isolate and distract us, our relentless capitalist society atomizes and undermines us, insists we are no more than consumers. These harsh, uncaring, indifferent times require an antidote, a profound and powerful resistance to the overwhelming forces marshalled against us, forces that are working to diminish our capacity to be fully human, alive, compassionate and connected. These times seek to narrow our imagination, narrow our sense of possibility, constrict and constrain our self-conception and understanding of the world, sever us from the vast interconnected web of being; we need spaces that help us resist disenchantment, that reconnect us to each other; we need spaces of possibility where we co-imagine the fullest, deepest, most realized possible versions of ourselves and the world. We need experiences that reaffirm our interconnectedness, that provide us with the spiritual sustenance needed to survive in the quotidian world. This is the theater we need now.
- The Experience of Going to The Theater
When I was living in Seattle in the early 90’s this guy named Camden Toy did a show at my friend Matt Richter’s space, Room 608. He told me that when I went to New York I had to check out P.S.122, it was where everything was happening. So as soon as I got to NYC I went to P.S.122 and immediately all I wanted was to be a part of it. I had no idea how to get in. Everyone knew each other already and I had no idea from where, or how. So, I started going to Dixon Place, Surf Reality, Collective Unconscious, and HERE Arts Center – really pretty much anywhere I could to meet people, perform and learn the ropes.
In 2002, I started working at P.S.122 and that was when I finally, finally, started to find a place for myself downtown. That whole experience is a big part of why I started Culturebot in 2003. First, Culturebot gave me a reason to meet people and talk to them, interview them, go to shows, learn about the artists, see new work and understand the larger ecosystem. And Culturebot was a way I could make it easier for other people to find their way in and find each other. In some small way I thought we could help the community to be less insular by putting a frame around it and making it legible to outsiders and showing people the way in.
By the time I left NYC in 2014 I was seeing as many as five shows a week. Part of what I loved most, and still miss so much it sometimes physically pains me, was that every night I spent at the theater was a night spent with friends. I knew people in the audience, I knew people in the box office, I knew people onstage, I knew the playwright, director, choreographer and designers; other arts writers, administrators, curators, funders and audience members, even ushers who worked at all the different venues. We worked together, shared meals, conversations, celebrations and sadness, ups and downs, we bitched and moaned and shared triumphs and fought stupid fights but always, always, with a feeling that we were part of something really special.
I think that this is what every audience everywhere wants when they come to the theater. We want to feel like we are meeting up with friends. We want to see people we know in the lobby, we want to see people we know onstage, we want to know the person that works in the box office and the ushers, we want to know the people seated next to us and across the room in another section so we can wave to them and meet them at intermission for a drink. There is nothing worse than feeling like a stranger milling around with other strangers awkwardly avoiding eye contact, worrying about if you belong. If you run a theater and you aren’t trying to create that sense of welcome, belonging and inclusion with your audience, then you are failing them, it doesn’t matter what you put onstage. If you work in the performing arts and you haven’t studied relational aesthetics, do yourself a favor and take a crash course.
For example, one of the coolest things I ever experienced was the bar at the opening night of the closing exhibition at Exit/Art Gallery when Culturebot did our Ephemeral Evidence exhibit. You had to wait in a long line, as one usually does at a packed art opening, but when you got to the front of the line there was a price list for drinks. I don’t remember the exact amount but a single beer was, I think, $10 and 10 beers was maybe $1? Like that. So as soon as someone got to the front of the line they immediately started talking to the people around them to get enough drink orders together to get the cheaper drinks. Never have I ever seen a group of strangers connecting and laughing and cooperating so quickly and joyfully as I did that night. I’m pretty sure that the bar was itself an art project. Relational aesthetics. Dig it.
People come to the theater to be with other people. The show is not the whole thing. It is a big part of the thing, but it is only one part of the thing.
Theater administrators need to think deeply, consciously, profoundly and with care, about the entire experience of going to the theater, being in the theater, leaving the theater and why someone might want to come back to the theater. They need to think about the physical theater as their home and the audience as their guests; friends they haven’t met yet, to be welcomed into a warm home with other guests that they will want to meet. There’s a million ways to do this but first you have to change your head about what it is you’re doing. Throw out everything all the consultants say, the Michael Kaisers and Audience Experts and Community Engagement Marketing Strategy Advisor people, just throw it the fuck out the window and open your heart to humanity, make welcoming, brave spaces of possibility grounded in love of your fellow human beings. And have some fun!!!
- The Thing That Happens (mostly) Onstage (but sometimes elsewhere)
I’m not going to get into a whole thing because I know it is a matter of taste. There are types of shows I enjoy and others that I do not. I’ve had people express surprise when I’ve shared some of the popular things that I like because they think I only like experimental work but that’s a misunderstanding. I like to say that experimentation is about process, not product. If you use an experimental mindset to make a thing and it still winds up a well-made play, that’s great. The point is that you went in to the making with an inquisitive and curious mind, a sense of openness and discovery. If you end up on familiar ground, so be it, maybe that is what you needed to make, maybe that is what the story demands. But when artists fall back on formula, familiar habits and “tried and true” – that’s when they get stuck creatively and audiences must endure mediocre work.
As an audience member what I want most from theater (or, “the thing that happens mostly onstage but sometimes elsewhere including inside my head while I’m watching/listening/physically experiencing”) is discovery. I want to feel something, sure, and I want to have something to think about, but mostly I want to be delighted through discovery. I want to be surprised. I want to be enchanted and moved and expanded and transported and returned to the world as it is just a little bit different. I don’t even mind being bored from time to time, if I think that something will eventually be revealed. It is not merely about formal innovation in the structure of the “story” (which needn’t necessarily be a conventional story at all) but thoughtful consideration of the set, lighting, sound, etc. I want to spend my time in the theater as time outside the quotidian. Didacticism, whether in storytelling or visual representation, is exhausting, unsatisfying and off-putting. The only thing less satisfying for audiences than uninspired mediocrity is didacticism disguised as innovation or experimentalism.
One problem I’ve noticed more frequently of late is that when artists are making theater as a calling card to get commercial work in television and film, the theater they make will inevitably skew towards the aesthetic and formal concerns of television and film. The artist becomes less concerned with what is essentially different about live performance, less concerned about making work that exploits liveness as a unique condition, opportunity and exploration. That’s not a dis, just an observation. But if I want to watch tv, I’ll watch TV. I think most audience members share that feeling.
If you are making theater, you need to make something that can only truly be experienced live, in-person, with other people, where its inherent value is its liveness. And you need to think about the performance as a focal point for a community gathering, not merely a spectacle to be observed (consumed). We ought to consider that the “thing that happens mostly onstage but sometimes elsewhere” is really complex and people who want to make the theater that we need now must think more expansively (and more experimentally) about the work.
One of the best shows I’ve been to recently was my 4½ year old son’s preschool graduation.
Long story short, in February we switched him from a super tiny daycare with six kids in his class to a proper preschool with 15 kids in his class. It was a bumpy transition since at midyear all the other kids knew each other; some had started “going to school” together during the pandemic. There was a bunch of other stuff, but going into graduation we weren’t sure what was going to happen. His teachers said he might not feel comfortable onstage and might prefer to sit with us; he came home from school telling us how he wasn’t able to learn the songs or the choreography because the other kids already knew it, things like that. As the day approached, we were filled with trepidation and uncertainty. But lo and behold, when graduation day came, our little guy sat with his class, walked onstage with his class, sang the songs, did the choreography, and behaved perfectly the whole time!! I have never been more invested in a performance in my life.
Thinking about his journey to that stage, and his success just by being there, looking at all these other beautiful kids, all of whom started preschool during the pandemic, I reflected on how brave and magnificent they were, how brave we all have to be, all the time, how many risks we must take and ask others to take, how hard and slow it is to grow and learn and share and become ourselves, and how much work we have to do to help our (collective) children, and how much work we ought to still be doing on ourselves. And how it really does take a village – to raise kids, to grow as human beings, to not devolve into being an asshole all the time. Being a good person is a lot of work, we need each other, we have to hold each other up with grace and compassion. I believe that theater is a technology that can help us practice that.
As I said at the beginning of this section, sometimes people think I’m a snob and I guess I am. But not in the way people tend to think of snobs. I love musicals and well-made plays, I love solo shows and spoken word and puppets and community-based plays and all kinds of theater (and dance and music and performance) that has general appeal. It isn’t about that. What makes me a snob is that I have expectations that the work, whatever it is, be well-considered and intentional. I’m actually fine with work that “fails” for the right reasons. I’m not fine with self-indulgent, self-centered, or condescending; self-serving work that is dramaturgically lax and sloppily delivered, intentionally focused on the lowest common denominator.
I always walk into the theater wanting the performers to succeed, wanting the show to be great. I’m always on their side. I never walk in wanting to be a hater, I’m always looking for something to appreciate and value. It takes a lot for me to turn against the work, and it happens only rarely. I think I’m actually a pretty typical audience member in that regard, and this is something artists and theater producers might want to keep in mind: the audience wants you to succeed, even with the most difficult experimental work, even with the strongly worded messages. If you give audiences respect and just a few tools to access something that might be difficult, they will likely follow you wherever you go. We want to go on a journey and learn and feel and discover. Honor that.
- An Unprecedented Opportunity
Back in the day I wrote about watching performance as a spiritual practice and about live art in the age of mindfulness; going to the theater used to be the place I went to get that experience of being outside of prosaic, quotidian time, of nurturing my inner imaginative space, of quieting my mind, of communion, if you will. Since we moved to California in the late summer of 2014 I haven’t really been able to get my theater fix the way I used to; it has left me sad and unsettled, I have had a hard time filling that space. There’s been a big hole in my life where theater used to be.
Then, after my Mom died in May 2022, I started going to synagogue every Saturday to say Kaddish. The traditional Jewish prayer service has a set structure but a lot of room inside that structure to “do your own thing” such as it is. From the outside it looks kind of chaotic and disorganized, like certain kinds of jazz where the ensemble starts out from a known melody, then goes off in their own directions, then somehow finds their way back to the melodic through line at key points in the song. The congregation I belong to is pretty artsy but also pretty traditional in its liturgical practice, so it is theatrical in its own way, but also expressive and deep. It follows the traditional structure, but digresses and has catchier tunes. I have found a progressive, inclusive Jewish community that is also formally rigorous, where the rabbis deliver brilliant close-reading text analysis and compelling storytelling each week. And I get to sing. It is pretty satisfying.
The three hours I spend in synagogue each week fills that need that theater used to fill – to get out of the quotidian and into the eternal, to change my experience of time and attention, to “go deep” if you will. Over the course of three hours I experience entire life cycles – births, deaths, coming of age, marriages, anniversaries, yahrzeits and all other kinds of milestones. It is incredibly powerful. And the communal lunches that follow services fill another need – to gather with others outside the realms of labor, commerce and competition.
It doesn’t work every week. Sometimes I go to services but I can’t get there, I can’t find my groove, the energy in the room is off, the Rabbi doesn’t deliver the intellectual and spiritual goods in the way I needed; some weeks I leave feeling like my experience fell short of what I needed.
But sometimes I find my groove, the energy in the room is vibrating at a super high level, the Rabbi really brings it, and we achieve lift-off. And it’s beautiful. I have joked that it is kind of like when I used to go to Grateful Dead concerts – sometimes it was just three long hours of uninspired noodling, sometimes it was three short hours of mind-boggling, soul-shaking, tuneful, soul-shaking, cathartic transcendence.
I say all of this because my experience is atypical, in that I’m finding meaning in formal (albeit very chill and shambolic) worship and (dis)organized religion while American society at large is leaving organized religion in droves. According to the NY Times, over the last few decades the country has undergone a massive religious shift where “No theological tradition, age group, ethnicity, political affiliation, education level, geographic location or income bracket [has] escaped the de-churching in America.”
Which in my mind presents a huge opportunity for secular communal spaces; just because people are losing their religion doesn’t mean they don’t want or need what those spaces have historically provided – the sense of belonging, the connection to something bigger than ourselves, that feeling of meaning, purpose and community – people still want and need that. They just don’t feel great about the God stuff and for sure don’t want all the hating LGBTQ people, the anti-choice, Right Wing Hate stuff that seems to be a part of so much of organized religion these days.
So, there’s a real, legitimate social need to be addressed, a gap to be filled, a service to be provided to people who are missing something essential from their lives. Theaters must think more expansively of themselves as communal spaces, meaning-making spaces, not merely entertainment venues for stage presentations to ticket buyers; what does it mean to be a civic space, a public space, a “third place”? No, really. Not just pretend playacting by using a bunch of grant language. How would you behave differently, speak differently, welcome people differently? How do you need to change as an institution and as a person to be a truly inclusive, welcoming communal space?
Maybe one way to start would be No More Artistic Directors. It no longer makes sense (if it ever did) to concentrate so much power in one person’s hands – power to determine artistic standards, allocate resources, define the mission and vision of an organization. Concentrating so much decision-making power (and responsibility) in one person is rarely the best practice for a communal institution. Think more creatively about artistic leadership and find models that bring more voices to the table aesthetically, culturally and artistically; bring more perspectives and experiences into programming and new work development. At the very least, have a formal, active artistic advisory committee from a variety of backgrounds and practices who are part of new work development, identifying new voices and advocating for artists and projects.
Theaters should really think about whether a single artistic director is the only or best model for leadership in your community. The same goes for the board. A communal organization doesn’t only have a money board – they have representation from every aspect of the community, bringing together a variety of perspective, experiences and expertise to learn from each other and lead collaboratively.
“Western” theater, with its roots in Ancient Greece, originated in religious ritual. This is well-trod territory. And countless theater artists throughout history, but particularly in the 20th Century Avant-Garde, sought out that ritualistic, shamanistic, cathartic impulse. Seeking out that original impulse doesn’t have to look like Grotowski, Artaud or undergraduates in robes, wearing masks and cothurni. It can look like whatever it looks like to be a vital communal institution in 2023.
Ancient Greek Theater was, most significantly, a communal experience. Confronted with the forces of atomization that seek to rend our human interconnectedness asunder, we most dedicate ourselves to recovering, reweaving and maintaining those bonds through these ancient technologies of drama, dance and music.
- The Expanded Field
So, here’s a part that you can totally skip reading, but I want to put it here because it feels relevant. It is about the so-called “expanded field” – mapping the vast interconnected web of people and experiences beyond the performance itself.
Back in 2014 got a grant from the Warhol Foundation to write a blog predicated on the idea of mapping the foundational concepts of Object Oriented Programming onto time-based art, which sounds really heady but basically I wanted to explore this one idea: that a show starts the moment you hear about it and it doesn’t end until you stop thinking about it.
At the start of my Warhol Grant project in 2014 I made this video and I have been working on this idea ever since. There are a few basic takeaways but one of them is that the thing that happens onstage in live performance is co-created with the live human beings in the audience as spectators; that, in fact, there is a liminal space of co-imagination, a generative imaginative field created by the embodied consciousnesses of the performers and the spectators. Their subjective realities meet in the middle if you will, creating a third imaginative entity.
All of which is a fancy way of saying that EVERY ASPECT of the machinery of how a performance works internally (the script, dramaturgy, actors, lighting, sound, etc.) and the way it unfurls in space over time is informed by everything that happened to the audience before they got there and is affected by the audience’s thoughts, perceptions and moods while co-experiencing the performance in shared space over time. Which is to say, this shit is mad complex and too many people take it for granted and take for granted that making plays is just telling stories by writing about people talking to each other. Or something.
I’m putting this out there because I feel like this idea has real value, not that everyone has to buy into it or even understand it, but just as a way of framing the wondrous complexity of this art form we call performance. Actors, writers, directors, performers, designers, everyone involved in the making of performance knows how to do their part; even when everyone is doing their best and really at their peak, you can still have a show that bombs or a performance that tanks, or a show that just kills. There is so much that seems intangible, and it kind of is intangible because there are so many factors. But all of us have, at some point or another, gotten into flow and felt when everything just goes right. It feels like magic. And it is a kind of magic. I don’t know if we can increase the likelihood of magic by mapping the system, but I think we can increase the likelihood of magic by believing in the magic, by working on creating the conditions for the magic to happen. And the magic isn’t gizmos and tech and holograms, the magic is people performing in front of other people live, in real time, with real risk, of failure, sending real energy in all directions, co-imagining and surfing the matrix together into infinite possibility. Kind of like the Spiderverse. Theater is like the Spiderverse. Only cooler.
- Econ Extra Credit: The Economics of the Performing Arts Explained (yet again)
Okay, I should probably have stopped already; here’s another section you should totally feel free to skip unless you’re an economics nerd.
The performing arts, by definition, are going to lose money. If the performing arts are to remain accessible to the public, they require subsidy. The question isn’t how to make money or become profitable, it is about choosing you are going to subsidize the work in order to create a public benefit. Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe an economist.
In 2012 Risa Shoup and I co-organized the Brooklyn Commune Project, an artist-driven, public, participatory research project into the economics of the performing arts. Dozens of artists worked for over a year doing lots of public programs, research and writing to excavate, explore and analyze the economic dilemma of the performing arts. We collectively wrote a report of our findings, you can download and read the report here. Long story short, one of our breakthrough revelations was discovering Baumol and Bowen’s landmark work Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma, originally published in 1966, where we encountered the “Baumol Effect” or “Baumol’s Cost Disease.”
To wit, in an industrial economy, technological innovation leads to increased productivity which drives down costs and drives up wages. However, there are certain sectors – like the performing arts, education and healthcare – where technological innovation doesn’t increase productivity. The quality of the experience of performing arts, education and healthcare depends on the quality of the human interaction. (Some people have identified these – and adjacent sectors – as being part of The Human Economy.) So, it still takes a long time and a lot of work to create a play, symphony, or ballet, and it still takes about 4 hours to watch Hamlet. You can’t shorten the creation time – or performance time – without greatly reducing the quality.
But you still have to pay people a wage that is at least somewhere approaching reasonable (or you ought to). Historically speaking people working in the arts (and nonprofit sector generally) have accepted lower real wages, because they are compensated in psychic income. Unfortunately, psychic income doesn’t pay the bills and people working in the arts who don’t have trust funds actually want a wage commensurate with their education and experience.
So increased wages across all aspects of administration and production drives up the cost of the product, and ticket prices go up accordingly. If we want to keep the arts affordable we have to subsidize the ticket cost. I remember a long, long time ago talking to Deb Singer when she was Executive Director at the Kitchen. The ticket revenue was such a minimal component of the overall budget that she decided she’d rather take the responsibility of raising extra money than raising the ticket prices. I don’t know if she knew about Baumol’s Cost Disease, but she knew it was more important that everyone who wanted to could afford to come see the work than to try and cadge a few extra bucks at the door. Once you accept that ticket revenue is not the path to sustainability it frees you up to make better decisions that benefit more people.
- In Conclusion
We can argue endlessly about all the things – the details, the specifics and mechanics, all the apparatuses of the system that keeps us in place. We can excavate and unpack the history from Little Theater to today, talk about where things went wrong, overdevelopment, overbuilding, over-professionalization, greed, ambition, venality and pettiness; we can despair about the state of affairs and bemoan the passing of these giant institutions; we can harbor resentment or give in to resignation, we can blame and bluster and rage and complain, we can diagnose the ills and propose cosmetic changes: some new paint, a slightly different version of the same old same old. Or we can question everything, reject the assumptions, reject the limitations of what other people (people in power) say is possible, and propose the impossible, propose to imagine the previously unimaginable and make it manifest in the world. Because that is what art does. That is where the true power lies.
To quote R. Buckminster Fuller:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Or, to quote The Beatles:
“And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make…”
Let’s do this.