Monday, February 14, 2011

The Economics of Theater, Part 1

Many years ago I made a terrible financial mistake.  I decided to work in theater.

I could have, quite frankly, done most anything.  I certainly had the skills to become a lawyer, and investment banker, or a doctor (though being squeamish about blood might have been a holdback there).  And I have to say that all of them were also interesting to me.  So was being a scientist, a psychologist, a teacher, or any of a number of steadily paying jobs.

At the time, I made jokes about choosing to become a starving artist.  The truth was, however, I thought of that as a temporary hardship.  I had a sort of confidence in my abilities that told me, that if I had talent and brains I would eventually make money.  After all, I went to the theater, didn’t I?  I saw people on stage.  These people were professionals.  They were getting paid.  If I was also talented and smart, I could also get paid.

I was, for the most part, terribly deceived.

This is the truth: the industry is full of talented, intelligent people who barely make a dime.  That there is so little money available, and such a huge pool of talent, that in fact the probability is that an intelligent, talented artist will barely make a dime.

This is not a hard and fast rule, of course.  There is a very small percentage of people who work in theater who get paid decently.  There is also a small percentage of people who win the lottery.  The wise man does not make the lottery his career.

Unless…there is another economic benefit to playing the lottery that is unseen.  And in the lottery that is theater, there is.

What brings up these musings?  I have reached a point in my life that, when I was young and considering working in theater, I would have found encouraging.  I work on exciting projects.  I just closed a show that I was very proud of artistically and which was sold out, after receiving good reviews in major publications. I have been reviewed well multiple times in the Times, the Village Voice, Time Out, and a myriad of other journals I consider important.  I have worked with my heroes (and yes, the Václav Havel relationship has been particularly rewarding for me) and been considered a colleague and a friend.  I have seen words I’ve written come to physical life before me, in front of an appreciative crowd.  I have put together large, significant festivals.  I have written/directed Off-Broadway.  I have run a theater company for nearly 20 years.  I have written books that have been published, sold, and read by an appreciative audience.  I have imagined a work, and it has become flesh.

And often, it gives me great joy.

On my next tax return, the amount noted for income will be smaller than when I was a college student with a summer job.

How am I able to sustain myself?  Why have I chosen to live in this manner?

Both are complicated questions, and relevant ones as I try to discover how to continue to sustain myself.

So I am going to be writing a few blog entries on this, both for myself and others I know going through a similar point in their lives. I haven’t written blog entries for a while, and probably won’t for a while after—too many other projects.  But this will be, should I manage to complete it, a series of sorts, about theater and economics. The other blog entries will have other answers, or maybe other sorts of questions, probably in more pure economic terms.

But this is the simplest answer to begin with:  I have a calling.  Perhaps it is pretentious to say so, but since my whole adult life has been devoted to that belief, I claim that right.  I mean it in the way a clergy person has a calling, for being in a theater, for me, is what I imagine being in a church or synagogue is for the devoutly religious.

Years ago, I saw a scene in a movie that epitomized the current dilemma for me.  It was a fun movie, if not one with any particular aspirations to greatness. It was a comedy that was a bar joke:  about priest and a rabbi--these being Edward Norton and Ben Stiller in a semi wacky Upper West Side comedy called Keeping the Faith.  It was filmed blocks away from where I live.  I watched it because of that and because I was dating a rabbi at the time

Edward Norton was experiencing a crisis in faith.  He went to an older priest, as I remember (and I haven’t seen this movie since, so perhaps the way I am recounting this tale is off…) and told him he was considering leaving the church.   The older priest told him, when you commit to the church, it is like committing to a marriage.  You don’t do it once.  You have to keep on doing it, again and again.

I feel like I have at times sacrificed my romantic relationships to theater—which is not to say, as I write this on Valentine’s Day and happen, this year, to be single, that being single is a necessary condition.  But it has made certain relationships harder.  I have probably sacrificed having children to theater.  There are those who have managed children and theater, but they seem few to me.  And I have most definitely sacrificed future financial security to theater.

And each time, I had to decide where my commitment lies.

Time for me to recommit again.  I am in love.

Happy Valentines Day, theater.  Don’t worry, I’m not expecting chocolate.  By this point, I know you too well.

I’m OK with that.  But if you want to slip me a couple of bucks for putting out, I won’t take too much offense.

1 comment:

RLewis said...

Tell it, brother. I feel ya -- every single word. -R