Photo by Soon.

From James Wolcott’s Blog, a story of actors who are starving in Seattle, the city of Starbucks and Microsoft:

A Hiss Is Just a Hiss, A Sigh Is Just a Sigh

Not long ago I attended a play in a theater located on the fourth floor of a building reachable by a smallish elevator and the sort of industrial stairs where bodies are often discovered slumped in a pool of dried blood in urban crime dramas. As I took my seat, I surveyed the numbers of walkers, crutches, and wheelchairs belong to my fellow theater-goers and realized that if a fire broke out I’d have to pull a complete George Costanza, and barrel my way to safety.

Make way for the Human Cannonball!

I’m no kid myself but this Sat mat crowd was like a senior center shuffleboard game waiting to break out.

It’s a poignant fact that the audience for theater, as in so many of the performing arts, is graying and getting stooped–it’s not exactly news for anyone in the field. But it’s never occurred to me to wonder what it’s like for those acting, singing, dancing, and monologuing on stage to watch their audiences wizen away, and now I know. In a rueful, hard-punching first person essay, Mike Daisey (whose performance of his monologue Invincible Summer was the recipient of an unwelcome baptismal dousing) confronts the mortality issue:

The numbers are grim–the audiences are dying off all over the country. I know because every night I’m onstage, I stare out into the dark and can hear the oxygen tanks hissing.

The reliance on life support supports is only part of the atrophy of energy and daring that Daisey (here’s his blog) diagnoses and deplores in regional theater, which has evolved into a corporate organism devoted to its own self-perpetuation:

The institutions that form the backbone of Seattle theater–Seattle Rep, Intiman, ACT–are regional theaters. The movement that gave birth to them tried to establish theaters around the country to house repertory companies of artists, giving them job security, an honorable wage, and health insurance. In return, the theaters would receive the continuity of their work year after year–the building blocks of community. The regional theater movement tried to create great work and make a vibrant American theater tradition flourish.

That dream is dead. The theaters endure, but the repertory companies they stood for have been long disbanded. When regional theaters need artists today, they outsource: They ship the actors, designers, and directors in from New York and slam them together to make the show. To use a sports analogy, theaters have gone from a local league with players you knew intimately to a different lineup for every game, made of players you’ll never see again, coached by a stranger, on a field you have no connection to.

Not everyone lost out with the removal of artists from the premises. Arts administrators flourished as the increasingly complex corporate infrastructure grew. Literary departments have blossomed over the last few decades, despite massive declines in the production of new work. Marketing and fundraising departments in regional theaters have grown hugely, replacing the artists who once worked there, raising millions of dollars from audiences that are growing smaller, older, and wealthier. It’s not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don’t want to actually make any theater.

Underpaid and underappreciated, treated as a disposable, replaceable flesh packet, the actors themselves get discouraged and return to civilian life, unable to keep the sacrifices going.

…I ended up at a friend’s party, long after the rest of the guests had gone, in that golden hour when the place is almost cleaned up, but the energy of the night is still hanging in the air. We settled down in the kitchen under the bright light, making 4:00 a.m. conversation and, as all theater artists do, I asked the traditional question: “What are you working on?”

My friend’s face fell, for just a moment–she’s a fantastic actress, one of the best in the city, with an intelligence and precision that has taken my breath away for years. She corrected a moment later, and told me carefully that she wasn’t going out for anything now–that she was giving it up. She has a job-share position at her day job to let her take roles when needed, but now she is going to go permanent for the first time in her entire life. After 15 years of working in theaters all over Seattle, she’d felt the fire go out of her from the relentless grind of two full-time jobs: one during the day in a cubicle, the other at night on a stage.

She said what really finished it for her was getting cast in a big Equity show this fall and seeing how the other Equity actors lived–the man whose work had inspired her all her life, living in a dilapidated hovel he was lucky to afford; the woman who couldn’t spare 10 dollars to eat lunch with colleagues without doing some quick math on a scrap of paper to check her weekly budget. These are the success stories, the very best actors in the Northwest, the ones you’ve seen onstage time and time again. Their reward is years of being paid as close to nothing as possible in a career with no job security whatsoever, performing for overwhelmingly wealthy audiences whose rounding errors exceed the weekly pittance that trickles down to them.

A chasm of economic division made a mockery of by earnest productions of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed, but I’ll let you read that riff for yourself.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s