On Company

I have been thinking about the word “company” recently. One reason is that so many companies are in trouble now, and I wonder about the people that make up these entities that tend to be faceless. I have become aware that I align myself in opposition to companies, since I come from a world view which has nothing to do with financial profit. But the current economic woes put faces beneath company names. I wish it didn’t take crises for us all – myself included – to see the personal connections between us, and the value in working towards common good. The other reason is that I recently resigned as member of an artistic company: the vague collection of theatre artists called the “Artistic Ensemble” at People’s Light and Theatre in Malvern PA. Let me clear: the people there, many of whom I love deeply, are not vague. But the bond the attaches them together under the word “company” is.

The story of my becoming a “company member” suggests I was doomed from the start. I had been away in Scotland in the summer of 1995, producing and performing my one act play Psycho Drama at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I came back to Pennsylvania and was cast in Brecht’s Galileo at People’s Light, playing the Little Monk, a role I had played before in drama school. On opening night, the programs were distributed back stage, and I was surprised and delighted to see my name listed in the box in the program with “Resident Company” on the top. I had assumed that being named to the company would be accompanied by some interview, or a welcome, or something. When I went around to various members of the artistic leadership at the theater, including the artistic director, and asked how it was that I was a company member all of a sudden, they seemed surprised to see my name there. “Oh well,” said the associate artistic director, “welcome . . . I guess!”

Thus began a fourteen year, often frustrating investigation of mine into what exactly it meant to be a member of the artistic company at People’s Light. “You’re a company member there, aren’t you?” other local actors would ask, “How does that work? What’s it all about?” I couldn’t answer, though I was aware that the Philadelphia theatre community thought of it as a sought-after position. It seemed that many actors on the outside looking in thought it meant that I would be guaranteed work at the theatre. And so I asked the leadership, is this what it means. For a while, the answer was, “kind of . . . ”

I quickly became aware of my own attachment to the idea of company. Mine was a romantic ideal, more of a desire for a “comrades in arms” sensibility, or later, I sought a comedie francais model: I wanted us all to be like Moliere’s company, working together in a kind of happy dysfunction on the same kind of work year after year. I became aware of how deeply I wanted to connect to a family of artists, and to be able to say to the world, this is what it means, this is who we are, this is what we stand for. But these weren’t questions being asked, or answered, by the leadership. And I wondered why.

So early on, I assembled some of the company, and we had good chats about what company meant to us. We looked for ways to involve the theatre in this conversation more broadly, but through a combination of everyone getting busy and a lack of support from the theatre, these efforts invariably fizzled. The theatre held “company meetings”, and I would come ready to have soul-searching group conversations about who we were and where we were going. But these meetings were invariably one-way streets, in which the leadership reported to us on, say, the next big capital campaign, and there was collective cheerleading about what a good season we were having, and yes it’s hard sometimes but we’ll get through the rough spots. Questions about “big issues” were not invited. There were also occasional workshops offered to the company run by outside artists. These were invigorating and valuable, but I always felt there was an opportunity missed to use workshops like these as a way to define an aesthetic for the company at People’s Light (i.e. this is who we are, the way we like to work, what we stand for). And I always thought it was a pity that, in a company with as much talent and thoughtfulness as People’s Light has, with as many extraordinary teachers and theatre-thinkers there, that company members themselves weren’t given the opportunity to run workshops.

I began to realize there was an institutional resistance to the questions I was asking. And so my focus shifted to examining that resistance. In the last years of my membership, after several face-to-face meetings with the leadership in which I asked, what does this company membership mean, and got answers like, “it means we like you but we’re not guaranteeing you anything”, or, “we’re not sure, but we know it doesn’t mean what you want it to mean,” I finally let go of asking those questions. Okay, I said to myself, it’s clearly not up to me to define this relationship, and I can live with it being murky, but why would an institution have a company of artists and not define what that means? Why would an institution like People’s Light, which makes a lot of noise about it’s commitment to families, and to artists over time – why would such an institution talk the talk but not walk the walk? Here’s what I think:

A definition of company demands a definition of power relationships, hierarchies, status and decision-making power. One way of defining the situation at People’s Light is as a basic labor-management issue. The artistic leadership (management) is invested holding on to power and not having its authority questioned. Labor (the company) automatically begs the question, what are our rights and responsibilities? Management can serve its own purposes well by keeping those definitions vague, because then Labor has no fixed agreement to point to in a grievance. This is why the labor movement fought for clearly defined contracts, which was essentially what I was after. But what I discovered was that “company” at People’s Light means what ever Management wants it to mean at any given moment to suit its needs. In refusing to define “company” and the rights and responsibilities that go with it, Management dis-empowers Labor and renders the company functionally meaningless. Not emotionally or psychologically meaningless, but in terms of the power structures at the theatre, functionally meaningless.

A fully defined company with a clear set of rights and responsibilities must also include a means for dealing with dissent and grievance. And so “company” is a democratic challenge. But at People’s Light, there is an investment in hierarchy, defined through the conventional model of the director-actor paradigm. Backstage at People’s Light, we actors would sometimes remark bitterly, during a particularly difficult rehearsal or after a hurtful directorial outburst, “People’s Light: the actor-driven theatre.” This was actually a slogan the theatre used for a while, perhaps informally, but the irony of it wasn’t lost on the actors in the company. Because People’s Light is director-driven theatre, just as almost every other professional theatre in America is. I am not writing to attack that paradigm. But I am suggesting that that paradigm is at odds with the notion of having a clearly defined company of (mostly) actors, and it explains in part why the leadership of the theatre (mostly directors) was reluctant to engage in the conversations I wanted so badly to have.

Many times I have reflected on the question, why is this so important to me? It should be noted that I was the only person in the company (that I’m aware of) that tried to force this conversation in this way. And it should be noted that the company is working just fine for others in it. Many artists there I love and admire just smile and shake their heads and say, it is what it is. But by and large, these are the people who receive an implicit guarantee of work at the theatre. I say implicit, because nowhere is that guarantee stated, but for these company members, work at the theatre can be relied upon. All it takes a is a cursory look at who is cast at the theatre year after year, or who is employed there regularly in a job that conveys either health insurance, status or meaningful income, to see who the company is. Here is the company hierarchy witnessed, and here is where, in the absence of a definition, the whole thing can quickly become a story of “favorites” and “outcasts”. Worse, those left uncast are left to wonder if this is somehow a reflection on the quality of their worth as artists, when as often as not, it is only a reflection of the degree to which the theatre wants to keep them employed there.

I, a member of the company as much as any other (I assume), was not cast at People’s Light last year, and I will not be cast there this year. I sense that I have been branded a “difficult actor” by the leadership there, mostly because of one rehearsal of The Crucible in the spring of 2005, and because of my tendency to speak truth to power. I felt passionately about the arc of the character I was playing and came into conflict in rehearsal with the director about it. There was no screaming or yelling, behavior that I have witnessed in other rehearsals, and which is viewed by some theatre artists as the necessary risk we take with other when our choices are more than paths of least resistance, but instead are the result of deeply held beliefs. Eventually, we worked it out, and followed up with meetings about the situation over the summer. But I have always sensed that that one rehearsal was “the last straw” where I was concerned. A guest director cast me The Imaginary Invalid that fall (we got along famously), but I haven’t worked at the theatre since. I am clearly being sent a message. I guess your company chooses you, or lets you go; you seldom choose your own company.

In his book on community and peace-making A Different Drum, psychologist M. Scott Peck seeks to define the difference between true community and what he calls “pseudo-community”. One of the hallmarks of true community is the ability to name and acknowledge differences between people, and work to resolve conflicts without resorting to scapegoating, marginalizing or exiling dissenters. Pseudo-community is marked by a determination create unanimity through appearances (what I call in my own book “enforced cheerfulness”), and by ignoring dissenters and sweeping conflict under the rug. While this does not fairly describe the ethos at People’s Light, I think the leadership there would do well to read this book if having a company remains a goal, and think about what it says. Because creating and nurturing company is about creating and nurturing a community.

And community is an extension of how we feel about families. And so I am led to admit the baggage I bring into this dynamic: that I am a child of divorce, who has been looking for family and stable relationship my whole life, and who holds the promises of connection from those above me with suspicion, a suspicion perhaps unfairly transferred from my childhood, but deeply rooted in my experience. So I am hard-wired both to cling to groups that name me and claim me, and simultaneously to be a bit paranoid about the conditions of that attachment. Likewise, I sensed a familial transference from the leadership at the theatre, in which the definition of company inevitably led to a parent-child relationship, with all the attendant energies of authority, obedience, creativity and nurturing swirling around it, and which, to me, could feel patronizing and infantile at times. Just like those toxic love affairs some of us have had, the leadership and I fit each other’s neuroses perfectly, and so, again, I think I was doomed to resign or be fired from this company from the very beginning.

Why does People’s Light have a company? In part, I think, the current leadership’s predecessor was deeply invested in something closer to the romantic ideal I named before, and the current leadership inherited an idea which was never fully formed, but was then changed when the current leadership took over. That change has never actually occurred, so we are left with an unformed idea in permanent transition. I don’t think the current leadership has ever felt comfortable with “company”, in part because it came from a former time at the theatre, and so “company” as an idea there is clouded by memories and resentments about that former time. But I also think that the current leadership aspires to something good and true connected to “company”, that they really do want to make it something meaningful, because, in their hearts, they are just as romantic and idealistic about it as I am. But they can’t quite figure out how to marry the idealism with the practicality, because of the challenges I name above.

In her gracious email response to my resignation, the leadership said that in the near future, the theatre will look to changing the company into something that exists without any guarantee of work. Which is to say, more of the same. I hope someone will say, here is an opportunity to do better by each other. From the bottom of my heart, I wish them well.

On “company” Saturday, October 11, 2008