It’s the end of theater as we know it.

I’m not a huge R.E.M. fan. I mean, I like the hits, but could never quite enjoy Micheal Stipe’s voice, as much as I loved his activism and persona. But I always loved the song “It’s The End Of The World (as we know it)”. First, it’s a song which demands that you tap your feet, it’s infectious as all great pop songs are. Second, I can’t sing along with it but I often crack myself up trying (“Leo-nard Bern-stein” is the only lyric I can get right, besides the chorus.) Third, I love how upbeat it is, as it proclaims the apocalypse. Last, R.E.M. winks at us with “as we know it”. See – it’s NOT the end of the world. It’s the end of the world as we know it.

It is in the spirit of that song that I nearby proclaim it’s the end of theater as we know it. This proclamation might have been uttered several years ago (and probably was, but I missed it). It’s an absurdly pompous proclamation, so if it pisses you off, you are hereby invited to stop reading.

Charlotte Ford. She was Hermia when I was Bottom.

Charlotte Ford. She was Hermia when I was Bottom.

Several recent events have inspired me to utter it. One is the frightening revelation that one of our more glamorous local theaters, Philadelphia Theater Company, has not been able to pay its mortgage for over a year.  The other is Charlotte Ford’s revelation that she is quitting her acting career. And then there was the response to being at a play I acted in at Bristol Riverside Theater (Laughter on the 23rd Floor), and one at The Arden Theater which I wasn’t in (The Three Sisters). The response was: everyone in the audience was so old. My father, who is 75, said this after seeing Laughter; my students who are in their late teens said it after seeing The Three Sisters, which I had made a requirement for the course.

What jumped out at me about Charlotte’s piece wasn’t the decision she is making. She is taking care of herself. I remember about 20 years ago running into a woman at a party in New York, who had been the theater “queen” for us in college, playing Juliet in R&J and Grusha in A Caucasian Chalk Circle. We all thought she was destined for stardom. So I was shocked at that party, when she told me she was attending a graduate program in speech therapy (Charlotte’s goal as well). “Oh my God,” I blurted, “how could you stop acting?” And she smiled at me. “Who says I’ve stopped acting?” she replied.

Charlotte Ford is an artist who specializes in performance. This is true about her whether she has a degree and job in something else or not. I do not believe who you are is defined by how you pay your bills. And I also believe that successful artists are professional chameleons and noble scavengers. We are artists wherever we go, whatever we do, and we turn trash and compromise into meaning, if not beauty. I am sad that Charlotte had to make a difficult choice, but I am not sad about the choice she made. As I said, she is taking care of herself, and in doing so, she sets a fine example for all of us. She will be back making art in the future, I’m convinced. It may be in a small venue somewhere that I never hear about, and she may not be paid for it, but so what? She will be changing someone’s life through the gift of her creativity. That’s what makes her an artist. She can’t help it.

What jumped out at me were the comments both on Facebook and on the original blog, many of which said something like, “See? We have to pay the artists more!” I have two questions:

  1. where will the extra money come from?
  2. what constitutes “more”?
Philadelphia Theater Company.

Philadelphia Theater Company.

There are two main causes for the end of theater a we know it. One is generational and one is financial. We have been witnessing the generational writing on the wall for so long now it feels cliche to mention it, but let me describe the elephant in the room one more time. There was once a time in America when going out to the theater (or the opera, or the dance concert) was a regular thing one did, if one was lucky enough to have the disposable income to afford the ticket. And among this audience there was cultural agreement about what “theater”, or “dance”, or “a concert” should look, feel and sound like. I am not writing to debate the assets or liabilities of this cultural agreement, I am merely pointing out that it existed. Even when one went to see the avant gard, say one of the dances my mom performed in, choreographed by Merce Cunningham, one expected the theater, the audience and the event to look a certain way.

Those people, that audience, the one that holds onto that cultural agreement, are the ones we are talking about when we say, everyone’s so old in the audience. They are dying, as we all will die, and with them they take this cultural agreement. People emerging into adulthood today have no relationship to this notion of what “theater” is, with it’s ornate lobbies, maroon velour seats and coat rooms. So we have built these institutions based on cultural assumptions which no longer exist, and which are designed to cater to an ever dwindling audience. This is partly why PTC can’t pay its mortgage, and it’s why I believe many of these larger institutions will vanish by 2020.

One of the dark truths about institutions is that, the larger they get, the larger a percentage of their revenue is spent on maintaining the institution. When there was an audience to attend these institutions, there were budgets that sustained them. Now we have the perfect storm: higher costs, fewer patrons, and less ability to pay for the event the institution was designed to present: live performance art.

The financial issues are complicated, but I believe it comes down to this: the artistic non-profit model is economically unsustainable. Supported by sweeping changes in the federal tax laws during the 60s, which created a new class of artistic non-profit organization, large cultural institutions grew, and they lived into that cultural agreement currently in its death throes. Ironically, these large non-profits were modeled not on some new theory of “affordable art for everyone”, but rather on the for-profit models they pretended to be replacing. So we have Lincoln Center (non-profit) competing with the Schubert Theater (for profit), and the events held at each theater feel indistinguishable. Instead of lining up investors to support a run of out of town tryouts, we now have the institutionalized out of town tryout: the play that moves from the non-profit regional theater to Broadway.

The White Pines Place - our little storefront

The White Pines Place – our little storefront

What is a non-profit corporation? It is a business which the federal government has decided is serving the public good in a way neither the government nor for-profit business can. In exchange for giving up the possibility of making a profit, the government agrees not to levy taxes on this organization, and allows individuals to donate money to it instead of paying federal taxes (this is what we mean when we day “your donation is tax-deductible” – you can subtract the amount you give us from what you send to the IRS). Thus non-profits (like the one I run) have boards of directors, intended to stand in for the public, and ensure that the public trust isn’t being taken advantage of by the organization they oversee. Non-profits are businesses that don’t pay federal taxes, in which investors are called donors. Used to be the donors (individual and foundations) made up the difference between what these institutions could earn, and what their expenses were.

But the people ponying up all that extra money? Right – those oldsters who are shuffling off this mortal coil. The ones for whom it was generally agreed that going to the theater was a necessary part of living a civilized and cultured life. And ones for whom giving money to arts organizations simply because they are arts organizations wasn’t ridiculous, it was expected.  Used to be those folks made it possible for those institutions to pay the people who worked for them something close to a living wage. Because in a purely capitalist model, these institutions would be forced to make some uncomfortable choices to do so. Why don’t we pay the artists more? Because if these institutions actually paid us a living wage, no one could afford the ticket price and the institutions would end.

And today? Think about this. Let’s say I am fortunate enough to have $5,000 in disposable income to donate to charities of my choice. Here’s the first thing I notice: because of the economy generally, that number has been shrinking over the last ten years or so. So my decision about how to give it away becomes more pointed. Let’s see: there’s the hospital which operated on my dad, my faith community, the school which is teaching my kids, the political cause I believe in, the social justice cause I believe in, and . . . the arts institution I should give money to because . . . they are an arts institution?

A sample class in puppetry, taught by Rob Cutler

A sample class in puppetry, taught by Rob Cutler

Nine months ago I sat at a table of a diner in Germantown, having breakfast with Margie Salvante, the former executive director of the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. I was asking her to be on my board. We were talking about art, value, money, fundraising, revenue – all the nuts and bolts. She looked me dead in the eye and asked me a question which sent a chill through my bones. “Ben,” she asked, “what is White Pines’ value proposition?” In other words, if I stopped Joe on the street, and explained to him why White Pines Productions, Incorporated was valuable to him, to Joe on the street, what would I say? Could I say it using compelling language that he would understand? Might there be a chance that he would spend his money, money he doesn’t have enough of, on White Pines, because I had been able to convince him of its value?

I quickly realized that “White Pines is valuable because we make art” or variations of that answer were non-starters. First of all, Joe is probably having a hard time paying his utilities, as most of us are, so . . . art? What? Secondly, even if Joe likes some art now and then, the next question is, so what kind of art does White Pines make and will I like it? We can all agree that cell phones are valuable – they provide a meaningful service which in this day and age has become nearly indispensable. But art? I can watch TV and get me some of that, right? It is the subjective nature of art which has made it a poor fit for the commercial exchange, in which the value of an item or service is negotiated for a price. It is the subjective nature of art which has made it a poor fit as an answer to Margie’s question.

And now we come to the foundations, those stand ins for the Medicis and the noble patrons of the renaissance. Foundations played a significant role in the creation of these art institutions which are now dying, along with the population that valued them. And it’s true that for the latter half of the 20th century, it was easier for artists and institutions to drop into one or more pipelines of generosity emanating from places like Pew, Johnson, Dodge, or Kimmel. These are family fortunes made during an era when it was possible to get staggeringly rich and then put that money away as a resource for others. We ought to be continuously grateful that members of these families made the arts a priority for support among other worthy competing needs. I know why Shakespeare wrote sonnets and poems to his courtly benefactors, I know why Michelangelo gave his paintings to the families that supported him. They understood that generosity is an act of mercy, and a choice, not an obligation.

It’s pointless to shake your fist at foundations which are no longer supporting you. They never offered any of us any guarantees, and – to coin another cliche – it’s their money and they can do what they want with it. The only thing that pisses me off about foundations are the ones that pretend to be invested in only supporting “good” or “worthy” art or artists, and assemble groups of judges to weed out the wheat from the chaff. Charlotte alluded to these people when she quoted some of the responses to her application of support. As I have stated before: there is no such thing as good art. And let me add this: every artist, and every human, is worthy of support. So all these hoops we are asked to jump through as a way to prove our value are really just exercises in self-justification for the foundations holding the hoops. But it’s self-justification based on a phony premise: that there is such a thing as “good” art, and that these people reading the applications know what it is and can find it by watching us jump through the hoops.

Look, there are two reasons I can think of to support an artist. One is that you like the art he/she makes, and that has nothing to do with whether it’s “good” or not. It’s just the art you like and you don’t have to do anything else but say so. My son likes to ask me why I like a song I am listening to, and I tell him there is no answer to that question. Then I ask him why he likes chocolate, and smile at the contortions he goes through attempting to justify his own enjoyment. Stop trying to justify it and just enjoy it, here’s a five, go buy some chocolate.

The other reason – and this is where most foundations are going, and it’s why Margie asked me that question – is that the artist’s work is serving the public good in a way that goes beyond the creation of his/her art. Those beloved oldsters would support art simply because it was art, and so would the foundations. There was a cultural agreement that art was a vital and necessary part of communal life, and therefore we should all give it money. No longer. And guess what? I think this is good thing. Because if White Pines is forced to explain it’s value in terms of serving the public good, then it is living into its non-profit status with integrity.

Bright Invention rehearsing

Bright Invention rehearsing

After some soul searching and consultations with my board (Margie served briefly, and then departed, weighed down by her heroic work in the Philadelphia public school system), I decided that education would be the main focus of White Pines, as commitment to our mission and to our community. Teaching classes to people of all ages would be our primary value proposition, not at the expense of performance, but rather as a way to support it. Our classes are taught by our ensemble, Bright Invention, and they are the primary way members of our ensemble make money through their work with White Pines. Our teachers make $600 per class they teach, contingent upon getting six full-pay students. With six students, White Pines makes $120 per class. So under this model, 83% of our earned income is going directly to the artist. Of course this percentage changes if we have more than six students – income from students above six all goes to White Pines.

Bright Invention also performs, and we offer our ensemble a share of that evening’s box office income. White Pines takes 10% and the rest is divided evenly among the performers acting that night.  Both this and the teacher’s fees are basic capitalism. Our incentive is to prove our value to our community, thereby gaining a larger audience and increasing our income. We promote our classes at our shows, and our shows at our classes. With the assistance of another board member, I refined White Pines’ mission three months ago – White Pines: Dynamic Creativity, Growing Communities, Lasting Relationships. 

We like to think of ourselves as a company that is exploring novel ways to work with money and compensation. White Pines was in part inspired by Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift, which explores what happens when art is treated as a gift, rather than as a commodity. I am convinced that, conceptually, his position is sound: art should not be bought and sold, but rather exchanged as gifts. Realistically, we have not evolved as a species to the point where we might create an economic system based upon this concept. I tried for the first few years of White Pines; we never sold a ticket and instead asked for donations only. Our audience was grateful for how inexpensive our offerings were, and we came to be known as the performance venue where everything was “free”.

But we live in the same ecosystem that the large and endangered institutions live in, and we are supported by a local foundation, and have been able to reside in our new space through an anonymous gift by an individual donor.  Perhaps this only proves my point: that art has only ever been made, and artists have only ever put food on their tables, through the generosity of the wealthy. This is not a problem, this is a truth, and one we should all be grateful for.

Yes grateful. When you are feeling morose about being an artist, remember what Charlotte has just pointed out to us all: no one is holding a gun to your head and telling you to be an artist. You have chosen this, over a variety of other options. It may be true that you might not have been happy in those other options, but so what. How many people get up in the morning and go to jobs they don’t enjoy, because they want to eat, and they want to pay their bills? Here’s my recipe for contentment as an artist:

  • Embrace Your Poverty. You have committed yourself to a life in which you are valuing something more than money. Own this choice. Laugh about it. Right now I am overdrawn by $200 and I am receiving help from my family to get by, at 51 years old. I feel no shame about that. I would prefer  to pay my own way, but such are my circumstances. I embrace my circumstances. I am grateful to be doing what I love and what I feel I was meant to do. I am grateful to have a family I can turn to when times are tough – a profound gift not everyone has.
  • Stop Acting for the Actors. Remember Joe on the street I was contemplating the value proposition with? He is who I act for. I am committed to teaching his kids. I am happy to field all his wild misunderstandings about my lifestyle and career (“You been in any movies?”) in exchange for his friendship and support. I love my art tribe, my theater community, but they are not who I am acting for. They are who I am acting with. Acting for the actors leads to a kind of echo chamber in which we all try to out-rarify each other. It leads to endless Kickstarters in which we rely on each other as our primary economic resource. I am overdrawn $200. I should not be thought of as an economic resource to anyone except my kids. A director I admire has the Aunt Mildred test: if he is making something that his Aunt Mildred won’t understand or enjoy, he walks away. Make your art for the people, for the audience, for Aunt Mildred and Joe. You will be surprised, actually, how adventurous they can be.
  • Celebrate Your Creativity. Holy shit! You’re an artist! How cool is that? Bearing in mind that it’s a choice you’re making everyday, well, you might as well celebrate like crazy. We artists are the light of the world, the other way, the extravagance, the mystery, the passion – live fully into your calling with pride, purpose and abandon. There is nothing reasonable or logical about being an artist, Mr. Spock. So why pretend? Let your Freak Flag Fly.
  • Take Care of Yourself. Living the life of the artist with abandon and celebration doesn’t mean destroying yourself or eating poorly or not sleeping, or worse of all, becoming an addict. Please kill that weird “tortured artist” notion. Igor Stravinsky was one of the most uncontrollably happy people in the world, so was Merce Cunningham, so was Maya Angelou. Listen to your trusted friends and family when they point out a way you could do a better job of taking care of yourself – oftentimes we don’t even see it. The gym, the nap, the vacation, the well-prepared meal, the day spent with your special friend, the recovery room, the therapist: these are the hallmarks of a healthy life, lived by a conscientious artist. I mean it’s hard enough, right? Look for ways to make it easier.
  • Commit to your Communities. Yes, your art community is vital, and we must continue to celebrate each other and support each other. But who are the people who live near you, who shop with you, who take the bus with you? How can you bring them a taste of your amazing, astonishing artist’s life? The future of for performing artists is in community-based, “micro theaters”, in which ordinary people come to value us as people in their neighborhoods first, who bring value to their lives directly through creative skills only they possess.
  • Attend the Four Virtues.  The word “virtue” freaks some people out. I don’t mean “virtuous” like some Victorian maid, or Gallant from Goofus and Gallant in the old Highlights magazines (dating myself big-time here).  Simply put, a virtue is a positive trait or quality a person possesses. Performance creativity gives us the chance to discover four primary virtues in ourselves. Notice them in yourself, they are the precious gifts your art is giving you:
    • Courage. The second bravest people I know are artists making their way in the world (first goes to people in recovery). Our lives as artists have shown us how to do things we never thought we could do, and taught us how to do them with precision and grace over and over again.  If you are an artist, then you are brave. Bring it in all areas of your life.
    • Creativity. I love how artists make magic out of almost nothing – noble scavengers, we. I love how we stay with an image, a sound, a movement for a long time, savoring it, wringing every last secret form it we can. I love how we see a problem from a different angle – and then solve it. I’m convinced a lot of my thinking has been changed for the better by my being an actor. True creativity is a little odd too – it is outside the mainstream. How’s that Freak Flag Flyin’?
    • Empathy. What is playing a role, reciting a poem, singing a song, or dancing a dance but the celebration of another’s experience, and making it your own? The essence of making art is falling in love: with the character you bring to life (yes, weirdly, even the evil ones), with the flower you are painting, the notes you play, or your dance. In offering our dance to our audience as a gift, we fall in love with them too, even when the cell phone rings, or the baby cries, or the allergies kick in. When we are strong enough, we can bring this empathetic response into the world generally, and begin to repair it.
    • Faith. This is the hardest of the four. Truly having faith, in the face of all the difficulties we have mentioned here, is a form of illogic, it’s unreasonable, it doesn’t make sense. And so it is a perfect fit for for the life we have chosen, one that admits mystery, miracle, transformation and redemption. It is an extension of that rehearsal practice we all know: exploring without knowing, when we say the line, do the move, make the offer having no idea what the result will be, but having faith that it will be something remarkable. Because we are not alone, we are groping forward with others, who we know will pick us up when we fall. Because we believe in a Something that flows through us when we are creative, a Something that is carrying us forward.

One of the most astonishing characters invented in the last fifty years belongs to Tony Kushner. He is Prior Walter from Angels in America. Prior is generally understood to be a spiritual symbol of the gay man’s experience in the late 20th century in America. And he is, for sure. But like all remarkable works of art, he can become what we need him to be. And I need him to be this: a symbol of the artist in America. Beset with a disease he contracted through acts of love, a condition which is perilous, he is nevertheless a prophet; a wanderer on the outskirts, odd and upsetting from afar, gorgeous and profound up close. He learns faith the hard way. It crashes through his ceiling even as he yells at it to go the fuck away. Show me someone who loves God, and I will show you someone who can be faithful for a year. Show me someone who hates God and I will show you someone who can be faithful for the rest of their life.

Prior gives in and surrenders to the Something: to his faith and his prophetic gift. He owns it and then he begins to transform other people’s lives. At the end of the second play, he has found hope again, and comfort in his community. And he looks out at all of us, this prophet, and tells us how beautiful we all are, and he asks for more life. That’s the kind of artist I’d like to be.

I’ve always thought Michael Stipe would make a good Prior Walter. It’s the end of theater as we know it. And I feel fine.