Theatre: The Gift of Transcendance, Not Transactions

Polly Carl

by Polly Carl

We come to painting, to poetry, to the stage, hoping to revive the soul. And any artist whose work touches us earns our gratitude.  – Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.

For months my life has been overwhelmed by a series of mundane transactions of various complexity usually costing me buckets of money. If we let it, life will drown us in transactions. The life of transactions is not a satisfying way to live. I prefer transcendence over transaction. Which is why I have chosen to work in the theater—for those moments in the rehearsal room that lead to something revelatory, something glorious or more than anything I could accomplish on my own. No money is exchanged, and in the very best moments transcendence feels within reach.

Money Trumps Love

During my fifteen years of making new plays, I’ve watched our field become more obsessed with the transactional and less obsessed with making good art. If I’m here for no other reason today, it’s to push you as artists and people who love the theater to rethink this momentum.

From the transcendent to the ugly. I was working on a play I was wildly passionate about, one that I wanted to see produced—a play that I believed to be sublime, transcendent, my reason for getting up in the morning these last fifteen years. There were a million issues surrounding this play, as there always are about every play. Multiple producers were interested in producing it, multiple agents were involved in figuring the rights and the royalties and the production path. This is typical. The further the play developed, the more clear the possibility that we had a “hit” on our hands. Because I work in the not-for-profit theater, always in a role that is advocating for the artists and the work, I didn’t have any financial stake in the play. I just loved it. I loved the characters, the language, the story—it was the best of what is possible in the theater, the best of what is possible in my work. I sat in rehearsals and listened and gave hardly any notes and got a little weepy from time to time and talked to the playwright and the director and colleagues. I was so in love with this process. But as the stakes were raised—the money, the players—I could see things beginning to unravel. I became privy to lies and deceit and I became obsessed with saving the integrity of the process that I had been charged to help oversee. We all say we are in it for higher purposes, but even in the theater, money trumps soul, and destroys love. I called one of the agents who was spreading particularly heinous lies (and let me clarify he wasn’t the only one lying, the lies were abundant from all camps). I was calm, trying to clarify the truth, intent on protecting what I thought were the interests of the writers. He actually said to me, “Who do you think you are calling me? I don’t give a rat’s ass about you and your version of the truth. For all I care you could die and it wouldn’t matter to me or this play.”

I walked back to the apartment where I was staying. I got a haircut along the way. I took a shower. I threw away the clothes I was wearing. I bought a new traveling hat. I thought about getting a new tattoo. I moved my flight to leave a day early, and went home. I walked away from that project for good and I walked away from making theater under those conditions.

I didn’t say I wasn’t dramatic.

Gathering Inspiration

In exploring the roots of the righteousness that informs my sense of theater making, I think it’s important for me to share some of the values that have shaped my thinking—to make sense of why an agent wishing my death doesn’t align with what I seek in my career. It’s important to note here, that it’s easier to walk away from something when you know what that something is. I’ve been very lucky, and yes, I mean lucky to have worked at the top of this field, with some of the best companies and best theater makers in the country. I’ve also spent significant time working with small companies, young artists, the uncertain, and the unknown. And I’ve learned, and perhaps it’s my failing, that I’m unwilling to make theater at all costs, and at the expense of basic human kindness and courtesy.

My instincts about where the arts live in relationship to culture come from my childhood. Art saved me. It gave me hope and purpose. I grew up in a family of very little financial and consequently cultural means in Elkhart, Indiana. These are the specific things that saved me; the handful of books my parents had on hand in the house that included a very old edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the full collection of the Hardy Boys series and the Little House on the Prairie boxed set, plus National Geographics that my grandparents gave us when they finished reading them. The Public Library saved me. By the time I entered high school I had read every novel Charles Dickens had written, all of the Lord of the Rings, Anna Karenina, The Grapes of Wrath—well you get the gist. My public library card was my ticket from there to here. I did not attend theater in high school except for our high school productions. We not only couldn’t afford to attend theater, but cultural engagement wasn’t something of value in my family, economic survival was always front and center.

Zelda Fichandler

When I came to the theater, and I should specify, to the not-for-profit theater, I was instantly moved by what I began to read of its history. The vision of our founders expressed perfectly why theater and the arts in general mattered to me. Listen to these words from a recent address given by Zelda Fichandler, the founding artistic director of Arena Stage in DC:

What drew us to the way we went? What was the vision, the inciting incident? Actually, there was no incident, no high drama, there was simply a change of thought, a new way of looking at things, a tilt of the head, a revolution in our perception. We looked at what we had – the hit-or-miss; put-it-up, tear-it-down; make-a-buck, lose-a-buck; discontinuous; artist-indifferent; New York-centered ways of Broadway, and they weren’t tolerable anymore, and it made us angry. We thought there had to be a better way, and we made that up out of what was lying around ungathered and, standing on the shoulders of earlier efforts in America and examples common in other countries, we went forward, some of us starting small, some like the Guthrie, big.

The fabric of the thought that propelled us was that theatre should stop serving the function of making money, for which it has never been and never will be suited, and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists. The new thought was that theatre should be restored to itself as a form of art.

Yes! The idea that theater should “start serving the revelation and shaping the process of living”—I say again yes! The idea that artists wanted to build a life, not a hit-or-miss, from this moment to that moment, career in theater. These are the ideas and values I can commit to. The not-for-profit theater was about merging art and life. The ideas of our founders were so bold, so aspirational. And the dream was not a dream of selling tickets and making money. Nobody left New York to get rich. They left New York to seek meaning and build a life around what they loved most.

Zelda again:

Once we made the choice to produce our plays, not recoup an investment but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement, we entered the same world as the university, the museum, the church and became like them, an instrument of civilization.

Going to Church

In restoring theater to itself, as Zelda implores, we must find ways to distinguish the parts of it that live in the market and the parts that belong to all of us.

Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde, again from his book, The Gift, differentiates the church, or the university, or the museum, from the market:

It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of the commodity leaves no necessary connection.

Harold Clurman in his book, The Fervent Years, about the formation of the Group Theatre puts it in terms of our relationship with our audience:

When the audience feels it is really at one with the theatre, when audience and theatre-people can feel they are both the answer to one another, and that both may act as leaders to one another, there we have the Theatre in the truest form. To create such a theatre is our real purpose. (p.72)

Fichandler, Hyde, and Clurman give me clarity. They help me understand why the transactions that got us here today: filling up the tank, buying a cup of coffee, paying our bills, may have proved satisfying but they weren’t our reason for getting up this morning. We got up this morning because we believe in the bond of community, the bond that we form with our collaborators and the bond that is our communion with each other and with the audience.

The model of the market place, Hyde tells us, relies on what we call “economic man.” His only desires are to maximize his profits and cut his costs. And as we saw in this last economic swing from an excess of market wealth to near depression level economic collapse, nothing gets in the way to regulate the behaviors of economic man, the market will allow what the market can bear. Ethics and values really only enter into the conversation when wealth is compromised. We don’t investigate the Madoff’s of the world while they are filling our pockets with a return on our investment.

And yet, most of us here see the spiritual emptiness of this model. It’s why we’ve chosen the arts. We care about story and beauty and ritual. What better ritual than the tech process, that sacred stretch where our singular gifts, be they in writing, directing, dramaturgy, or design—enter the process of becoming whole. This is church for many of us. It feels like magic—production becomes something greater than its parts. And when at opening night the audience sees what we see (this doesn’t always happen mind you) we experience the possibility of our gifts, we realize there is enough to go around, we feel the abundance in art that can’t be equated to the cost of a ticket. This is what our founders realized.

Lewis Hyde says, “Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received…so long as the gift is not withheld, the creative spirit will remain a stranger to the economics of scarcity.” The bitterness comes for artists when they cannot share the gift. Hyde quotes poet and novelist May Sarton, “There is only one real deprivation, … and that is not to be able to give one’s gift to those one loves most. The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up.”

If Art Creates Abundance, Why Are We Living in Scarcity?

Robert Brustein

The not-for-profit theater movement came out of what another of its founders Bob Brustein (of Yale Rep and ART) calls “a counter cultural” mindset. It came from the political milieu of the 1960s, the “me” generation that sought individual pleasure over corporate accumulation. That moment was all about excess, about putting ourselves and our bodies out there, with the hopes of not only social change but having a damn good time in the process. It was making sure the flow of life was not backed up.

Brecht identifies the possibility for pleasure when he talks about the importance of finding the “sport” in theater. Sports seem to have enough abundance for everyone. Even if you deplore the professional world and its hyper commodification, you’ll still find yourselves engaging its excess as I did last week in a bar in Boston cheering for the Celtics. Brecht presages our contemporary moment in describing the theater:

All those establishments with their excellent heating systems, their pretty lighting their appetite for large sums of money, their imposing exteriors, together with the entire business that goes on inside them: all this doesn’t contain five pennyworth of fun. . . no wind will go into anyone’s sails here. There is no ‘sport.’

We’ve done exactly as Brecht describes, we’ve built massive buildings, and we’ve created big business inside those imposing exteriors. And more importantly in all of this abundance there isn’t enough money for the majority of artists to live on. These problems impede the wind going into our sails and they make it difficult for us to think about new ways of making theater.

These issues aren’t a result of individual motivations. No one involved with not-for-profit theater decided it was better if artists didn’t make any money—that opulent buildings and big salaries were more important. Most leaders involved in the growth and expansion of our field come to it with the hope of making theater more relevant, a part of everyday life. So it made sense to create corporate boards and build alliances with local governments. It was done with the intention of providing more opportunity, not less.

What Went Wrong

In his 2009 report to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Gates of Opportunity, David Dower, then Associate Artistic Director at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, looks at the current state of the field for theater artists and institutions. After spending a year in 2006 in fifteen cities around the country talking to any and everyone working to write, develop, and produce new plays, he comes to two important conclusions:

  1. There is an imbalance in the distribution of resources in our field. He writes, “At present the distribution of philanthropic resources is heavily balanced in favor of major institutions. The majority of activity and opportunity, however, falls outside this segment and is being supported by ”sweat equity” at levels of activity that are not sustainable.” It’s important to note in a more recent report this imbalance is shown to be sustaining primarily white and wealthy audiences and institutions.
  2. A disconnect between emerging artists and these major institutions, “opportunity’s gatekeepers,” as Dower refers to them, helps to sustain this imbalance. “There are far more artists trying to squeeze through these gates of opportunity than will fit.”

In the disconnect that Dower talks about we’ve separated the work that gets made from the artists who make it. We not only lose track of who owns this work in the separation, is it the theater’s play or is it the playwright’s? But in hiding the work behind big glass enclosures with enormous ticket prices, we lose track of who theater belongs to. Is it owned by institutions and artistic directors, or should theaters be more like public libraries, a part of the cultural commons that we all own?

Economist Peter Barnes in his influential book, Capitalism 3.0 helps us sort out what belongs to the market and what belongs to everyone. Barnes is one of the founders of Working Assets—a significant attempt to put a kinder, gentler face onto capitalism. With every Working Assets credit card purchase you can contribute some percentage to a cause that sustains the parts of our society that we share.

Barnes uses the idea of the commons as a way to distinguish what belongs in the sphere of the market, and what belongs to all of us. By the commons Barnes means:

The commons designate a set of assets that have two characteristics: they’re all gifts, and they’re all shared. A gift is something we receive as members of a community, as opposed to individually. Examples of such gifts include air, water, ecosystems, language, music, holidays, money, law, mathematics, parks, the internet, and much more.

Barnes believes our country needs a new operating system that puts the commons in equal alignment with the market. That there is room in our culture for both private enterprise and a public sphere that everyone is entitled to access. I am saying that the same must be true for the theater.

I am suggesting that a significant part of the work we make belongs to everyone—that theater must have qualities that are like air and water, essential to our survival— and that our ability to share that gift is inhibited by a profound misunderstanding that art and theater can be reduced to a transaction, a marketing activity that focuses on ticket sales.

Hyde distinguishes the commons this way, “A commodity has value and a gift does not. A gift has worth. . . you can’t put a price on it.” If you’ve ever had a transformative experience with art you know what Hyde is saying, to attach a price tag to the experience would defile it, like valuing the love of a family member in monetary terms.

Our labor cannot be reduced to a price tag that lives in a private sphere ruled only by exchange value. Rather we must find ways to house our work in the commons, let it live as books rest on the shelves of our public libraries, available to anyone to discover their magic.

In the theater we have become victim to what Barnes calls the pathologies of capitalism, these pathologies Barnes says result in:

1. The destruction of nature.
2. The widening of inequality
3. The failure to promote happiness despite the pretense of doing so.

We experience these pathologies firsthand. We see artistic directors of not-for-profit theaters making $600,000 a year or even a million annually in some cases. We see shiny new buildings. We see escalating ticket prices. Just this week Americans for the Arts reported that in 2010 despite the economic meltdown, the arts generated 135.2 billion dollars in activity and 61.1 billion of that came from nonprofit arts organizations. These numbers reflected only a few percentage point drop from 2003 at the very peak of the wealthiest moment in monetary terms in American history.

And as the inequality gap widens, as the artists who are asked to work at these shiny new buildings for these wealthy leaders can’t afford the parking fee let alone the ticket price to see the shows, happiness becomes elusive—institutional leaders made miserable by the costs of the overhead for making art, making art only to sell tickets, and artists made miserable by their exclusion from all of this abundance.


Let’s digress and talk happiness for just a minute

I found this definition of happiness trolling Facebook while writing this keynote. It was written by an artistic director of a theater in Chicago.

Happiness is working with amazingly talented playwrights, directors, actors, designers, and production teams to tell new stories written from previously unheard perspectives to audiences hungry for a journey that is unique and challenging.

What a simple definition of happiness, one that most of us in this room can embrace. And yet, my experience working with so many theater artists over the years, does not suggest we know how to get to that happy place very often.

This lack of happiness in my analysis is based on what David Dower is saying about too many people being stuck at the gates, and the growing economic disparity between institutions and artists.

Early on in my tenure as the Producing Artistic Director at the Playwrights’ Center, a playwright I greatly respected and whose worked I felt passionate about came to me and said she was planning to leave the field. The story that unfolded was one that I would hear at least hundred more times in the seven years that followed. In her case, she was approaching forty. She was single. She’d been surviving on small fellowships, some the Playwrights’ Center had provided, and she had a temp job during the day writing advertising copy, and she was on the state health plan in Minnesota when Minnesota actually cared about low income adults—those days and that plan have passed. Her father was ill, there was no prospect of inheritance or windfall. She had commissions, a few productions—two in New York. She had an MFA from one of the best playwriting programs in the country, and still she had to make a hard decision—choosing a more surefooted existence as painful as that choice was.

In those early days of these kinds of conversations I was pretty Pollyanna about it. I gave a good pep talk about the soul and way of an artist. I truly believe after a lifetime of working with artists and examining my own ways of relating to the world, that for those driven by the imaginative possibilities of telling stories, suddenly deciding to enter the transactional nature of the day-to-day job is a difficult switch to make.

These conversations drove me to try and fix the problem. I couldn’t bear to see so much unhappiness.

I became the self-proclaimed used car salesman of new plays. My dad sold used cars. It was in the blood. I knew these plays I was pitching. I knew their potential and their impact. I had seen audiences respond to them, experienced their power first-hand. But even after closing a few sales, after finding productions for a few plays, I realized that the problem of so many good plays and playwrights stuck at the gates of opportunity could not be fixed by improving my sales pitch. After many years of the futility of the sales pitch, I recognized that, the American theater needed a new operating system, the pipelines jammed with plays and artists waiting to be recognized by the kingmakers beholden to the pressures of paying for big buildings, bloated administrative salaries, and corporate expectations about what constitutes success, needed a complete overhaul.

But Aren’t Artists Supposed to Be Poor and Consequently a Little Unhappy?

Before talking about what this overhaul might look like, I will digress briefly to say that this issue of the financial poverty of theater makers is not uncomplicated. It is both a reflection of how we perceive the value of art in our culture and a result of how artists see themselves in relationship to the world.

Hans Abbing

Hans Abbing has written an excellent book on the subject entitled, Why Are Artists Poor?”  So before we blame institutions or capitalism for the plight of artists, we need to spend a moment examining our own economic and psychological relationship to money and the arts.

Abbing identifies possible causes/mythologies to explain why artists are poor that have less to do with the behavior of others and more to do with how artists see themselves. Abbing’s list reflects the stories we tell ourselves about why we live as we do.

  1. The winner-takes-all markets are important to the arts and attract many competitors. Often the same people get recognized over and over again in the arts, though their work doesn’t seem necessarily that much better than the work of their peers. I’ve watched my peers respond with incredulity to the announcement of the Pulitzer or the MacArthur Genius grants. We all think at some point, “why not me?” The highly subjective nature of what constitutes a good play, or real talent is unlike many other professions—think professional sports. LeBron James garners all of the awards and prizes and it’s hard to argue that he isn’t deserving. For a high school athlete, his or her potential to play college or professional sports is a path with pretty clear markers. The markers for artists about where they stand in relationship to their competitors is much less clear as are the gradations of difference between a Tony winning play and one that never gets produced. For an artist it’s never clear when to quit competing.
  2. Artists believe they are unfit for non-arts professions, and believe they are better off in the arts despite the prospect of a low income. We’ve all engaged this conversation and I think to a degree there is truth to it. I see it most clearly in my partner Lynette who writes fiction and who spent twenty years writing advertising copy. For more than a decade I watched her struggle to get to work on time, struggle to care about the outcomes associated with her day job. She always felt it was just that, a day job to pay the rent and have benefits. From my first-hand experience she seems terribly ill-suited to a 9 to 5 job.
  3. The average artist is more interested in non-monetary rewards than other professionals and such rewards are thought to be available in abundance in the arts. As Abbing points out, the arts are considered sacred “and bestow significant amounts of status on artists who as it priests share in the high esteem of the arts”—even beginning artists share in this esteem and “acquire a mysterious status that other professionals lack.” This mysterious status allows us a certain sense of fulfillment, It’s like choosing the priesthood. We embrace a vow of poverty for a higher calling and believe our lives will be more fulfilling as a result. I personally feel my own sacredness every time I sit next to a stranger on an airplane who asks me what I do for a living. When I say I make theater, there’s an immediate sense of awe, and a subsequent embarrassment about how his work for IBM is less noble—or at least less cool.
  4.  The average artist is less risk averse than other professionals. As artists there is no story that we more fully embrace than the story I just told about Lynette. She left her day job, her benefits that still included a pension, and chucked caution to the wind to pursue the dream. We take these risks always against the advice of our financial planner. But once we make these choices can we cry poverty?
  5.  Overconfidence and self-deceit: more than other professionals, the average artist is inclined to overestimate his or her skills and luck and at the same time, ignore available information; therefore artists overestimate the rewards available to them in the arts. The markers for success in our business aren’t that clear. The idea that the path is supposed to be filled with poverty and unhappiness is part of the mythology. And the arbitrary nature of identifying talent keeps us holding on, waiting for that break, our moment of recognition. We deceive ourselves as we wait. In one of my career meetings with a director in a major urban area, she had figured out what she needed to survive in the theater—$32,000 a year. I had done a similar calculation not too many years before. Don’t look too far ahead, don’t look closely at what it costs to live in the long haul. Don’t think about children, a health crisis, or a root canal..

Abbing helps me to understand why so many artists have been willing to accept the status quo that institutions hand us, the lie that running an institution costs so much money that we can’t afford the real costs of our artists in our overhead. We accept these conditions too readily, deceiving ourselves that our day will come and until then, wearing our mantle of poverty with perhaps a little too much pride. We must hold ourselves accountable to the problems of our field

A New Operating System for the American Theater

Harold Clurman said,

We must help one another find our common ground; we must build our house on it, arrange it as a dwelling place for the whole family of decent humanity. For life, though it be individual to the end, cannot be lived except in terms of people together, sure and strong in their togetherness. (p.30)

How do we find our common ground? How do we live together in the theater, this place we call home?

Some suggestions for building a framework for a new operating system for the American theater:

This first list is for the institutions especially for those that call themselves not-for-profit and possess vast resources:

  1. Every not-for-profit theater must have an organizational ethics statement. This statement must look at things like the disparity between the highest and lowest paid person in the organization. It must assess the limits around its relationships to commercial projects. It must insist on artist pay that is equitable to administrative pay and organizational size.
  2. Every not-for-profit theater must contribute to a theater commons. It must locate within its building and its programming the portion of the work that constitutes the gift, the part that’s for everyone. This might mean more free theater, more free space to artists, and gifts we can’t imagine yet.
  3. Every not-for-profit must have theater artists on its staff, something I’ve heard Oskar Eustis say at least a hundred times now. I don’t mean artists in administrative roles, but artists paid to see the world and the organization as creative contributors to the season selection process, the marketing plan, the audience engagement program. Having artists on staff as artists recognizes the gift of creativity as having both worth and value.

For artists:

  1. Give up the notion that you are of a more sacred stock that those you sit next to on an airplane. This holier than thou attitude keeps you believing in your own mythology and financially impoverished in ways that are going to make it incredibly difficult for you to raise a family, pay off student loans, and survive the onslaught of day-to-day transactions. Instead, think about the ways your gifts live in the world. In looking for places to share your gifts, imagine that they might live outside of a black box.
  2. Create a personal ethics statement about your behavior and responsibilities as a theater maker. Will you wish death on those who threaten you?
  3. Stop lying. Stop bowing to artistic directors and kingmakers who you think might produce your play by agreeing with their notes when in fact you don’t. Risk being kicked out of the theater for telling the truth about your work and your aspirations and your expectations. Make the work you want to make.
  4. Only work for free when you’re sharing your gift. Whether it be mentoring or teaching or volunteering your gifts, you too must contribute to the commons, you too are responsible for making theater available to everyone. But when the power brokers ask you to come into their homes and take less than everyone else who lives there, just say no.

And here’s a crazy and unformed thought to end with. Let’s do something bold and unimaginable. Let’s create a new Fund for Artists that works something like What’s A not-for-profit organization that believes that working to protect the environment is for a common good, not for a private gain. It seeks investors to support companies and projects that are researching and developing renewable and sustainable technologies. Individuals and companies purchases carbon offsets as a way of accounting for their own carbon emissions. If you travel a lot you might buy offsets to account for the emissions used by airplanes. Buying offsets usually means investing in projects that reduce the emission of greenhouse gases in the short- or long-term—investing in wind farms for example.

I often hear people bemoan the loss of NEA funding for individual artists. Given the way government organizations have become more consistently controlled by the marketplace, perhaps we use our not-for-profit structure to build this artist fund. Artists who have wildly successful commercial runs would contribute a percentage of royalties. For every ticket sold, theaters could contribute a small percentage. If the arts generated 135 billion dollars in 2010, a one percent fund across all arts activity would generate more than a billion dollars. Let’s not wait for the NEA.

This fund would represent the commons portion of our industry. All funds from the commons would be managed by its citizens and given to artists to create art for everyone.

We’ve done much more complicated things in our time like building a virtual marketplace almost over night. We’ve maintained a social security system despite our best efforts to destroy it. We have the means to take our abundance and make it mean something. We have the capacity to make a new operating system for the theater, to ensure its survival in the 21st Century.

Polly Carl is the director of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College, and the editor of the online journal HowlRound

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