Tag Archives: money

When Theatre is Poor in Cash But Rich in Spirit, Passion and Imagination

window moonby Daniel Talbott

I’m laying in our bed. It’s almost two in the morning, my back’s been out for the past week, and I’m trying to gather my thoughts.

Here’s some of what’s running through my head. I believe that theater at its heart is a peasant’s art form. It’s an art form of the dirt, the ocean, fire, air, and animals. It grows out of the elements and the very active nature of life, as well as the hearts, imaginations, and even magic of the group of folks who are coming together and making it. It’s universal. And when it’s at its best, theater is free in the most perfect and truest sense of the word, no matter how much or how little was spent on it.

Money is not a bad thing. We all have to live and feed our families, and there’s also some extraordinary theatricality that can be bought. There are theaters that want to create work in a certain way, and within a certain model of growth, and they need a particular type of financial support in order to do that. There’s incredible theater being made on Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, regionally, and everywhere in between. We all have our dream shows, productions that absolutely would require a large budget to fulfill our intended vision. I have about five of them in my head as I type this, including a Twelfth Night with an entire theater of sand, water tanks, and real sharks.

Daniel Talbott

Daniel Talbott

But in the end, what makes a theater artist is action; it’s the work. Theater is in the doing and the creation of theater. I don’t believe you can ever sit around waiting and complaining about why you or I can’t do these “dream” shows, or why you or I don’t have enough money to be making work. If one day the money’s there, great, let’s do them (and hopefully they won’t be a total disaster). But if the money is never there, and there’s a good chance it won’t be, we’ll all hopefully have worked on hundreds of other shows in the time in between, even if we never raise another cent for our companies.

I’ve seen gorgeous, alive, ferociously vital theater that cost millions, and also equally as extraordinary theater that cost a subway swipe downtown and a few days of a talented group of folks’ time. What I’m trying to say is that you can make theater anywhere, and anytime, and there’s nothing stopping any of us except our own limitations about what professional theater should or should not be. What makes us theater artists is not whether or not we work at a theater with a million dollar plus budget, but that we’re working and making theater, and through our work and work ethic, creating theater professionally.

I’ve talked about walking into La MaMa on a day when I was heartsick and broken down. I watched a clip of a documentary by the wonderful Robert Patrick about the Caffe Cino. I did not know much about the Cino at the time and I sat in that beautiful, alive, raging theater, and I was reminded that all you really need to create theater is action, space (or as Robert might say, “a floor’”), courage, a play, heart, and someone to show it to or share it with.

Caffe Cino, 1960's. Fountain Theatre's Deborah Lawlor sitting far right.

Caffe Cino, 1960’s. Fountain Theatre’s Deborah Lawlor sitting far right.

The Caffe Cino is legend in the theater. If you’ve ever been to what’s there now—the restaurant called Po on Cornelia Street—you’ll know exactly how beautifully tiny it was. Yet giants jumped, hollered, roamed, pushed, fought, fucked, whispered, and then fell out the door late at night there. Giants like Robert Patrick, Doric Wilson, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Harry Koutoukas, and John Guare, to name a few of many. And how did these giants figure out the secret password and then squeeze through the door and into that profanity-strewn, sacred, glitter canon of a space? They simply asked if they could put on a play. And if Joe liked you, or thought you were the right astrological sign, you were given a few nights, and the Caffe Cino became your Olivier.

Joe CinoI’ve been told that Joe Cino never really read the plays that were being considered for the Caffe Cino, and I love that. He chose them based on any number of other considerations, but for me what it all boils down to is that he trusted. He trusted the artists to have their own unique voice and take on the world, even when those were not his voice or take, or taste. He trusted them to do their work and get the show up. He trusted.

I think great theater doesn’t happen without honesty and trust, without belief. I also think theater doesn’t happen without failure. Without that wonderful sense of getting thrown off a horse onto hard dirt and getting back up, laughing about it, and no matter how broken or sore you are, getting back on the fucking horse again.

The New York Times reprinted a reminiscence from Harry Koutoukas about the early days of the Cino: “We used to get together a play in a weekend, rehearse on a rooftop, rummage through the garbage for our props and, if we needed extra cash, we hustled our bodies in the streets. We men, that is—we didn’t think we should ask the women to do it.”

You can always create theater. Whether you’re on Broadway or in a LORT B house, or struggling your heart out in a small back room in Queens. Theater is theater, and we’re all equal on the boards. I don’t think anyone would call the work that Lanford Wilson or John Guare did at the Caffe Cino insignificant or unprofessional, simply because they weren’t paid and the budgets were tiny (if there were any at all).

Tons of money or none at all, the work on each play is always different but also the same, and in the pure theater, there’s no tier system, no one is better than anyone else. There’s just the story, the “unworthy spirits”—your collaborators, exploded imagination, and physical action in space. No amount of money will make your heart bigger, your fight hotter, or your imagination the size of a solar system and beyond. Belief in yourself and others will lead you down that path much further and more surely.

Somehow Joe Cino, I think innately, understood that. He understood how beautifully simple great theater is and can be. He created a home and space for it. Nowadays if you can’t afford the rent on your own Cino, build one in your bathtub. Or on your roof, or under a lamppost on a corner in Harlem, or in the flatbed of your grandma’s truck. Build it. Trust. Open your heart and start working with others, and they will come. Theater is always possible; it’s infinite in its possibility. The commercial, institutional theater is wonderful, but those theaters are only a few of the restaurants in this wonderful city of many. If you’re starving, and for whatever reason those restaurants won’t let you in, you are starving—find a restaurant that will let you in, or learn to grow your own food and make your own dishes, and invite everyone over to eat together.

“Give everything. Expect nothing. Move on.”—Harold Pinter

Daniel Talbott is an actor, director, playwright, producer, a literary manager of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and the artistic director of the Lucille Lortel and NYIT Award-winning Rising Phoenix Rep. This post originally appeared on Howlround.

A Playwright in Today’s World: To Sell Does Not Mean ‘Sell Out’

Vanessa Garcia

by Vanessa Garcia 

How do we make a life in the theater in the twenty-first century while still managing to pay our bills?

The myth of the starving artist is, unfortunately, alive and well in some sectors of the arts—particularly in the theater. I can say that Art saved me, but as in all complicated endeavors, I can also say the opposite. I can say that Art tried, many times over, to murder me in my sleep. My desire to live my life as an artist forced me into ghettos where I dodged bullets, and into days in which the only lunch I could afford was a stolen handful of nuts from a Whole Foods bin. This is not romantic. It’s stupid. I eventually decided: no more.

And I’m not the only one. Artists everywhere have surfaced and said: no more. No more mythic Icarus ramming itself into the sun and melting into the ocean. There’s a way in which that same Icarus can fly, spanned wings across the sky, safe, and yet still beautiful, even awe-inspiring. What I want to argue here, is that the theater and the performing arts are lagging behind other arts—we’re standing in the wings, while the action is taking place on other people’s stages. Television writers, novelists, Young Adult writers, illustrators—all of these artists have found a way to embrace millennial capitalism (for lack of a better term; call it “late capitalism” if you like)—and the theater has been late to catch up.

This is a vision acutely in line with the contemporary generation of neo-hipsters and millennials. “Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration—music, food, good works, what have you—is expressed in those terms. . . call it Generation Sell,” wrote William Deresiewicz in an article for The New York Times in November of last year. “Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist,” continues Deresiewicz, “but the entrepreneur. (Think of Steve Jobs, our new deity). Autonomy, adventure, imagination; entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us. The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.”

To sell does not mean to sell-out. At least not the way it used to. The playwright can either play-in or lose out.

The novelist has already adhered. “These guys [contemporary novelists] are acutely aware of the multiple audiences for which they write,” says Szalay, whose upcoming new book is entitled The Novel After HBO. He continues: “For a generation of novelists that began to achieve fame and distinction in the early twenty-first century—like Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, Junot Diaz, and Dana Spiotta—the term ‘sell-out’ just doesn’t apply.”

For performing artists to be able to adhere, our attitude towards money has to change. In a recent article. “A Dancer’s Retort,” in The Huffington Post, Brittany Beyer, dancer and associate editor of The Dance Enthusiast, also calls for a new form of operation in the performing arts. She writes:

One important issue is the dance artist’s attitude towards money. Many of us have been brought up with the idea that our field is beyond a job— to be an artist is almost a sacred calling. If you have ever danced you will understand. We love our art form and have the conviction that it does others good. With integrity and passion we put our bodies—our very selves—on the line to create. Our work is beyond a job description; in many ways it is a life’s practice or a life’s mission. How does one monetize that?

Healers are “sacred” too, aren’t they? Doctors, for instance. And we pay them, don’t we? We pay them a bundle. There is a whole other discussion here about health care in this country and about what we do and do not value socially and who gets access. The point, for now is—why should artists be poor? Other life missions and practices are paid for. If we pay people to heal our bodies, why shouldn’t we pay them to heal our souls? Perhaps this seems trite, cheesy, or too sincere. But, I think it’s true. And, truthfully, I don’t care about it sounding “too sincere.” Irony is no longer king.

We cannot live without money. We cannot produce art without money. It seems to me impossible not to monetize the result of an artistic process. And, it seems sillier still to pretend like art and money have nothing to do with each other. As soon as artists realize this, the better off we will be. This mindset becomes dangerous when producers, not creatives are the one monetizing—particularly producers who are more interested in the money than the art (not all are like this, I should add). The clearest solution, again, seems to be for the artist/playwright to be tied to the production—to become, like in television, a “Showrunner.”

The Showrunner—people like David Chase of The Sopranos and Matthew Weiner of Mad Men—creates, writes, and produces; manages and markets. The Showrunner is more than just a writer. “The result is a paradigmatically neoliberal vision of the writer and his labor,” writes Michael Szalay in his article “The Writer as Producer; or, The Hip Figure After HBO,” published by Duke University Press this year.

This requires the artist to become a hybrid. Going back to the Icarus myth—allow the sun to give us energy, rather than drown us. This doesn’t mean we must always produce our own work. We can allow traditional models to merge with newer models, this too can be hybrid in nature. Technology now gives us all access to the means of production. The writer can now learn Photoshop. The creative can now market on Facebook and Twitter (and it works). The audience is used to receiving information from multiple sources. Devised Theater trends prove that audiences are open to theater reflecting the world they live in—after all Devised Theater is a form of hybridity, a place where all the artists are Showrunners in the sense that they take on many roles. Now it is time to apply this idea to the way we make money in the theater. It is our job, as theater professionals not to fall behind—not to kill art, or allow it to kill us. It is, in fact, our job to keep it alive, to keep it thriving in a world full of hybrids. It is our job to save people’s lives and to do this, we need to fully understand what it means to be alive, making and receiving art in twenty-first century America.

Vanessa Garcia is a multi-media writer and artist working from Miami and Los Angeles. She’s the founding artistic Director of The Krane, a theater/arts company. She’s currently working on her PhD from the University of California Irvine in Creative Nonfiction, and is a contributing writer to numerous publications from The Miami Herald to The Art Basel Magazine, among other journals, newspapers, and magazines. She’s also currently shopping her novel, White Light, and working on a two new plays called The Cuban Spring and The Underground.