From “A Strategic Approach to Increasing the Value of the Theatre Artist,” by Ron Russell, Executive Director of Off-Broadway’s Epic Theatre Ensemble: This is a slightly abridged re-post of BOTH blogs of Part 1: “Becoming Essential,” (be warned – it’s about 7 pages!) which focuses on what the true value of theatre-makers is, or could be, in today’s America, starting from the perspective of “value” as material worth, and moving to a definition that embraces their importance and utility.
Before we can talk about the extrinsic value theatre artists ought to have in our society (what they get paid, what status they are given, what percentage of taxpayer dollars funnels their way, etc…), we need to try to define their intrinsic value. This encompasses both what they do uniquely well, and why what they do matters.
The word “value” itself essentially means how we ascribe relative merit to things. Common measures of merit are something’s material worth; it’s excellence; it’s importance; and/or it’s utility. I’ll take a stab at each of these measures; and how they collectively add up to the definition of “values” as the ideals of our society, or our communal system of ethics.
So, how do we measure what theatre artists are WORTH?
When we talk about artist salaries in connection to their value, I think we spend way too much time focused on this particular definition, maybe because it’s the easiest: what is the relative monetary exchange weight of an artist? That is, what price can they fetch in the marketplace? A Broadway casting conversation using this definition might reasonably compare a Hollywood star with little stage experience to a “known” NYC actor who has won a Tony, asking how much people might be willing to pay to see this person do Shakespeare. As a corollary, a person with no film resume and no awards could be assumed to be less of a financial draw, and therefore warrant a lower paycheck. And so, the argument goes, non-commercial producers with less money at their disposal, in an effort to keep their ticket prices as low as possible, hire actors of equally high excellence (see below) but less recognition, and, de facto, pay considerably less than commercial producers because their worth is lower; even if the artist has the potential to be exchanged for large sums of cash, the non-commercial producer may not have the marketing dollar to leverage that potential into worth.
But there’s a problem with relying on this definition. Broadway producers are for-profit entities; it’s sensible, even necessary, for them to measure artist value in terms of “material worth.” But Off-Broadway, we’re mostly not for-profit entities; we have to be for something else entirely. The annual budget is the spine of an organization’s belief system, and a non-profit can’t justify its’ existence by measuring the income it brings in at the box office (not that a robust box office is a bad thing; it just can’t be your mission). This is one of many places where I think we have to be careful about applying for-profit logic to a non-profit business model. Anyway, I think we can all agree that an artists’ capacity to make a producer money can’t be what makes them “essential.”
Unable to use the simplest measure, we often define artist value using EXCELLENCE (or what we often call “QUALITY”).
This is certainly a common, convenient, and pretty constructive measure of value when it comes to artists. We all know what it means, and even though we disagree about it’s measure, it’s still a handy tool because we all have a language for discussing, and disagreeing over, whether or not someone’s work is “good.” It’s also a fair tool, because it’s a matter of taste, which is not institutionalized or fixed; so any artist has the chance to change how they’re valued within this measure. It’s only dangerous when wielded by those critics who lazily attempt to make their personal preferences seem like objective assessments, rather than rigorously measuring an artist against THAT ARTISTS’ stated vision and goals.
What makes it really constructive as a definition is that it does actually point to one of the things that I think makes artists essential. Excellence is not something that can be achieved without lots of hard work and consistent, rigorous self-reflection. You don’t stumble into excellence. You’re not born with it. You work on it, and the harder and more thoroughly you work, and the more awake and self-reflective you are as you work, the more likely you are to achieve it. When you’re trying to learn to play the guitar, you play a note, you listen to the note, and you judge your note against an “ideal” note. You set the bar high for yourself, against a standard that you’ve heard and appreciated, be it Andres Segovia or Jimi Hendrix, and if you’re an artist, you keep practicing and reflecting until you gradually achieve, or at least approach, that standard.
David Shenk, in his book “The Genius in All of Us” (Anchor Books, 2011) leads off with a story about baseball’s Ted Williams “genius” as a hitter. He shows how Williams and his peers ascribed his record-setting level of excellence not to an innate inheritance, but to the time he devoted to practice, to his tireless repetition of hitting baseballs: as a kid, as a young player, and throughout his career. As Shenk says, “ Greatness was not a thing to Ted Williams; it was a process.” Like Williams, who prepared for each pitcher he would face individually, great artists are not “geniuses” in the commonly-understood sense of the word: they are incredibly hard workers who have spent countless hours of rigorous practice and reflection to apply their craft to the next artistic challenge.
We don’t have nearly enough of this in our society. We often set the standards too low, like in some urban public schools, where, for many of the right reasons (the road to pedagogical hell being notably paved with good intentions), school leaders accept shoddy work from students who have “added cultural challenges” like poverty or a less-than-nuclear family. Or we just accept that we failed to achieve the basic standards we all agreed on, with a shrug, or a sneer – like Snookie from Jersey Shore! Or we never even attempt things that scare us, like talking about things we deeply care about in front of strangers, lest we be held to any kind of standard. And in all these ways, we consent to complacency, which is anathema to the kind of active, engaged civic practice we need to sustain democracy in a country as diverse as today’s America. Artists publicly exemplify, and thus promote, courage. Risk-taking. Honest self-reflection. And hard work. Excellence in art-making, as in baseball, is a model for self-improvement.
Regardless, though, the current challenge of raising artist’s value in the U.S. always comes back to the fact that most Americans just don’t see theatre artists as vital to improving their quality of life. Whole generations have grown up without rigorous, consistent, or engaging arts education in their schools. Many producing organizations haven’t helped much, reacting to this problem by spending resources competing for a dwindling core of “connected consumers” rather than working to diversify and expand the pool of those who might be inclined to participate if properly invited. For any potential participant who starts from this outsider perspective, no amount of “excellence,” and certainly not exchange for high material worth, will sway them to see artists as personally valuable. Too often we producers place our faith in the “If you build it, they will come” promise of the film Field of Dreams. But in the case of the vast majority of Americans, no matter how well we build it, they simply won’t come, because they have no idea why what we do matters.
So, what is a theatre artist’s job, exactly, and why does it matter?
It can’t be to entertain. Entertainment is, and always has been, a commercial endeavor, and as such, to reach the broadest possible audience, confirms what we already know, rather than challenging us. In fact, the etymology of the word “entertain” points to an attempt to “keep someone in a certain frame of mind.” Entertainment works best when it conforms to and mirrors our collective thinking. As a result, raising the value of entertainers is pretty easy, requiring little more than a good marketing plan.
We also have to be careful about re-iterating the old saw that artists matter because they “reflect” our world, our understanding of things, in new ways: this narrative lowers the status of artists, placing them in a re-active rather than pro-active position, and won’t give us a measure of value that we can substantially raise. Anyway, I think artists DEFINE, rather than reflect, these understandings. The similarity of the work of artists to that of scientists has been obscured, I think, by the technological explosion of the past century - but it’s useful to compare. Scientists uncover, characterize, and often employ the basic truths of natural processes, the patterns that underlie our environment. Thus, scientists matter because they rigorously attempt to shape our evolving understanding of the way the physical world operates. Scientists become useful when they use this evolved understanding to address real-world problems (like health issues), and their value is raised even in the eyes of people who have no idea exactly what they do or how they do it. The impact is tangible.
Theatre artists uncover, characterize, and often employ the basic truths of human relationships and the communication that shapes them, the patterns of behavior that underlie our selves. And of course, these basic truths are in a constant state of change, just like scientific truths. So theatre can’t rely on our current collective mindset; it has to re-shape it, re-imagine it, expand it. Theatre artists matter because they rigorously attempt to shape the evolving mindset of the community they want to impact. And they become useful when they help participants apply this evolved mindset to address real-world problems, from those in personal relationships to those between individuals and their governments.
Before we look at how artists can increase their real-world impact, on the way to mattering more, I have to speak briefly about the word “success,” just to clear a few potential obstacles. First, an artistic project’s “success” lies in the rigor and clarity of the attempt, regardless of the actual impact on the chosen community; both artists and scientists can, and often do, fail to clear the first hurdle, and yet gain critical information and momentum for the next attempt. Next, an artists’ “success” cannot be held to any outside objective standard; comparing the work of one theatre artist to that of another who has a different community in mind, or a different impact, is apples and oranges. We can always comment on artists’ “excellence” – whether they were “good” or not - using the commonly defined, oft-disputed standards, but we can only speak to their “success,” to whether or not their work mattered, when we carefully define and measure what they were trying to change, and in whom. Artists only work so damn hard to become “excellent” so that we will not only be self-satisfied in the rigor of our attempts, but also impactful in their execution. No artist ever cited great ticket sales as their proudest personal success – we cite the project that actually led people to take concrete actions toward greater justice or more freedom, even if it was only a few, or even one; the project that led to revolutions; that had integrity despite market losses; the project that woke something up. “Success” for the theatre artist is a measure of social profit.
The real-world impact of a theatre artist can have three major phases.
First, simply naming the unnamable can be very important: to identify, put words to, and transform into credible human behavior an impulse our collective mind can’t currently pinpoint because it’s buried deep in our emotional or intellectual or moral core. When we can see this impulse manifest in a character’s action and language, we can measure it within ourselves. It’s hugely empowering to finally find the name for a thing you know you have inside you but which you have been unable to seize.
Second, fostering empathy. Because of the collective nature of the form, when we, the audience, hear an impulse aptly named and recognize it in ourselves, we immediately assume it in others. In this way, the spark of empathy is generated. In a flash of insight, we understand how someone who acts very different from us might actually be thinking, or feeling, or believing the same fundamental things. We realize everyone struggles with the really critical questions of human existence – the ones that really impact quality of life, like how difficult it is to raise your children well, regardless of your race, or class, or historical epoch. The theatre artist thus builds bridges to humankind throughout history, not to mention between humans from truly different worlds who happen to be in the same room watching. In that latter regard, theatre fosters active connectivity to the people around us.
Finally, paving the way honest, impactful dialogue on intractable issues. By revealing the intention behind language in an atmosphere of empathy, theatre artists can help people forge a new vocabulary for discussing problems which were previously un-discuss-able. Many of the gulfs that exist between us in our daily lives have causes buried so deep in the architecture of our character (for better or worse), that they’re just un-talk-about-able, un-articulate-able – we don’t have a language for even identifying the two sides of the chasm, much less bridging it - and theatre artists help start the conversation by revealing or enabling insights about other people that can form a baseline for the dialogue.
Think about that argument you always have with your partner – you argue about the same old signifiers, you use the same old language, you react to what you think you heard rather than to what the person “actually said” (which is what they say when they mean “what they meant”) and the only way to get past this intractable lock is to talk about the intentions underlying the language. The same is true in our ongoing struggle to define our own personal values in relationship to those of our peers and our society. In both areas, theatre artists can provide the critical tools: not answers to our intractable problems, our communicative chasms, but the proper articulation of the real questions we need to ask (what does it specifically mean to be moral on this issue?; what’s the common ground I hold with these people who were raised so differently than I was?; are you going to leave me over this?). These tools are especially critical in America, where our seeming starting places are just so far apart, and our current language for discussing our most intractable problems so impoverished and hackneyed and trifling.
Greek theatre artists tried to tackle the problem of striving for an ethical life, the life of purpose, with all it’s myriad challenges; a “good” life of acting on one’s own values without dishonoring those of others. Shakespeare and his contemporaries tried to explore the shifting political landscape of an urbanizing and democratizing world, seeking a new, more equitable, understanding of power. Williams, and Miller, Kushner and Hansberry and August Wilson, all the great American writers of the 20th century worked to give voice to that which was unspoken within what Auden called our “normal heart;” to unveil the dreams-deferred that were weighing down our national struggle toward more equity, justice, and freedom for all.Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his essay Art: “Yet when we have said all our fine things about the arts, we must end with a frank confession, that the arts, as we know them, are but initial. Our best praise is given to what they aimed and promised, not to the actual result. He has conceived meanly of the resources of man, who believes that the best age of production is past…Art has not yet come to its maturity, if it do not put itself abreast with the most potent influences of the world, if it is not practical and moral, if it do not stand in connection with the conscience, if it do not make the poor and uncultivated feel that it addresses them with a voice of lofty cheer. There is higher work for Art than the arts.”
I think the higher work is upon us, and presses us with an immediate moral obligation as theatre artists. Every 50 years or so our national institutions and civic operations become so at odds with the temperament and ethical stance of our people that there is a necessary cultural correction (the Civil War, Prohibition, Civil Rights Movement). A new language must be forged so a new bargain can be struck between our laws and our daily lives. I believe that we’re now entering one of these cultural shifts, a massive re-envisioning of our national ethics. Honest, inclusive, constructive dialogue is damn difficult to achieve, especially when participants begin the conversation from so many diverse corners, as we do in America. A dialogue about where we stand as a country, a true national conversation, on moral issues like abortion, education, punishment, and health care requires a new language, a language that captures its’ own intent, and embraces empathetic views of other people’s character. To be useful during this cultural shift, to matter, and to increase our extrinsic value, theatre artists must use the tools of our trade, tools such as empathy and ethics, to help forge a dialogue that’s as practical, as fair, and as fruitful as possible.
Part 2: “Our Role in the National Conversation: The Artist as Educator” is next, followed by a multi-sectioned Part 3 about “Responsibilities,” looking at what practical steps need to be taken by artists, producers, partners (like public schools), and funders to help raise the value of theatre-makers.