Careerism in the Theater

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You need to know at the top that although the column is called Downtown Dispatches, “downtown” is not a geographical term. I live and start a lot of my work in downtown Manhattan but downtown is everywhere. If you’re making theater with very little money and a few good friends and you’re not sure if anyone is going to show up to see it or like it if they do, then you’re working downtown.

Let’s talk about careerism in the theater.

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I’m going to draw an artificial but useful division between careerists and artists.

In my crowd, “careerist” is a very ugly thing to call someone. It’s asking for a fight. It means someone who is insincere, unreliable and always looking over your shoulder for someone more important to talk to and never meeting your eye. It’s a loaded term and I’m pointing a .38 Special by balancing it with “artist”.

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Of course, the undeniable truth is that most careerists in the American theater are also pretty solid artists. And worse, from most accounts I’ve read, Bob Dylan and Marlon Brando could both be cold and calculating climbers and sometimes outright pricks, and those are certainly among the two greatest American artists of the last hundred years.

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So, clearly there’s a lot of crossover between the terms and all of us have one or the other persuasion waxing or waning at any given moment.

Essentially, the difference is that the careerist has a plan and a very well-marked and researched, heavily annotated road map. Hard to get lost. You can get sent down detours and miss exits and sleep a couple of nights in the car, but you always pretty much know where you’re going. At some point on the ride you pull over, find a nice place and settle down. The Road hums by right at the end of your driveway and some nights you sit on the porch and listen to it and think about the Big City just a couple of day’s drive away. You could just get up and go. And then you have another drink and climb into your warm bed, hoping you remembered to turn off the porch light because the wife gets mad when you don’t.

The artist is constantly forging a new path. No maps. And ninety-nine out of one hundred times the path leads exactly nowhere. Not even to a brick wall. If you’re lucky enough to hit a brick wall, at least you know that there’s something on the other side. They don’t build walls just to stand there. Either you’re breaking into something or breaking out of something else. So you start measuring the wall, deciding if it’s best to climb over, dig under, work around or just start banging away where you stand. Brick walls are weirdly comforting things to come across. But usually the artist’s path is just a ramble through the woods, not even an adventurous hike. It’s diverting and enjoyable for the wanderer but not much use to anyone else.

LadderAnother way of looking at the divide is that the careerist thinks the American theater is a ladder while the artist knows it’s a just a circle. The careerist looks at each job, each gig (and often, horribly, each new colleague), as a rung. And she can never relax, as she’s craning her neck up to see where that next rung is and clinging on for dear life to the one she’s on. It must be exhausting.

I know it’s not a ladder and so do you. We know this because there’s no last rung. There’s no platform at the top.

Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers is the most valuable player in the National League. They gave him a thing last year that said so. The top lawyer in America? That would be Eric Holder, the Attorney General. A whole bunch of very athletic young men and women can point to the gold medals hanging around their necks they picked up in London a couple of weeks back and no one can argue if they begin to chant “I’m Number One!”.

But who’s the current heavyweight champion of American playwrighting? We can argue, but no one will be right because there is no answer. Who’s the top director right now in our country? The highest-ranked actress? These terms are meaningless, despite the annual, ever-increasing award parade in the spring. Yes, you can get a Tony, an Obie, a Drama Desk Award and even an Oscar, and good on you if you do, but an artist can never “beat” another artist and an artist can never “lose” to another artist. It may look like that from the outside, but it just doesn’t work that way. Your reputation and paycheck can go up and down, and they do, but your art doesn’t.

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The life of an artist in any country, in any field, is a circle. And if you’re lucky, it just goes round and round. Or it’s the ripple that a stone dropped in a pond begins and it spreads, displacing things the stone will never know. And sometimes it’s not a pebble that’s dropped, it’s a boulder and the waves from the work rock boats miles away.

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Again, this careerist/artist division is artificial, but it can be useful. Careerism is most infectious and contagious in the beginning of a person’s life. It usually presents when you’re in your mid to late 20s, much like schizophrenia.

This is when you start seeing original minds begin to sputter and flicker and sometimes just go right out; loud, rude and unruly voices become quieter and sometimes even affect bizarre and unconvincing accents, raising only to deny they ever spoke any differently.

It’s hard to watch and almost impossible not to catch. You’re 28, and now 30 and somehow, impossibly, suddenly, 35 years old and you just want to get paid to do what you do well. You don’t even think about getting rich any more, you just want to get up in the morning, do your work and come home at night. You don’t want to be a waiter/bartender/paralegal/salesman/massage therapist/realtor/personal assistant/nanny/blood donor any more. Not 40 hours a week. You don’t want to start rehearsal at 6:30 PM after working all day, get home at 11, have nine drinks, fall down and get up and go to work and do it all over again.

All I can say is that if you’re very, very lucky and unimaginably stubborn, you get to be 40, 45 and even 48 years of age and the money starts trickling in. Trickling, mind you. Because you’ve built a reputation and a lot of the careerist type people you started with who now have careers start hiring you. And after 20 plus years of taking walks every day you get to know the area pretty well, so you’re wandering less and have even picked up a little business as a tour guide.

The virtue of being a careerist is that if your skills are solid and you put in the time, you’ll end up with a career. The virtue of being an artist is you end up with a body of work, a gang of compatriots you can count on and a lot of great stories.

So try to quell the careerist in you. Throw away that map. It only tells you how to get where everyone’s already gone.

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