Artists First? Charting a Future for the American Theater

By the time our theaters reopen, which artists will be left standing? Let us revisit the ancient notion of the acting company.

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Carey Perloff, Artistic Director Emerita of American Conservatory Theater. Photo: Kevin Berne.

The word “essential” was one of the first to enter the lexicon of COVID-19. With great speed, we identified those whose labor was deemed “essential” to the economy and to our well-being: healthcare workers, garbage collectors, grocery store clerks, bus drivers, meat packers, agricultural workers, and so on. Of course, the irony is that those deemed “essential” in America are those most likely to be low-wage (and disproportionally Black and brown) workers without health insurance, job security or safety protocols at their place of work. This discrepancy is equally glaring in the arts. In this time of crisis, what is it that we consider “essential” — and how do we respond to that analysis? If we are to transcend this moment, we must honestly question our value to the culture and our values as a culture.

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Let’s start with the first question: What is the value of live theater to American culture? In a recent arts-related PBS News Hour segment, Judy Woodruff (trying to be an arts advocate!) somberly stated that “now, as always, the arts are a source of entertainment and comfort.” At that point, I stopped listening. If we want to make the case that we are essential, “entertainment” and “comfort” aren’t going to cut it. Is that what Euripides said to the Council of Athens when he argued for a larger Chorus in Trojan Women? Did he say, “I need to put this story on stage for the entertainment and comfort of the Athenian people?” Trojan Women shook up the Athenians’ thinking about their role in the disastrous Peloponnesian War, including the inhuman immigration policies that gave a lie to the myth of Greek democracy. And why was this the purview of theater, not of journalism? Because theater, by its nature, transforms the daily news cycle into something “other” by accessing every tool at its disposal, including metaphor and allegory (in Euripides’ case, by placing current issues in the mythical landscape of the Trojan war). At its best, theater recalibrates how we think about our own current experience; it wakes our minds and empathy to alternative ways of seeing. This doesn’t mean all art is monumental and “serious”; it doesn’t mean that art can’t also function as entertainment. If Euripides’ plays hadn’t been great thrillers, with shocking reversals and juicy characters, 40,000 spectators would not have trooped to Epidaurus to see his plays. But the value of theater has to be tied to something longer term, not to immediate needs such as eliminating boredom or feeling better. We’ve wrestled with this question, indeed, since time immemorial: without a more rigorous, audacious way to articulate the intrinsic value of theater, we will always be marginalized, because “comfort” comes after safety, nourishment and survival in the priorities of support.

It may be useful to tie the question of why theater has value to a consideration of what our values are right now as a field, and how they are reflected (or might be reflected) in the budgets and practices of our theaters. It would seem indisputable that artists are both our essential workers and our makers of meaning; they are both our labor and our product. They imagine the performance and then they come up with a way to create it. Some are content “generators” and some are “interpreters,” but together they fuel the work that lies at the center of what we do. Why, then, have we come to accept a system, in both the nonprofit and commercial sectors of our field, in which artists are “gig” workers who only get paid for the individual bits of work that they deliver to the institutions that hire them? Why do so few artists have a central voice at our institutional theaters? Why is it that, as soon as the pandemic hit, so many theaters around America paid out the contracted two weeks required to their artists and then let them all go? (Of course, there are notable exceptions to this statement, but I have yet to hear of one on Broadway, where most producers paid the minimum dictated by contract to free themselves of their “obligations”.)

It’s not that I don’t understand the imperatives of institutions. Nor do I wish to pit institutions against “freelance” artists, a conflict with little benefit to either side. I ran a small Off-Broadway theater for seven years and a large regional theater for 25: I know how incredibly complicated and heated this conversation can get. Certainly, at their best, institutions provide a welcoming, well-resourced envelope in which artists can create their work and audiences can be engaged, educated and entertained. But if the artists who make the work are always ad hoc, if they are always expected to live gig to gig with no security and little voice in the system, what signal does that ultimately send about what we value as a field? The gig-economy model implies that artists are infinitely replaceable. Perhaps they are; there will always be more people eager to make theater than there are jobs for them to hold. But I think the argument still holds: if artists are never more than gig workers, are we not basically saying they are “non-essential”? (The current debate in California over AB5, the so-called “gig worker bill,” is ironically becoming absolutely germane here, even though many in our field have rightly resisted its broad-brush approach to the problem.) Is it not hypocritical that we deplore the unprotected status of the so-called “essential” workers in COVID-19 America but are, at the same time, willing to push the entire “freelance” field of American artists into the uncertain terrain of unemployment, of a loss of health care, of no central voice in the remaking of our industry? The extraordinary and vigorous explosion of voices centered around Black Lives Matter in recent weeks is testimony to the scale of the problem: if our field has consistently overlooked the centrality of working artists, the exclusion of and disempowerment of BIPOC voices is particularly egregious and short-sighted.

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It’s invigorating to ask some key questions at this incredibly difficult time. Here’s one: how do we sustain the infrastructure to make the kind of highly professional theater that we have come to revere without pushing the actual artists to the fringes of that ecology? How can we reimagine the American theater to acknowledge who our “first responders” are: actors, directors, playwrights, designers, composers, musicians, in all their plurality and diversity? Should we be asking our artists in this pandemic to make home videos that extol our work when we took them off the payroll the moment the pandemic hit? Perhaps most importantly, why are permanent acting companies or artist ensembles almost a thing of the past in our institutional theaters — and why have foundations across the country shown so little interest in supporting them, while claiming to be invested in addressing inequality? While it is true that standing acting companies in the early years of the American nonprofit movement were often too white and too male to truly represent the diversity of stories that need to be told, it is also true that the existence of long-term company contracts encouraged artists to grow and evolve over time, and to establish a profound bond with their audiences. No longer. In most nonprofit theater, the gap between what artists are paid and what full-time administrators receive is enormous. If a theater’s budget is a demonstration of its value system, how can it be that, aside from the artistic director, most theaters have fewer than a handful of artists on the full-time payroll?

It is wrong that we have come to accept that this is “just the way it is.” Artists are, we are told, supposed to wait in the wings, flex their muscles, and stay fit and ready for that lucky day when the phone will ring and they’ll land a job. Independent artists, so hungry for the crumbs they receive, rarely want to bite the hand that feeds them by demanding more representation at institutional theaters. During the past decade, it has become almost a necessity that those very artists who live gig to gig with no job security and so little self-determination in their field are expected to attain higher degrees to prove their worthiness. So now we have, for example, young directors with $100,000 of graduate school debt waiting to direct a workshop for pennies. By the time our theaters reopen, which artists will be left standing? Which organizations will have reimagined their infrastructure to better support artists when they return? Can we not figure out a better, cheaper way to train and mentor young artists from within our organizations? Which groups of hardy, focused artists might reject this system entirely — forming their own collectives and making work in some new way that they determine?

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I am not naïve. I recognize that artists have always held down day jobs to support their work, and that professional security in our field is always late in coming and tenuous at best. But nothing is forever; our current situation is so dire that we might as well reimagine the future as rigorously and audaciously as we can. This kind of thinking is not unprecedented. If we look back to the Great Depression, artists were (briefly) considered part of the workforce out on relief. Within the larger reach of the Works Progress Administration, which put jobless American labor to building bridges, laying roads, and creating parks, community centers, schools and dams, was the Federal Theater Project (FTP), spearheaded by Hallie Flanagan. Flanagan was asked to shape the FTP to keep theater artists working. Although it consumed less than 1% of the WPA budget, the FTP had a huge impact, bringing theater to communities across America who had never seen a live performance, and sustaining the lives of countless actors, writers, directors, stage managers, designers and composers over its four-year lifespan. Note that the initial Statement of Purpose of the FTP was about employment:

The primary aim of the Federal Theatre Project is the reemployment of theater workers now on public relief: actors, directors, playwrights, designers, vaudeville artists, stage technicians, and other workers in the theatre field.

But Flanagan had loftier goals. She envisioned that FTP would:

…lay the foundation for the development of a truly creative theatre in the United States with outstanding producing centers in each of those regions which have common interests as a result of geography, language origins, history, tradition, custom, occupations of the people.

Within a year of its creation, FTP employed 15,000 people; over its short existence, it played to 30 million people in more than 200 theaters nationwide. Eventually it was shut down by the same forces that always seem allied against the arts in our nation: Flanagan was deemed a Communist, and FTP was accused of propaganda and “promoting equality between the races” and ultimately disbanded. The notion of the endeavor, however, remains seminal in that it acknowledged, however briefly, that the creators and interpreters of content for theater were, and are, at the center of theatrical activity. One could argue that all of this was easier in the 1930s, with far fewer artists to sustain. But in the 1970s, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) also found ways, albeit more convoluted ones, to employ artists in government-sponsored work programs that benefitted communities and kept them employed.

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It was roughly that same period — that is, the late ‘60s and into the 1970s — that witnessed the first flowering of the non-profit theater movement in America. One of the initial impulses of this movement was to create an alternative to the hit-or-miss reality of commercial theater by creating actual homes for working theater artists nationwide. Organizations like Arena Stage, American Repertory Theater, Dallas Theater Center and the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) supported full-time acting companies and, often, a cadre of designers, musicians and directors. Such artistic ensembles shaped repertoire and, to their audiences, became the face and soul of their organizations. During my COVID-19 quarantine, I have returned repeatedly to the writing of Zelda Fichandler, one of the visionaries of our field. In her seminal essay, “Whither (or Wither) Art?”, published in American Theatre in 2002, Arena Stage’s founder identifies a crucial problem inherent in how theater is made in America in that it is “transient, temporary work” that often…

…feels as nothing but a high form of what the manufacturing industry calls ‘piece work’ — you get paid for the number of ‘pieces of work’ you turn out and how many you turn out is the measure of things, not you, yourself. On a rainy day, ‘jobbing in’ — our word for piece work — can make one feel devalued: a ‘gig’ can only be followed by another ‘gig’. You may be moving along but only from here to there — moving but not evolving.

So Fichandler asked instead:

What else could define the culture of a theater but its artists? Didn’t a collective art form require a collective? Weren’t we here to protest and even replace the put-it-up, smash-it-down one-shot system of Broadway? Our earliest banners were emblazoned with ‘NOT A HOTEL FOR THEATRE, BUT A HOME’!

Rereading her essay, I am struck again by the single guiding principle around which Zelda shaped her vision for the institutional theater: the artist must be at the center. “Pay those who are mature and committed artists the top salaries within the institution, at least equal to that of any other fundraiser or audience builder,” she provocatively proposed. “This gesture more than any other will signal where the artist stands as to recognition and power.”

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For a decade during my tenure at A.C.T., I tried very hard to follow Zelda’s dictum. We had a Core Company of eight actors who were paid 52 weeks a year whether they were acting, teaching, or simply preparing, and who sat on the Artistic Team and helped shape artistic policy for the whole institution. We also, for many seasons, had a group of resident designers and a resident music director on the payroll. One of the beauties of being a producing theater that also housed a training program was that artists could work in both wings of A.C.T. to sustain their employment, so that, for example, the voice faculty in our MFA program also served as vocal coaches for mainstage shows. It was an exhilarating experiment — and heartbreakingly difficult to sustain. As housing in San Francisco became more and more expensive, as funders moved away from supporting individual artists, as the artists’ own needs evolved, and as the work we were producing became too diverse to suit our Core Company, the resident artist model was modified and the acting company disbanded. But its existence had had a huge impact on who we were as an institution.

If my execution failed, the power of the company idea remains with me still. I knew that the great innovations in theater — from Japanese Noh Drama to Shakespeare’s King’s Men to Arianne Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil; from Anne Bogart’s SITI Company to the LAByrinth Theater Company that nurtured such seminal writers as Stephen Adly Giurgis; from the ensembles of Brecht and Molière to those of Sophocles and Aeschylus — have always been rooted in the notion of company, in which a playwright and/or director creates work for a specific group of performers, often in ongoing collaboration with a composer and/or designers. Not only is company beneficial to artists, it’s invaluable for audiences. It still seems to me that the best way to engage a community in the work of a theater is let that community watch actors transform, to invite them to see the same actors in multiple roles over multiple seasons, all the better to understand what the art of acting actually entails. Over time, many audience members thus begin to see those actors as “their actors,” just as sports fans see the players on “their team” as their own. One of most moving pandemic “theater” experiences I had was a live stream of King Lear, filmed several years ago at the Stratford Festival in Canada. As the streaming began, audience members in the chat room shared common memories of those astonishing Stratford actors — favorite performances, funny anecdotes, passionate responses — just as sports fans share tales of their favorite players. It was like being with family in very tough times. It was clear to me that the Stratford audience was attached to that institution for two simple reasons: the repertoire and the actors. Can a theater with gig workers evoke quite that kind of emotional response?

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And yet, theaters across America have eschewed acting companies for the “freedom” of casting whomever they like — or for the alluring possibility of celebrity, perhaps hoping that the press will spotlight a production stocked with notable names. Acting ensembles are, for the most part, now considered passé or undesirable (in spite of the fact that we fully recognize the necessary genius of “ensemble” when it comes to, say, jazz or dance). Why is this so? In part because a production without a “star” is unlikely to generate the kind of heat that will take it to New York. And that, increasingly, is the goal of the regional theater sector. One of the guiltiest parties in this, of course, is the culture desk of The New York Times, which still considers Broadway the acme of the craft, knowing full well that most serious plays cannot survive in that market — and certainly almost no classical work unless it’s British.

But now, suddenly, we are catapulted into a brave new world in which the notion of artists flying all over the country to work seems increasingly out of reach, not to mention unsafe. (The one upside of Zoom readings is that we can virtually gather artists from anywhere to share some work. After lockdown, might we rely on that platform more, and get on planes less? Might COVID be, inadvertently, a democratizing event?) So how will live theater survive? What will happen to the institutional theater in America? Who will be part of it, and who will go see it? Again, Zelda:

At some point in the future, we’ll want to define ourselves by whether we insisted strongly enough on becoming what we can be, and therefore have become it. We will have to come to consensus that artists are the theater, not a separate tribe bussed in for performances.

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Artists need audiences, administrators, board members, volunteers and repertoire. I deeply admire the remarkable staffers and trustees currently trying to keep institutional theaters afloat. The resources were never enough at the best of times, and this is the worst of times. The notion of growth that we inherited and zealously adopted from the corporate sector and prioritized above all else has proved to be our undoing: now we have enormous buildings and infrastructures that we may not be able to support again for a long time. That’s okay. Nothing is forever, and permanence is not the only goal. The flush postwar period gave us the naïve, unsustainable view that there could be more and more graduate schools, more and more professional artists, more and bigger regional theaters in more and bigger buildings, and that as long as everything kept growing with the economy, we’d all come out on top. But the myth of growth has stalled and, with it, the sustainability of our theaters. To be sure, by the time the pandemic hit, the nonprofit model was broken in many ways. We all knew it, but none of us knew how to fix it. We scrambled (often in misguided ways) for more diverse and younger audiences, we agonized about “branding” our institutions, and we bemoaned the lack of arts education in our schools that precluded young people from having the “gateway” experience to the arts that they deserved. We fundraised longer and harder; we promised donors “producer” status, and all the opinions and power commensurate with that title, if only they’d increase their gifts. We compromised our sacred spaces by inviting commercial “collaborations” that we couldn’t always control to get that “enhancement money.” We tried to second-guess what the public hungered to see; we framed it so that every single play might be an “event” headlined, if at all possible, by a “bankable star.” We all but abandoned classical theater as too big, too expensive, too colonial, too reactionary to merit time and investment, forgetting that the past is our springboard to the future. We found smaller and smaller plays and hoped they didn’t run longer than 90 minutes so tired audiences could get in and out fast. We charged more and more for tickets, even in our second stages and smaller venues, making it impossible for most audiences to afford our work. And still, our margins were so slim that one flop or one missed grant presented an existential threat. The business of running a non-profit theater became less about the work that animated our stages and more about trying to keep the structure from collapsing under its own weight.

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Theater, if forced to compete in a commercial marketplace for recognition and resources, will always fail. This doesn’t mean that the endeavor is an unworthy one. It simply means that theater is more like church, perhaps, than like a corporation. For the past two decades, we have tried to make our non-profit theater more like the commercial theater so as to compete. What if, right now, at least some of our field tried to do the opposite? What would we have to lose? If “growth” no longer equates with sustainability, what other metrics might measure our success? How can we reassign value in our field? Who are the voices that get to determine change? What if our value were measured by the number of artists on our payroll, and donors were invited to invest in artists instead of buildings? What if we committed to publishing plays and translations we believed would matter in the long-term rather than simply those that sell the most tickets or cause the most “buzz” today? What can we do to make the art feel essential again — or, at least, essentially true to itself? If our work were more deeply local, would stakeholders find more reason to support us? At this moment, when the entire future of our field is up for grabs, will we be strong enough to reimagine an industry that is more artist-centric?

Let us revisit the ancient notion of the acting company. Let us imagine full-time positions for directors and designers (Associate Artistic Directors?) with a real say in, and responsibility for, the repertoire. This would entail a creative shift in power, which is always uncomfortable. It would ask boards to relinquish the notion of running a theater as if it were any other business; indeed, it would take power from trustees and place it into the hands of those who make the work. It would look differently at what our most important assets really are. It would encourage us to resist the notion that art and artists are endlessly disposable and replaceable. The late, great Bernard Gersten memorably said, “Theater has four elements: a building, artists, money and an audience. How you mix them, how you adjust them, how you administer them is the secret of success or failure.” Over the past 50 years, the non-profit theater has spent enormous energy building buildings, engaging audiences and raising money. Why don’t we now try to let artists lead?