Nov 20, 2013

A New Game

Me performing in my small "fringe" show RASPBERRY FIZZ at the 2013 Houston Fringe.
Yeah, I'm outdoors. Three actors total. Small but mighty.
Here's a game: Which is more powerful? A lion or a salmon?
Now, same question, but this time let us put some context to it. Let us specify that the location is in the middle of a raging river.

Get what's going on?

I changed the game.

I read an article lately that pointed out something everyone in the theatre arts already knows... it is virtually impossible to become wealthy, let alone make a consistent and solid living wage in the theatre. Even so-called "stars" of the industry - Tony winners and the like - struggle to earn a decent living and can spend entire careers floating from job to job. The big payday is rare and hard to come by.

The part of the article that sticks out to me is this statement:
For playwrights, that huge payday happens only if their musical migrates from Broadway to a long, healthy life on the road, or their spoken-word play becomes the latest bauble of the regional-theater season.
I don't write plays that usually become "the latest bauble of the regional-theater season." 

I purposely write small plays, designed to have high impact through strangeness, humor and thematic unity. I write plays designed to be performed by one to five actors on sparse sets. I write plays that are designed to be seen by a few dozen people at a time, not hundreds.

So where does that leave me? In a career that is already under-compensated I operate far out on the fringes from the kinds of theatre that even comes close to occasionally making money for its creator. That small slice in the core of the mainstream is already too small to go around in the hyper competitive fields of theatre. Whether a director, actor or playwright, on any given day there will be hundreds and hundreds of fellow artists competing against you for the limited number of productions, gigs, grants, fellowships, residencies and so on.

Plus, there's this:
"You soon discover that there’s a small circle of megastar directors whom the critics love and managers employ, who get most of the work. It’s often mysterious the way that some directors suddenly emerge and are lionized, while others languish in obscurity.”
That seems true. The best person doesn't always win. It is a matter of context, I suppose. A lion in freezing rapids is virtually helpless while a salmon on the Serengeti is probably dead. The industry really is who you know and how good your timing is. Sometimes, I think it is arbitrary who breaks through to recognition. It is seldom the most talented or the most individual or the most anything. Often it is just some mediocre artist who maybe marketed themselves a little better than everyone else, or had an uncle who played golf with so and so.

So, here I am. A playwright of very idiosyncratic kinds of plays. These plays, I know, are not the kinds that the market usually allows to make it to the top tiers of the industry*. Even if I were to be that sort of playwright, the bulk of jobs go to a small circle of folks who know the right people. This is a dilemma.

Think about it. You do, as a profession, something that has little "market" value**. As this professional, you specialize in a particularly far-a-field subset of that industry. How do you make a valid career out of that? How do you make a career out of a game so rigged and undervalued?

Me? I change the game.

I stop putting energy into trying to compete for regional theatre productions. I produce my own plays. I produce the same piece more than once to expand audiences and hedge my odds of  making money back, of making a small, small profit. I resign myself to having to teach and do day jobs to make a living. These jobs have nothing to do with the creation of personal, idiosyncratic theatre. I resign myself to having to make a billion tiny steps instead of big steps to get from one career level to another.

I don't just change the game... I make a new one.

* The "top tier" in the theatre is a very narrow market-friendly aesthetic.
** The market favors cinematic acting, domestic content like family dramas or social issues and accessibility.

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