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How Theatre Artists Become Essential, Part 1


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. (I could talk about this language problem, of defining ourselves by what we’re not, but Jaan Whitehead has done it better and more thoroughly than I could in her brilliant 2001 American Theatre essay “To Have and Have Not,”

So what exactly are we for in the non-commercial theatre, that we could measure the material worth of our artists against?  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, professional or otherwise, 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 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.

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