I've been meaning to weigh on this, for a bit, but this damn day job keeps expecting me to do actual work so as to stay employed. But I do want to say some things on this front. (You can also see this, this and this for more background) This is, of course, at the risk of bringing the wrath of Messrs. Hall and Walters on myself. I know what I'm getting into.
Art may be a "way of life." But "artist" or "playwright" is a job. It's not always a good job, but it is a job, a vocation. Just like "law" is a way of life (or whatever) but "lawyer" is a job that people have, for various reasons, in various ways. And, honestly, I think that talk of art as "a way of life" actually does some harm to us out here doing the job of "artist." It's a big part of what I think of as the Talent Myth (which isn't exactly the talent myth here, but shares some aspects).
The Talent Myth goes that being a playwright (or a sculptor, or an actor) is something that is inherent in you, it's a manifestation of your true inner self and either you have "it" or you don't have "it." "It" can't really be taught or learned, only perfected. If you don't have "it," the best you can hope for is to be a decent craftsperson or a teacher. If you do have "it," whatever you do is "art." Unless you pervert it in the interest of making money. Then you're wasting it by falling from the true path. It's a solitary, all-consuming life, where everything must be sacrificed for your "art."
I call bullshit.
Now, before Don and Scott descend on me to say that's not what they're saying, I know that's not what they're saying. Exactly. But it's a big part of it. Let's take the law, for example. Let's say I'm a smart kid who likes to argue my point and has a great recall of facts, names and dates. This is my skill set. I get good grades, and finally decide that the area of expertise that fits my particular skill set is the law. But what kind of law? It's up to me. If I really, really care about the environment, I can practice environmental protection law. If I really, really care about the rights of corporations, I can practice corporate law (or become a Republican lawmaker). It's my call. Now, if I really, really care about the environment, or civil rights, or public law, well, those don't always pay as much as making sure corporations make loads of money (usually by trampling on the environment or civil rights). So I have to ask myself how much I care about the environment, and how much I can about having a big screen TV. Now here's the key thing: I make the choice. Now let's say the choice is between working long, long hours at a huge corporate law firm and spending more time with your family. Let's say that you're really, really good at corporate law and like it (believe it or not, there are people just like that. Honest. I swear.), but you want to be there for your kids. You make that choice. If you pick the big screen TV, we call it "selling out." If you pick your kids, we call it "sacrifice."
Only, in theatre, it seems like the only choices are "suffer" or "sell out." The mere whiff of money is enough to suddenly turn any endeavour into selling out. Usually, when someone says a play has "commercial potential," it's an insult. How is this a sane way of building a field?
I'm a huge proponent of the arts as a public good, along with national safety and education, things that in a just country would be free and available to all, everywhere. We don't live in that country. We can try to make changes, and eventually we will, maybe, but before we do, we have to live here and stop wishing we lived in England, or Sweden or wherever it is that the government shits money in your mouth. We don't. We live in a country that views artistic endeavours as frivolous and quite possibly sinful. Get used to it.
So while we're here, we have to get used to this idea: being a theatre artist in this country is, in general, a piss-poor job. The hours suck, the pay is ridiculous, the inequality of wages, opportunity and access is off the charts, and, for a lot of us, this noble calling isn't particularly satisfying. Still we do it, because we have a drive, and we do love it. And, for most of us, it fits our skill set the best.
But even within that, there are various levels, jobs, aspects, and just because it's a place that makes money, that doesn't mean it's automatically a corruption. I say this because, as an artist, I'm acutely aware of where my skills lie: in accessible, mainstream comedies. It's true. I like writing plays about people in rooms talking about things, occasionally doing funny things, they learn something, sometimes they cry a little. That's what I do. So if I write a play that comes from my heart and soul and it winds up on Broadway and making me money, have I sold out? Honestly, I feel far more dishonest when I think about ways to "quirk" up my plays, make them more "downtown," more "theatre-y." That's not what I do. But when I write the way I feel most comfortable, theatres aren't interested. This isn't just me shaking my fist at the fools who are turning away a surefire hit, a hit I tell you! Seriously, it's a sober assessment of my skills, my work and the market for them.
Fine, you don't want to label "art" a "job." Okay. But it is a craft. We make things for people. We make experiences for people. No one tells a cabinet maker he's "prostituting" himself for making something out of oak because that's what his customers like. If you're making things your customers want, good for you. The problem comes in when we think we know better than the customers and they reject it. That's the arrogance of "it's a way of life." Everything is a way of life, but you don't see everyone else going on about it. People come to us for an experience and we send them away with the experience we think they should have. Some people like that. Many others less so. And they vote with their feet, as they say.
The greatest tragedy of the last twenty years or so is the major contraction of the market, especially here in New York. We're left with fewer and fewer voices, fewer and fewer outlets and more frustration on everyone's part. I went to see The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Atlantic the other night with a friend from work. My friend is smart, kind of hip, with a whole downtown thing going. She's a journalist, and in her late twenties and she's never seen a play she liked. She has cool artsy friends and has gone to plays, maybe 8 times, and despite not seeing one she liked, she's still trying. She's kind of the ideal audience member, right? We walked into the Atlantic, she saw the set for the opening scene, a very realistic shop in 1930s Ireland, and she sighed an audible gasp. Of relief. She actually said to me, "Oh, yeah, a set." People do like that kind of thing. Maybe not everyone, but they do. And it's getting harder and harder to find. The night we went was on the big half price promotion going around. Ordinarily, the tickets were $75. For Off-Broadway. And because she's not a theatregoer, my friend didn't even know about the promotion.
By limiting ourselves, we're missing out on a lot. Art is a concept. Act accordingly.
Okay, Don, Scott, have at...