The picture has been painted for us. Adapt or die. We in the theatre know this much is true: jobs are scarce, good pay and benefits scarcer. Funding, like audiences, seems to be dwindling. The solution, we’re told, is just as clear—embrace the market, become creative entrepreneurs. This may be a stopgap measure to survive this state of precarity, but it doesn’t alter that state. Indeed, this proposed solution short-circuits the questions of why audiences are dwindling, of why we aren’t paid well for our work. What if, instead of changing ourselves and our art practices to fit the market, we could alter the conditions of the field itself? It is possible. Indeed, it is necessary for the survival of our field.
Why, then, do we have such an investment in the question of entrepreneurship? It is no oversimplification to say that we’ve been told it’s the only option—capitalism is, after all, practically the official ideology of the United States. It is important to remember that just a few generations ago our field was the target of an ideological purge against so-called Hollywood radicals by the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 and 1951. The Protestant ethic runs deep in America: we have to work hard to succeed in the fair and free market of ideas. What we’re not told, what our histories leave out, is that the market is not fair. The market favors that which will make money, it favors the exploitation of resources and labor for profit—that is, it favors entrepreneurship.
In a series of popular posts on HowlRound in 2014 and 2015, Seth Lepore argued that it is a fact that artists have to be entrepreneurs. If you read the entire series, you may notice he is not exactly arguing for entrepreneurship (especially when he asks the reader to imagine what a strike would look like). In “Facing Facts: Artists Need an Entrepreneurial Mindset Part 2,” he concluded with this:
Be an advocate not only for yourself but also for the field as a whole. An entrepreneurial mindset is not one of autonomous isolation but altruistic noncompetitive transparency. It is possible that we can all succeed beside one another.
Good advice. But entrepreneurship is competitive by definition, and Lepore is jumping through rhetorical hoops in his continued advocacy for it. Which begs the question, why? What do we really mean when we say entrepreneurship? Entrepreneurial ability, according to classical economics, is the skill of identifying market opportunities and exploiting them for profit. This is fundamentally at odds with Lepore’s advice. Lepore is really arguing for cultivating business acumen in order to better navigate the market: that we, as artists, learn the skills usually reserved for development officers, administrators, marketers, and producers. For hundreds of years, from Shakespeare’s day until very recently, these skills went hand-in-hand for companies often led by actor-managers.
What happened? The short version goes like this: the twentieth century saw the rise of specialization and professionalization alongside union-earned protections for working actors and tradespeople. Professional arts administrators emerged as part of a growing middle-manager class. Mass media emerged and begin to take over as dominant forms of entertainment. National arts funding grew, peaking in the 70s and 80s, then collapsed: first supporting professionalization and transforming how theatre artists were trained, then leaving us divided by professional skillsets (and increasingly burdened by debt) with a massive skeleton of nonprofits atrophied by defunding. This is a history that deserves much more in-depth telling, but for the purposes of this essay the important part is professionalization followed by defunding.
In the wake of this deprofessionalization, we find ourselves without professional careers, and so observe with common sense that we must go into business for ourselves, we must be entrepreneurs. Common sense, of course, as an expression of dominant cultural ideas, is the most ideological of the senses. We’ve become hybrids, hyphenates—just like actor-managers were. While we can think of this positively, that yes, we have diverse interests and opportunities as artists, we should remember the economic conditions that force us to be hybrids: single professional career tracks that would pay for our bills and our retirements are closed off. Lacking single dominant professional identities (as supported by traditional unions), we instead pursue all means: actor, writer, director, marketer, graphic designer, front of house manager, bartender, server, teacher, and so on. I do not mean to impugn hybrid artistic practices, nor to imply that professionals of one stripe lack interests in other specialties, only to point out the realities of the job market. If there are no stable jobs for us as one thing, we must be all things; we must be more creative in order to make a living.
In an essay in The Altantic, ominously titled “The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur,” William Deresiewicz discusses this at length:
Now we’re all supposed to be our own boss, our own business: our own agent; our own label; our own marketing, production, and accounting departments. Entrepreneurialism is being sold to us as an opportunity. It is, by and large, a necessity. Everybody understands by now that nobody can count on a job.
Deresiewicz goes on to argue that this is, ultimately, an opportunity for artists. I agree, it is an opportunity—a market opportunity for capital, but not for us artists. Looking at another field is illustrative: the Uber driver is celebrated for using their car and time to be entrepreneurial and make extra money, but in reality is doing the same work as a taxi driver for less pay. Meanwhile, Uber, deploying a true entrepreneurial mindset, harvests profit. And how many of us in the theatre moonlight as Uber drivers? This is the opposite of opportunity, it is exploitation.
When we embrace our new hybrid identities and work to defend and justify them, we are trying to make peace with our situation. Fair and reasonable. But too often we celebrate our circumstance when we should condemn it. Our professions are collapsing, being starved by the circulation of capital. We have bought the hype. We, who should be the mythmakers ourselves, too often glorify our oppression to make it look even more like the freedom that it claims to be. What difference is there between the hybrid company manager-producer-director and the glorified Uber driver? While we’re sold the ability to drive our own car on our own schedule or to pursue all of our diverse interests as freedom, we’re actually being forced by capital into being “flexible” just to put food on the table. The starving artist was perhaps always a romantic bohemian myth, and as a romantic myth it has appeal—but I, at least, prefer to eat.
Can you name a single playwright who makes their living strictly from writing for the theatre? Whether it’s in a classroom, bar, office, or even in a TV writer’s room, we must all do things so we can eat. Rather than decry this situation, we justify it. People love to tell the story of composer Philip Glass as a plumber and taxicab driver even when he’s a rising star, as if it lends him more credibility. What this story does, instead, is normalize this unacceptable situation—even he had to do it! When we say we are entrepreneurs, we accept that we don’t deserve to be paid for our work, but are instead assuming some risk, investing for some potential future payoff—and if it never comes, it is because our business plan wasn’t good enough, or we didn’t work hard enough. This is wrong. We deserve to be paid for our work.
When we embrace entrepreneurship, we focus our attention inward, struggling to make lemonade from these lemons, rather than on the systems that hand lemons to us. We try to control what we can as individuals, but the problems that push us to have “creative” careers are not individual problems. When we accept that we must move through the world as entrepreneurs, we are accepting that we cannot alter the conditions that demand we do so, the same conditions that hold us and our industry in a precarious state. Entrepreneurship fundamentally pitches us against each other, organizing us for the gain of the few rather than the collective growth of the many. Having internalized the logics of late capitalism we are prevented from working collectively to build a future for our industry. Indeed, it often prevents us from even imagining that we might do such a thing. This, in turn, prevents us from imagining just futures for our communities and fulfilling our roles as mythmakers. We must, instead, build collective power to demand fair pay, to demand jobs in the arts, to take what is rightfully ours as workers and citizens.
Learning how to better market ourselves may help sell a few more tickets, but it will not address these systemic problems. It is an individual solution to a society wide problem: a massive failure of the market that can only be corrected through concerted collective action. We must take what territory we can as artists, and that does include gaining business skills to become self-sufficient; doing our own budgeting, grant writing, and marketing. But it also includes building infrastructures and relationships that support rather than exploit; support networks that, through their intentionality, can resist capitalist hegemony. The market has failed us. We shouldn’t expect the market to save us.
In an entry titled “This is About Us, Not You: A Call to Action,” Lepore wrote: “We are a part of this, not merely spectators, sidelined by the people who have more business prowess.” It would be more accurate to say that yes, we are part of it, that yes, we are spectators, and that yes, we have been sidelined by people who have more business prowess. We have been sidelined by the forces of capital. Not by arts administrators, but by the forces that propel business itself. Our field has been, and continues to be, marginalized by capital. It was fighting back as laborers and struggling together that won us the fair working conditions many of us take for granted today. We can, and must, win again. We have to fight for wages, for jobs, for public funding, for gender and racial parity. Angels in America, that sprawling masterpiece of the American theatre, was written on an NEA grant that no longer exists. Minneapolis, often cited as being second only to New York City in theatre seats per capita, has public arts funding to match. That is what collective struggle can yield. These efforts are all connected: public investment can be allocated towards parity, creating new jobs in communities ignored by the market, while continued disinvestment will make the fight for equity a struggle over scraps.
So there remains a truth to be faced together: we artists in the theatre are workers, whether we trade our skills, time, and labor for a union paycheck or for just a few dollars. What we must demand is our fair share: wages, jobs, pensions, health care. We must demand dignity and respect so that the capitalists and entrepreneurs who think our work worthless must recognize our contributions to civic society. And we must ensure our demands our heard. It is not enough to say we must take responsibility for the future of our field, we must actively take responsibility for our future. We should heed Mr. Lepore’s advice: “Be an advocate not only for yourself but also for the field as a whole.” This is a principle called solidarity, and it is a fact that, if we wish for the theatre to thrive, if we wish for our colleagues to not be forced out of the field, if we wish for our students to find meaningful employment, if we wish to be able to entertain, enlighten, and enliven in our communities, we have no choice but to stand together.