A Life in Theater

 

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I’ve been working in the American theater, making my living, such as it is, for the past forty years. In all that time, I’m not ashamed to say I’ve never earned more than $45,000—and that was a year that included residuals from a major motion picture I was lucky enough to have had a role in. I’ve worked as a director, a designer, a technician, and as an actor. I served in the army, I’ve taught, I’ve scraped the insides of gasoline storage tanks, loaded supplies onto luxury riverboats, cleaned toilets at a truck stop, telemarketed, painted houses, and filed paper for various institutions, none of which had anything to do with the arts. I have never waited tables—a fact I’m almost ashamed to admit.

In that time I have founded three organizations, run a couple more, directed nearly 100 plays and acted in as many. I have owned property, raised a child who went to college, paid for by my wife and I, owned automobiles, traveled to Europe and other places around the world.

Why the litany?

My education was of the liberal arts variety at a small college in Southeast Iowa that had a one-person theater department. My major was not theater. I was a General Studies major. That major was one of the results of my generation’s rejection of structure. I had an emphasis in philosophy and I took all the theater courses that were offered. While my parents paid for some of this (the first two years), I managed to pay for the rest myself. I have inherited no money and was not the recipient of family largess. I, like most people, graduated with debt.

I am a worker. I don’t say that from a Marxist perspective. I was raised and live in a working class city. I come from a working class family—emphasis on “working.” My father worked three jobs most of the time because that’s what you did if you wanted to raise four children. Eventually, my mother also worked because that’s what you did if you wanted to send your children to college.

When I decided I wanted to make my living in the theater, there was a reaction of horror that ran through the family—nothing that most of us haven’t experienced in one form or another. What they did not understand was that I had found my vocation and I was serious about “making my living” in theater. I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about embracing a life that brings enrichment that has nothing to do with money. Theater is a place to engage in the struggle with myself and with the world around me. And I’m willing to bet that there is not a single person reading this who made a decision to spend their life in the theater because of how much money they could make. We enter with and for passions, ideals and a sense of purpose. Because the truth is this: taking vows to a life in art is taking a vow to poverty. There is no money in art. None. 

The question I feel the need to ask repeatedly, both publicly and rhetorically, is “where did you get the idea that choosing a life in art was going to lead you to a bourgeois, middle-class existence?”

Oh, I understand the pressures, after spending what can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Tony undergraduate degree and more on a Tony graduate degree, to make a middle class living. And I also understand that people with children need to make money to support the families they want to have. But who said it would be easy? For the record, I begrudge no one who achieves a bourgeois middle class life. 

In Todd London and Ben Pesner’s book Outrageous Fortune playwrights talk about the fact that they have to teach, edit or write copy besides playwriting to make ends meet and they say it as if it were an injustice. I have to say I find that astonishing.

 

I’m talking about embracing a life that brings enrichment that has nothing to do with money. Theater is a place to engage in the struggle with myself and with the world around me. And I’m willing to bet that there is not a single person reading this who made a decision to spend their life in the theater because of how much money they could make.

 

The question that comes to mind for playwrights and every other kind of theater artist is “Well, how badly do you need to do this in order to express something that’s burning inside you?” If it’s badly enough, we find a way.

Our theater has been corporatized, leading many of us, given the current climate of thought, to believe that we should be getting a piece of the pie. It’s the standard position, these days. Because it is, indeed, the cultural standard. There are a few “corporations”—Guthrie, Arena, Denver, Berkeley Rep, Lincoln Center, and so forth—that harbor what so many of us think we want.

But my admonition is “be careful what you wish for,” especially those of you who feel you have a deep conversation you want to have with your community, whomever constitutes that community. Do you want committee meetings? Do you want to be doing work that needs to serve the corporation so it will bring in the dollars to turn on the lights and keep the palaces operating?

Early in my theater life I was Artistic Director at a community theater in a community of about 100,000 in Southern Michigan. This was a theater that embraced Shakespeare, Moliere, Miller, Robert Anderson, musical comedies and new plays. I directed six plays in nine months each year and my salary was $9,000. My twenty six-year-old self went home frustrated every day at the notion that I was having no effect on anyone, let alone the community in which I lived, and I was getting nowhere in terms of my own personal economic progress. 

At the end of my tenure there, I was stunned to read an editorial in the local newspaper asserting that though the work was not always perfect, it nevertheless would leave that community forever changed because there was never the absence of an idea and always a clarity that we, artists and community, were engaged in acts of intimacy that could never be spoiled by presumptions of what should have been and how much money should have changed hands. It was a moment that I return to almost religiously. 

The organization I currently run is devoted to alleviating some of the troubles that come with the kind of choice I’ve been describing. PlayPenn is not the only organization that does this. It’s the one I know intimately, so it’s the one I’m going to describe in terms of the “what” and the “how.”

First off, it is worth saying that PlayPenn was founded because of what I considered a paucity of new play production in Philadelphia. The impulse was a local one. Since our founding, and by no means only because of PlayPenn, Philadelphia has experienced an explosion in the production of new work. That PlayPenn has supported work that has gone on to have a more prolific national presence is a welcome added benefit.

Every year PlayPenn takes applications (it has held steady at about 600 for the past few of years) at no charge to our playwright applicants. In the interest of narrowing the field, my close colleagues and I read through 10–20 pages of a script, the writer’s resume and a statement of development intentions.  We make choices about what we’d like to consider further and send a shortlist of 100 or so plays each to three readers. 

Our list of readers is made up of a group of 100 or so theater artists who work in the Philadelphia professional theater community.  It’s important to know that our readers read for us because of their commitment to the community where they live and work.  Their written evaluations are all reviewed with the next step being a process of further narrowing by the staff to a list of thirty plays.  At that point in the process, we empanel a group of eight Artistic Directors and Literary Managers geographically representative of the country who work at organizations that are devoted, in some measure, to the production of new plays. These panelists are paid. The panel arrives at a list of finalists from which the staff, taking the many practical considerations that we face into account, chooses the six plays we invite to the conference.

Once we’ve invited a playwright to the conference we give that writer the opportunity to work with a director of their choice. We bring writer and director to Philadelphia for casting. Once the conference begins, we take care of travel, housing, provide a per diem and make sure artists are as well taken care of as our resources allow. We make an environment suitable for work.

I love my work. I make very little money. I envy the incomes of garbage men. But I would not trade my life of working long days, raising money, engaging in public relations, practicing accounting, and very pleasurably reading plays, for anything. Yes, I have to do other things to keep myself afloat and at this late stage of my life in the theater am blessed that those other activities are directing or acting in a play, now and then. When I do those other things, I am enriched in ways that for me are unsurpassed. But it makes things rather difficult in terms of managing the other parts of my life. Can that be a struggle? You bet.

It’s what I bargained for.

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Thank you for calling out so much of the sword-rattling excursus that typifies "the artist's life" conversation. And kudos to committing to new work in Philly!

I too am from a working family, and have never been flummoxed by needing to work for living. It's a given. I think the theater--all the arts, really--suffer from presenting a very smooth and attractive face to the world. When I was a student I had no idea that these lights of the theater who came to talk to the freshman class might not be making a living from their celebrated art. For a long time, I thought I must be doing something wrong. I was temping and doing this job and that job alongside my writing--did I not get the memo? Was there something I was doing just spectacularly wrong? No, I think I was like most artists! But we shield those facts from people we're trying to impress. Because culturally, if you're not making money doing something, you're not for real. And if you're not making enough or a lot, well, you must not be very good at it. So we, as an industry, are defensive. We present ourselves as our artist selves and hide our secretary/carpenter/waiter/IT specialist selves carefully out of sight. No wonder people come into the field with off-base expectations. We as an industry foster those very assumptions and keep up that pretty facade. Ironically, I have done so much better as a playwright--both artistically and publicly--since I committed to a full-time office job that provides health insurance for my family and allows me the peace of knowing I can pay my bills every month with ease. I resisted for a long, long time, believing the myth that if I allowed myself to "get comfortable" I couldn't be an artist. Foks, living in a building with reliable heat and hot water has not destroyed my artistic soul. I lost a lot of time to these myths, and if I'm ever invited to talk to some young batch of theater students, I think I will be sure to tell them how I put food on the table and keep the lights on!

(Hmmm... I tried posting this already but it did not show up. I'm trying one more time, and please pardon if it then comes through in spades.)

As a playwright, I’m a big supporter of what PlayPenn does, and I’m thrilled you’ve been able to create opportunities for writers to see/hear/and/feel their work. But as an artist, I have a problem adopting a similar attitude towards “The Bargain” we seem to have collectively struck in order to live a life in which development opportunities like PlayPenn’s can be a highlight.

The discussion, as I see it, should not be “Artists suffer. Artists don’t get to own nice things. If you are a real artist, you’re just going to have to accept this as the norm.”

The discussion should be “Why aren’t there better options for artists? Why is art such a throw-away field that the only way for most artists to earn a living is to work two or three part-time jobs in order to survive?” Because the truth is, I’ve made peace with the fact that I can’t afford a new phone even though mine is cracked, or a new laptop even though mine is super slow, or new clothes even though my jeans all have holes in them – because these seem small prices to pay for the fact that I’m not stuck behind a desk all day answering phone calls for other people (whilst I apply/wait/and pray for one of those elusive college faculty positions to welcome me with open arms). But I have a very hard time making peace with the fact that in addition to scrimping on material items, I’m also forced to scrimp on health insurance and food. I don’t need to make a lot of money to survive, but when the things I have to do in order to survive eat up so much time and stress that I’m no longer able to make art? Then I’m not really living like a starving artist – I’m just starving.

Isn’t it time to make a better bargain?

I appreciate you sharing this, Paul. I'm sure that thisresonates with many of us as we strive to create meaningful lives in the arts,as we see from the comments already made. I have two things that I would like to add to the conversation. The first is a brief response to Jennifer’scomment:

“Contrast the artists' salaries with those of the administrators, producers, consultants, commenters, managers. There are people living comfortably off the arts, they are just not always the ones creating it.”

While it is certain that this perspective has a basis in the reality of the performing arts world, I think that it’s difficult to paint all administrators,producers, consultants, commenters, and managers with the same broad brush that this comment suggests. Many of these people are artists themselves, striving to find a way to stay alive and make a life in the arts, and in fact make very little money, more often supporting the work of others to the detriment of their own creative careers. It’s definitely true that there is an arts infrastructure where money is flowing through the system, very little of which finds its way to the very artists creating the work. It’s important that we highlight the unjust nature of this disparity, and there is absolutely plenty in this unfair structure to point to in the field. But it’s also important to focus attention where the problem exists, and not include the many people who are honestly and vigorously trying to advance the artists and their work with very little compensation. I’m sure that the intent of Jennifer’s comment is pointed in the right direction, and I’m not suggesting otherwise. I just think that we should keep in mind that, alongside the individual artist struggles, there is also a vital and resource starved small theater industry (dare I call it that?) with a lot of people struggling to do what they can to bring the work out into the world. In my experience working for many years in the field, most of which intersecting with the work and lives of individual artists and small organizations, I have rarely found any of these folks that I would put into a category of “living comfortably,” whether they are the artists themselves, or the people surrounding them trying to support the work.

This brings me to my second point, which is that for me the story that Paul shares with us needs to serve as a catalyst for change. There of course is value in sharing just for the sake of sharing with a community, and I appreciate the clarity and illumination that Paul brings to the issue of theartists’ life and expectations. I also applaud Paul's great work for many years at PlayPenn. I hope that Paul's story doesn’t have to reside only in the realm of sharing, though, but rather cause all of us to question whetherthe issue of expectations is a function of our response to a static state, orwhether there is opportunity to change the dynamic. I don’t think that Todd and Ben published Outrageous Fortune to just share the experiences and represent the current state of the lives of playwrights. They can correct me if I’m wrong about this, but I’m pretty certain that there was intent to change the status quo in that remarkable initiative, just as it is in the rest of the work that they do, that Paul does, and that many of us do every day in our work.

We may not have expectations of great reward, and we aren’t in the field because we have expectations that this is where the money is. It does seem, though, that all of these efforts are having an impact, and it wouldn’t be taking place without the work of Todd, Ben, Paul and many others. I of course want to highlight Polly Carl’s work at the Playwrights’ Center andthe Institute, but once I start naming people it feels like I would need to mention so many of you all doing the hard work to change the status quo, and then this comment would be too long, and I would end up leaving some people out and I’d feel bad about that.

My point is that expectations of the past don’t necessarily define expectations for the future. Just as we can have or develop expectationsthat the world should and can be a more just place, even amidst tremendous evidence to the contrary and phenomenal forces working against change, we can and must push for the changes that need to happen in the performing arts world and elsewhere. To do less would be to accept that the arts, and therefore the work of artists, will reside in a lower class realm forever. While this lower class realm may reflect the attitudes of this culture at this time, we are not destined to be here for all time. The balance can change, and has beenchanging. In education STEM is becoming STEAM (science, technology,engineering, arts and mathematics); the 3 R’s are becoming 4 R’s (reading, writing, arithmetic and arts); and we all know that when we educate our youth to integrate the arts in their world they become better community members and part of the society’s thriving cultural fabric.

It isn’t happening overnight, and I don’t carry great expectations that I will necessarily see the results of the important work taking place today in my lifetime. But I do have expectation that it will change, that the hard work that so many are doing today will find fruition in the world fifty years from now, and that the expectations of artists in the future can include better pathways that support them to do the work that they need to do. I expect no less.

Concrete and touching, Mr. Meshejian - thank you for speaking out. Also, you and I share the same reluctance to admit never having waited tables. (Go figure!) Continued happiness to you.

As a playwright, I’m a big supporter of what PlayPenn does, and I’m thrilled you’ve been able to create opportunities for writers to see/hear/and/feel their work. But as an artist, I have a problem adopting a similar attitude towards “The Bargain” we seem to have collectively struck in order to live a life in which development opportunities like PlayPenn’s can be a highlight.

The discussion, as I see it, should not be “Artists suffer. Artists don’t get to own nice things. If you are a real artist, you’re just going to have to accept this as the norm.”

The discussion should be “Why aren’t there better options for artists? Why is art such a 'throw-away' field that the only way for most artists to earn a living is to work two or three part-time jobs in order to survive?” Because the truth is, I’ve made peace with the fact that I can’t afford a new phone even though mine is cracked, or a new laptop even though mine is old and super slow, or new clothes even though my jeans all have holes in them – because these seem small prices to pay for the fact that I’m not stuck behind a desk all day answering phone calls for other people (while I apply and wait and pray for one of those elusive college faculty positions to materialize). But I have a very hard time making peace with the fact that in addition to scrimping on material items, I’m also forced to scrimp on health insurance and food.

I don’t need to make a lot of money to survive, but when the things I have to do in order to survive eat up so much time and stress that I’m no longer able to make art? Then I’m not really living like a starving artist – I’m just starving.

Isn’t it time to make a better bargain?

Wonderful to read these thoughts, Paul. You have left a legacy of wonderful work and provocative ideas all across the country.

Contrast the artists' salaries with those of the administrators, producers, consultants, commenters, managers. There are people living comfortably off the arts, they are just not always the ones creating it. Kudos to the playwright, and give him a raise.

Well offered and considered words. Mr. Meshejian really hits the nail on the head. The word that keeps returning to me is "expectations". He seems in perfect step with great creators in the theatre.

What Mr. Meshejian says touches me with its truth. These are words that I have used in one form or another in telling my students about choosing the arts as their major. During my 23 years of teaching college, I was glad to have a "patron," the university, to support my writing obsession, and though I could only pursue it during the summers, I loved the classroom and tried my best not to resent the wait to take up the pen again, if only for twelve weeks a year. It was a choice. Through it I have paid to have the opportunity to write every day in the last years of my life. That obsession persists.