Biting the Invisible Hand

9:14 PM / Posted by Ashley /

Posted Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 1:48 am by Alan M. BerksIssue: Making art work

By way of introduction

I have been depressed for the past three years, more or less, by my professional career. It has effected my ability to write and my personal relationships. For the past three years, I have been a sickeningly dull, whiny drinking buddy. From 2003-2006, I wrote as often as a dog sniffs for food and with as much mindless, joyful curiosity. After 2006, writing—something that has been like medicine and candy to me since I was 11—I found as hard to do as I would find brain surgery, and as frightening.

Some months, I’d force myself to sit in front of a blank piece of paper every day, holding a pen, following some advice I heard once about the force of habit. I might as well have been holding a scalpel over a bleeding patient’s head for all that I knew about what to do. Worst of all was the feeling that no one would care if I let the patient die.

Coming out on the other side now, I suspect my brooding sprang from some amorphous sense of injustice. Hadn’t I worked hard enough, sometimes completing three full length plays in one year? Hadn’t I challenged myself enough, experimenting with a different genre with every script, pushing the boundaries of form in noble service to some grand artistic ideals? Hadn’t I proven myself, with stellar critical reviews and even standing ovations at the end of a few productions? Hadn’t I treated people well, respecting the audience’s intelligence and honoring my collaborator’s ideas? I mean – What the hell? What else are you supposed to do in this business to get ahead besides produce quality work that people like, and lots of it?

Of course – of course, of course, of course – a good part of my failure to build a successful career was my own damn fault. I understand marketing but failed to market myself. I have a tendency to bristle at authority figures (a tendency I’m sure I share with the authority figures I come across in the performing arts), sometimes consciously saying the wrong thing to the right people and only charming the wrong people with the right lines, watching myself self-sabotage as though from a distance, like some kind of drunken ship captain who actually turns his boat toward the iceberg on a maniacal whim.

Plus, my fortitude is not particularly admirable. Three prolific years may have been exhilarating for me, but it's really nothing in the timeline of a career in the arts, which sometimes seems to operate according to an “opposite of dog years” calendar. One year can be like one month in the orbit of the arts world. It may take six months, six years—or twenty—before the sun comes around to your part of Alaska.

Surprisingly, the depths of my depression didn’t arrive when I finally started to wonder whether I was actually a good writer. Taste is too subjective, and I knew that already. At least my wife likes my work. Anyway, anyone who is still trying to make art after the age of 30 is compelled by something other than, or at least in addition to, other people’s high opinion of them. I realized pretty early on in this phase of my depression that even if I came to the conclusion, “I suck,” it wasn’t going to help me much. I’d just have to get better.

The bottom of my depression actually arrived when I finally asked myself what the heck I was expecting? Was I really expecting to make a living? As a playwright? Really? Does anyone make a living as a playwright? I could count them on one hand. I didn’t necessarily suck as a playwright, but I did have to conclude that I was a fucking moron. It was a wonder, I realized, that I was still able to find my mouth with a forkful of food.

Are the arts different than other industries?

Five years ago, my best friend was building multi-million dollar homes in Lincoln Park in Chicago, a leafy, idyllic little urban neighborhood near the lake and DePaul University. He had a plan sketched out that ended with his retirement at the age of 40. A beach in Costa Rica had his name on it, I think.

Now, he’s working a contracting job he hates just to maintain the payments on his debt.
I mention it because I don’t believe that anyone is entitled to their dream just because they dream it, or even because they work hard and diligently at it, or because it’s a pretty sounding, artistic dream. It’s a tough professional world out there in all industries. Restaurants open and close six months later. People sink their life savings into a business, and the inventory doesn’t move. All of us have to do what we do to make the ends meet, and the arts are no different in that respect. So I can’t make a living as a playwright. Not everyone is going to, or even should, survive in this business. No one promised me a rose garden.

I do, however, think that the performing arts industry is different than other industries in at least two large ways: One, we take it lying down. My friend laughs at the amount of money I work my ass off for in the arts world. He wouldn't accept that amount of money to design a toilet for your property no matter how much he loved designing toilets. More than that he— and everyone else in the world— would argue, cajole, advocate, threaten, conspire, and push to get paid a living wage for the work that he did.

Farmers lobby for subsidies. Corporations finagle tax breaks from their city and givebacks from their workers. Rich people hide their money in tax shelters. Unions push for adequate working conditions for their members, all of which is generally considered to be an appropriate demonstration of the mechanics of economic self-interest. But when artists mention how many non-industry related jobs they're working, people seem to think that they should just shut up and be happy they get to play dress up.

Second, in so many ways, the system isn’t set up for success. Last weekend in a restaurant, my server was the professional, Equity actress in the sold-out show that I had tickets to see later that night. A few years ago, I remember, a stalwart of the Twin Cities acting community offered to clean my house for extra money. Sometimes, I get jealous of all the readings my fellow playwrights have around the country until I’m reminded that they had to pay for their plane ticket to that little West Coast theater, and they have to get back early Monday morning so they don’t lose their temp job. In what other industry can you do a good job, achieve some level of professional recognition and skill, and still not be able carve out, or even imagine in the future, a sensible, secure living?

My friend knew what he had to do to achieve his goals as a builder. Some of it was within his control; some of it was not. But at least there was a path that sloped uphill.

The performing arts only make sense economically if you see it as part of the same industry as television and movies. A young actor, writer, or director sharpens his chops on small stages in Minnesota until eventually moving to Los Angeles and, maybe, if they’re exceptionally good, lucky, or pretty, building up to a reasonable paycheck by first getting some entry level job on a sitcom.

I’d sleep better if I accepted that scenario, but I don’t. In reality, I believe that television and movies, even the good ones, are analogous to nationwide chain restaurants. They can be good— though often they aren’t— but the experience they provide is very different than the experience a nice local restaurant provides.

Like an idiosyncratic neighborhood joint, theater provides a very different type of art and entertainment to the community in which they reside than television or movies provide. Though I like them sometimes, I don’t want to live in a world where I only get to eat in chain restaurants that were designed by people who live miles away from me.

What’s the point?

We do complain too much in the arts. We spend a laughable amount of time justifying to ourselves and others the special, even prophetic, nature of our chosen profession. My friend built beautiful houses that were as much personal expressions of his personality and sense of the world as, I suspect, my plays are an expression of mine. Many people impact the world in many ways.

Nevertheless, for those of us who have chosen this path in the world— which when you think about it makes no less sense than building houses with bedroom-sized bathrooms and "his and hers" shower spigots— for those of us who work in this industry, what are the roads to survival? How do people build lives in the arts? Because, after all is said and done—the drinks have been downed, and the whining is done—some people do and at least a few more people should.

What comes next?

I thought that I'd introduce this month's column with an honest admission of my own self-interest. I do have a dog in this fight; I’m biased. I know that art makes life better—my life, certainly, but also sometimes other people’s lives too. I feel the driving need to know how I can actually keep doing it.

So, the rest of the month, I’ll be exploring in this in-depth column, or blog, or whatever you want to call it, how performing artists in this state wrestle with this problem. Some of them have pinned it to the mat. Others are still grappling, and others have given up and walked away. What are the challenges? What are the strategies? What are the new ideas, and what old ideas are still viable? How is this performing arts industry supposed to work so that we can actually, passionately, make more work, and better?

Return for regular updates that will include interviews, research, and reports from around the state. In deference to the Internet, I’ll try to make each post much shorter than this— but I can’t promise anything. I bristle at authority, even my own.



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