Published on Medium on August 10, 2020
It was a sobering conversation. One of my friends, whom I consider a professional and personal role model, said this:
“I’ve come to accept that my theatre career is over.”
She was met with silence. Not out of surprise, but out of deep recognition that this could be true for us, too. Our Zoom connection flickered. No one knew what to say.
Before the pandemic put the U.S. in a stranglehold, my friend was #bookedandblessed. She’d moved across the country, East to West Coast, to accommodate all the work offers she was receiving. Now, with a schedule wiped clean due to COVID and absolutely no end in sight, plans once merely delayed are now scrapped completely. She can’t afford a year — at MINIMUM — of no work, she says, only to start from scratch once theaters begin to reopen. Because once theaters reopen, it won’t be like flipping a light switch and starting where we left off. Canceled seasons won’t just reappear on marquees. Canceled contracts won’t suddenly renew themselves. There is no going back. Because there won’t be jobs to go back to.
It’s looking more and more likely that, barring an incredible about-face like a spectacularly successful vaccine or a powerful and immediate treatment option, a majority of U.S. theaters won’t survive the pandemic. This includes theaters that were financially flourishing in the Before Times, like Mercury Theater Chicago. And along with these institutions, a majority of theatremakers — not just actors or directors, but costumers, musicians, composers, wig masters, props masters, designers, electricians, stage hands, carpenters, stage managers, company managers, house managers, administrators, wardrobe crew, production assistants, ticket sellers, concessions vendors, marketing directors, photographers, choreographers, venue staff — will not be able to wait this out.
It doesn’t help that most artists are notoriously underpaid to begin with. The American public knows this (and we know they know because they joke about it at dinner tables and even in the lobbies after our shows). What’s worse, many artists have seen their side hustles dry up, too; those who relied on the service and hospitality industries to pay the bills between gigs have nothing to fall back on. Now that the extra $600-a-week PUA benefits have ceased, and the virus continues to spread, artist-led households will take a potentially career-ending hit. And the venues that hire them will buckle alongside them.
Which will leave only the luckiest, and the wealthiest, hanging on by a thread. Who are these “lucky” few? As in all other industries: mostly white, mostly non-disabled, mostly cisgender. The communities that have been egregiously underrepresented on American stages and screens are the same communities that have been hit hardest, physically and economically, by the pandemic: Black people, Indigenous people, and other People of Color; people with disabilities; trans and GNC folks. If these artists do not have the means to remain in the industry, it will eradicate decades they have spent fighting to make the arts more equitable. The loss will be incalculable.
The joke of the “starving artist” has never been less funny. It sends the message that we had this coming. That we signed up for this when we pursued a “less traditional” career path. And now the joke’s on us.
No one is arguing that actors and technicians are essential during a pandemic the way healthcare providers and food service workers are. But there is a tremendous lack of understanding of the working artist in this country. And this critical gap in appreciation and value between working artists and other tradesfolk is leading us toward disaster.
This shouldn’t be the case. The arts and culture sector contributes more to the U.S. GDP than transportation and construction combined, and five times more than the agricultural sector: a whopping $877 billion, or 4.5% of the GDP, in 2017. It employs more than 5 million Americans in wage-and-salary jobs, and pre-COVID, this number was growing. And this stretches far beyond New York or Chicago or Los Angeles: The arts contributed $72.8 billion to the economies of rural states (states in which 30 percent or more of the population live in rural areas). Contrary to the mystifyingly popular belief, the arts are a major economic driver all across the nation.
Of the various sub-industries in our creative sector, the performing arts alone contributed more than $52 billion in 2017. Theaters play a large role in this. And not just Broadway houses: Regional powerhouses like Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Ashland, OR), American Players Theatre (Spring Green, WI), and Utah Shakespeare Festival (Cedar City, UT) attract tens of thousands of attendees each year — and quite a lot of revenue — to the small towns in which they’re based. Smaller cities like Milwaukee, Denver, and Salt Lake City employ thousands of artists and arts workers every year. In these communities, not just the big-city markets, artists are raising families, paying taxes, sending their children to school, volunteering in their neighborhoods, voting in elections…just like construction workers, teachers, farmers, contractors, nurses, bankers, and you.
We are like you. Some of us are in unions. Some got our training through apprenticeships, journeyman contracts, and strokes of good luck. Some hold multiple degrees. Some work as freelancers; others have year-round salaries with benefits. We are old and young, single and married, parents and grandparents. We make our homes in every major city and many small towns, too. Our comedy clubs, dance companies, symphonies, film festivals, and art galleries fuel your restaurants, bars, hotels, coffee shops, and markets, and vice versa. The perceived distance between us is a fallacy.
The working artist needs the working tradesperson, the working financier, the working educator, the working technician, the working healthcare provider, the working business owner to be in their corner. If there is to be an arts sector to return to, then artists need assistance now. This is not pity. This is basic recognition that there is a valuable industry hit much harder than most others on the simple basis that it is impossible to produce its product in a socially distant, financially viable way. This is not charity. This is solidarity.
Don’t expect these new executive orders to save our working artists. Get on the phone and demand your senators’ immediate action in renewing the $600-a-week PUA benefits through the end of the year. Sign a petition. Send an email or two. Learn more about how your state compares in allocating funds to the arts. Donate to professional theaters (especially if you’ve been enjoying Hamilton and Newsies on Disney+, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s free musicals on YouTube, or National Theatre At Home). Don’t ask for refunds for canceled concerts or postponed performances; donate the cost back to the venue. Buy tickets for next year’s shows now. If your business is hiring remote workers, be on the lookout for out-of-work artists. Check on your artist friends. Wear your mask.
And pay for your artist-friends’ art. If they’re posting videos, recording dance routines, offering pay-what-you-can voice lessons, Venmo them. Buy their album, don’t just stream it. Sign up for their Patreons. Combat the culture of consuming art for free while its creators are facing financial disaster. These are not ambling bohemians looking for handouts while they pursue their muse; these are experienced, hardworking neighbors out of their jobs through no fault of their own.
They — we — are desperate to get back to work. Don’t leave us behind.
This post was originally published on Theatre Under Thirty, a Milwaukee theatre blog.
Mass hysteria. Manipulated facts. Bickering politicians. A divided nation. Sound familiar? Probably.
So who wants to see it played out onstage?
It’s a fair question. Few people, especially in the arts community, would have predicted that Richard III would suddenly become, as the kids say, “too real.” The division, corruption, political intrigue, and personal betrayal that run rampant in this tragedy have always had a kind of hauntingly human relevance, but in the past several decades – at least in this country – it’s been more of an abstract meditation on humanity’s dark struggle for power rather than an uncomfortable mirror of specific recent developments. Now, however, the idea of a powerful government in the hands a master manipulator feels closer to our real lives than it did before. Seeing it in art form is not entertaining; it’s disturbing. It’s distressing. It’s our reality now.
And, as is always the case in moments of change or crisis, Shakespeare has something to say about it.
In the fifteenth century, this was England’s reality: a nation limping out of a disastrous civil war that pitted two halves of the same line against each other, the Lancasters and the Yorks, both descended from the Plantagenet kings. (Our last election cycle mimicked this intra-national hostility a little too closely.) In Richard III, this uneasy peace yields a new threat: a brilliant, belittled man who decides to make his move for power, seizing on his country’s instability to make himself strong. We’ve seen this happen a few times in history, too. And to Shakespeare, who above all was gifted with the ability to perceive our deepest truths without judgment or agenda, this was just another part of us – the collective us, the human us – to probe, expose, and explore with art.
Shakespeare speaks to us at a very vulnerable time and place in Richard III. And though it is a tragedy, and certainly not the escapism I predict will soon make a comeback, the Bard gives us much more than a dire picture of the scary state we’ve stumbled into (again). He gives us in Richard III what we do not get in most of his other tragedies. He gives us hope.
I want to be very clear here: It would be easy to work with an agenda now, to craft all productions of Richard IIIs to fit our various perceptions of the new president and use Richard’s downfall to satisfy our frightened desire for control and revenge. It would be easy, and absolutely wrong: creatively, ethically, artistically. Shoehorning any actual figure into this role is a disservice to audiences, actors, and the text. Using Shakespeare’s Richard as a stand-in for a specific individual shortchanges this fascinating character, borrowed from history but ultimately breathed into being by the Bard’s imagination. It undermines the audience’s relationship with Richard, a relationship of humor, horror, and self-implication that is vital for the play to succeed. And it cheapens the theatrical experience of the play, which is not meant to paint a therapeutic fantasy in which we get what we want, even if what we want is violent and personal. Richard III points to the opposite conclusion: if what we want is violent and personal, success is horrifying and decisively impermanent.
And, despite those who love to draw parallels, Richard is not Donald Trump. Apart from a penchant for the dramatic, in many ways they are opposites: Richard is charming and subtle, preferring to manipulate the private sphere in order to take the public by surprise; Trump is brassy, bombastic, and overt, turning the public sphere into private battlegrounds between polarized opinion groups. It is vital to see Trump clearly for what he is and not confuse him with a villain, hero, maverick, or other stock character that would make our lives simpler. We must never trick ourselves into thinking he carries the same infamy or glory as someone who came before him, or that he is somehow more than a man.
In Shakespeare’s hands, Richard is more than a man. He is a force, a movement, a spoke in the ever-turning wheel of time that presses urgently onward in this cosmic drama. He is consciously, unapologetically himself, yet in many ways he is also a buried part of us. And in watching Richard’s rise and demise, we are not so much watching the life and death of an individual as we are watching the rise and fall of the worst we can imagine. This is important, because Richard III gives us the gift of watching the worst imaginable fall.
This is the element of beauty in this ugly story: the massive catharsis it wrings out of us. The nightmare ends. “The bloody dog is dead.” And not just a man: a kind of embodiment of our worst choices, our most selfish inclinations, our darkest thoughts, our most destructive potential. We’re given the terrifying thrill of watching evil – our own evil – succeed, along with all the conflict and doubt and dismay as we find ourselves enjoying Richard’s ride through chaos. But then we’re heeled – and healed – by the reminder that consequences do exist, and even the devil among us eventually becomes, in Queen Margaret’s words, “a very prey to time.”
In Shakespeare’s world – which, never forget, is our own – unchecked evil cannot stand forever. This too shall pass. Damage is done, yes, but change follows. People switch sides. Conscience kicks in. And good old Richmond arrives on the horizon to save what’s left and start anew. A new sun rises.
Don’t avoid Richard III this year. See it. Direct it. Because on the brink of an unknowable future, when many of us are confronting possibilities we’ve never confronted before, Shakespeare is there. Not with easy comfort or optimism; he is far too smart, and too sincere, for that. But he is there, in one of his darkest plays, with hope.