By Tanya Taylor Rubenstein
I just read the article in The Nation about the pandemic closing the curtains on artists. While the article makes salient points, I feel a strong need to offer a different vision for the future of artists at this difficult moment:
It's up to us to adapt and we will.
First of all, live performance will return although the paradigm will likely be completely different, at least for a while.
Hopefully, we're moving away from elite bubbles in this great turning of humanity. A wonderful outcome would be in supporting more artistic process to and for people in local communities everywhere.
Humans have been singing, dancing, making art and telling stories for as long as history exists. The impulse to create remains a human need and in some ways, this may be an opportunity to integrate that need more deeply into our lives rather than "other" it as something only for the "special."
None of that means that I don't appreciate a great Broadway show or symphony. It simply means there's always a way to navigate our energy into new paradigms.
Also, theater has existed for 2500 years in a formal sense and has made it's way through pandemics, wars and other catastrophes and always returned itself to us with new work, insight and awareness on whatever transpired.
I come from a life long background in theater and am married to a self employed musician.
My husband has had all of his upcoming gigs, film festivals and long term performance opportunities come to a screeching halt, as have all of our musician and actor friends, with the exception of one who has just booked a run of a live solo show in the fall, which she acknowledged may go away again in a flash. There's nothing easy about any of this, but there is an invitation.
When I was 35, I shifted from being a full time actor/solo performer to becoming a director, facilitator and writing coach.
At 51, I shifted again, this time from doing all of my coaching and teaching work in person (shows/live classes and events in New Mexico and in other states) to offering at least half of my work online.
Now, I'm moving all of my work online, adding a few live story circles/events per year as an option when the time feels right.
I'll direct live again, when the opportunity presents itself.
In each case, changing how I worked wasn't a personal, artistic preference. It was to adapt to how I could best make a living.
I had a daughter to raise on my own and twenty years ago I didn't have the luxury of not working or working only as a performing artist which netted me a few thousand dollars a year total.
Being creative and resilient is our super power if we allow it to be. Embracing our entrepreneurship as artists of all kinds is a long over due skill that is liberating on many levels.
Artists are more relevant to the culture than ever as we have been called to re-story this entire world. One of the upsides of being online is getting out of our artistic bubbles and expanding ourselves globally.
We've got an enormous calling to help others grieve and mourn, transform and alchemize, all of what makes us human to save the planet itself.
Our gifts are critical, not optional to the whole.
We're also wired as survivors and most of us have had to be creative to put together any kind of long term career/make a living. These skills will come into play as we all shift radically away from the old way of "business as usual."
Personally I believe that innovation will be key and the willingness to show up and create intimacy in a less than ideal format: Online.
Yes, we need better streaming and ticketing services than we have currently have with much better sound quality, access for lighting etc. The demand will make them happen.
I want to start directing solo performances for online sooner than later if this goes on longer than 2020 (which it looks like it will at this point, at least here in the States) Figuring out how to market and monetize it will simply be part of our creative work.
Also, I'm wondering about acting companies and bands quarantining together during rehearsals for live events to be filmed for online ticket buyers to purchase.
Survival of the fittest will go to the ones of us who are willing to keep showing up imperfectly and consistently. We can't be precious and I've found it's best not to judge each other as we go out on a limb and try some things that may work and others that don't.
As artists, it's key to remember, it's not about us. We can serve, inspire and heal just be being visible to others right now. The forms may or may not be our preference but there's a great opportunity to come together as a global community.
I watched the Indigo Girls live the other night and they had well over 100,000 people show up to watch them do a FB Live. I've noticed others like Melissa Ferrick and Eliza Gilkyson's Facebook Lives growing their audiences by showing up for them during this time. Amanda Palmer has led the way to monetizing her performances for a small cost (as low as 1$ a month) on Patreon for years and I noticed today that Ani DiFranco has now joined her there.
My book clients are still writing. One got an agent and another a book deal during the last two months. I'm still getting new book and business clients, as are many creative coaches I know including ones who previously did all of their teaching in person. Last week, I offered my first solo show intensive online and it worked. We didn't get to have tea together or share a hug, but she still got some work done on her script with more to come.
So, while this article is deeply saddening and sobering, don't forget, that we're only at the beginning of this story.
Innovation and embracing what is, as well as what tools we DO have at our disposal will be an interesting part of the unfolding.
I believe in us.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson