Working to Make Money is not Evil or Shallow
Working to make money is not evil or shallow, in the same way that working for free does not guarantee that something is a great work of art. We need to get past this idea that a project having mass appeal and making money, is not artistic. Art that entertains while promoting new ideas that are progressive to a society do a lot more towards changing the world than passion projects seen by a few elite folks sitting in a 200 seat theatre. The former usually makes it to Film or TV where billions of people are watching it now and will continue to watch it on different platforms for the next century. The latter gets seen only when it's produced and only few people at a time in tiny theatres. It rarely makes it to the big theaters, because big theaters need to produce work with the ability to put butts in seats or it will fail.
What is a Passion Project
Anything that is created that emanates solely from the creator's mind, life, experience is a passion project. And here's why: if the creator has not yet determined whether or not there is a paying audience for this story, then he/she has no idea if it will make money or even get seen.
If it doesn't make money, it means the audience is too small and you're not making work that the masses can connect to emotionally. And without this connection to the masses, how do you change the world. How can work change the world if only a handful of people see it?
Why is this important right now
Because for the first time ever, becoming the kind of artist whose work changes the world is completely possible. All the ingredients for this formula are now at our fingertips: the internet gives you power beyond to create your own audience and build stories that making money.
There are many examples of people like you who are acting in successful stories that reach the many instead of the few: Kerry Washington, Lupita Wyong'o, Uzo Aduba, Viola Davis, Uzo AdTaraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard, Idris Elba. Their visibility makes it easier for folks to connect to them. The stories they're apart of have successfully engaged an audience whose vision of the world is affected just by seeing these folks every week. So, note to self: make sure the story your'e apart of evokes a world that you want to see more of.
The other reason that work with mass appeal is important is because for the first time ever, there are a plethora of artists who are successfully creating work that has mass appeal: Shonda Rhimes, Katorie Hall, Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels. Notice the long list of actors and the much shorter list of creators with their own production companies? My question is why are the folks who are acting successfully investing in creating institutions with these creators that will last beyond their lifetimes and continue to make more high visibility work for them for the life of their careers? But that's a story for another day...lol...
All of these actors, writers, producers, directors look like me in some way or another. Either we share the same race or the same gender, but we also share a strategy to produce the kind of money-making the stories we want to be exist in the world. Once a story demonstrates that it has a powerful audience, it begins to make money which in turn gives the artist the opportunity and more importantly the power to create more stories that we want to be told.
How do money-making projects give you power?
My second play, Good Bread Alley as well as all of my movies: Gun Hill Road, Night Catches Us, Blue Caprice and Mother of George were all passion projects. They were made primarily because the story and the art were amazing.
But that doesn't necessarily translate into money (although, if you've had previous major artistic success it can, but it's not guaranteed. What is guaranteed, however, is that projects that are created with a goal of appealing to a larger audience do translate into money. Once your work demonstrates it has a large audience because it makes money, that artist is now in the driver's seat. You have power. Once you have that kind of power, you can make or star in artistic passion projects forever if you like, because you've established your money-making track record.
It's important to know this before you spend hours acting, writing or producing for free. As an early career actor, writer or producer, your focus should be on work that will put you on the map. Writing, producing and acting in work that makes money will do that. You should be molding your brand: your look, audition material, web presence, reel to look like the kind of work that makes money. That will draw money-making projects to you. And you only need one money-making success to put you on the map.
Once you're hot, offers start to come your way because other producers want to hire someone with a following. You should be paid to write, act or produce from the very beginning which ensures you're working on projects that will have a measure success and that build your brand just because they will have more visibility. You can learn while you write/act or produce, but doing any of those for free is what keeps you trapped in needing someone's approval in order to act, write or produce work that changes the world.
How can work that never gets seen change the world?
How can you have the greatest impact if no one ever sees the work which is exactly what will happen if it has no pre-existing audience who feels connected to the work. Money is the barometer by which we learn that our work has meaning to the larger society. That is one of the measures of success. The second one is does the previous work have enough of a money-making track record, to allow the next project to be a passion project? If the answer is no, then you're probably not acting, writing or producing work that has the ability to change the world.
How Money-Making Projects Change the World
That's the focus of my work as a coach right now, work that creates money, power, freedom and to do that, it must have the broadest reach. Because I believe black folks and women (the two groups I'm a part of and the two groups who have confused activism with complaining) need to create their own institutions and the only way to do that is start making work that will generate income. And in turn, use that money to create institutions or in this case production companies that serve as the home for the work we want to see more of.
At the risk of sounding a little heading, in a capitalist society, you can't work from a place of power and stability without money. Money is an indicator of the size of your audience. When there's lots of money being made, it's because there's a big audience. If you don't want to work in a capitalist society: you can leave or you can change your life's mission from being a artist to changing the system. Pick your battles, otherwise, you accomplish nothing.
How do you create work that generates income?
This applies to producers, writers and actors.
1. Find your audience and create a relationship with them that's built on shared ideas of what's most important in life
2. Then find out what they're interested in seeing more of? What kinds of roles and storylines do they want to see more of? Ask them.
3. Then shape your career choices around these things and your audience will faithfully follow your because you have a shared sense of what's important
4. Using these values, you will write, act and produce work colored by your your own unique sensibility but also speaks to what your audience has been yearning to see.
The result is that you create good will, as well as loyalty from your audience when you create great work that sheds new light on problems and issues that have been plaguing them. People keep coming back for more when you speak to the things that are most important to them.
Black folks (and women) have been doing passion art, passion politics, passion complaining since slavery ended, it's time for something new. We now have enough black power players in the industry, as well as, the power of the internet to create our own shit. If your goal is to make art that changes the world in a deep meaningful way, now is not the time to rest on processes that exist only for the artist to work out their personal stuff. But rather to make story that combines the artist's personal politics along with a story that will reach huge amounts of people. This is absolutely possible if you get away from the idea that entertaining your audience is shallow. When you can entertain and subtly educate, you build your audience which translates into money and the power to do whatever the fuck you want down the road.
Why is institution building important
Recently a brilliant student sent me avant guard (meaning non traditional, non linear, playing with form) work inspired black women intellectuals writing in that form. Love Andrienne, Love Audrey, Love Susan (if you're in the know, you know exactly who I'm talking about and if you don't, then that's my point. If you've never heard of these people, then they're making work that ....elevated, it reaches only a few people: upper middle class intellectuals in liberal arts institutions.
So how do you create change when the only people who can relate to your work are folks with an upper middle class, liberal arts educations? It's preaching to a small choir which is why I left academia and the non-profit world. I wanted to stop worrying about being tenured, getting the grant or fellowship and my writing being dependent on that. I want little black girls to be able to pick up my work, digest it and for it to have an immediate impact on their lives now (not once they're in college). I want to stop relying on white people, corporations, artists to tell the stories that define who my people are. Because the ones they created are so limiting and the ones living in my soul are far more complicated and true. I want to create stories with mass appeal and sustain my living while I do it.
We're not moving forward, if ultimately our work relies on corp structures whose foundation is historically white folks doing all the storytelling. And asking to be a part of these structures to change their fundamental values is one way to do it. But it's not the strategy that will continue to work when I'm dead and buried. It's not the way I'm interested in working.
That ultimately feels like a glorified version of slavery. Will all of my work be independent. No, I'll write for folks whose politics are similar to my own whether it's a theatre or a foundation irregardless of their color. Because it's shared values, not necessarily race that draws me to work. . I'm currently writing a play and being supported by a white institution with white collaborators.
But guess what? This play is about social justice for black people and has a huge audience of Black and white folks and by collaborating with white folks who have similar values and a much larger audience than I do, my work will be seen many of the people in a society who need to hear these stories the most. Writing stories that only preach to the choir does not change the world. Writing stories that gets folks who normally wouldn't pay money to watch this story is an smoking hot moment of social change work. So this story about social justice totally inline with my vision. And it already has huge appeal because I've surveyed my audience. My content is hot off the presses and is trending everywhere, thus, tons of audience. So it has a chance of making enough money to at least pay me for my work. But more importantly, it will reach the masses and create powerful change that will live beyond me.
So, in short, it's is totally okay, to work on your passion projects. But at some point, you'll need to revamp your strategy to pay attention what the audiences are drawn to. If you're an actor, look at the folks in TV shows, films. What's their brand? Is your brand as clear, sexy and glamorous enough? Do you look like the people you want to play? If not, you're not going to get a chance to be apart of some world changing work because you don't have the tools (actors arsenal), the brand and the uniform that you need for the job.
If you're a producer or writer, I can't begin to tell you how you'd like to play with form and create something new. That's passion project producing or creating and I'm not intested in teaching that. I'm interested in changing the game. I'm interested in being a powerful artist/entrepreneur and build institutions.
That's my journey. What I can help you with is learning what Shonda learned: the structure of a well-made story that will have such a far reach, that it will give you the power to write anything in the future and get paid for it. I can teach you how to interpret the work that's already out there so you get more acting jobs that create more visibility and give you power. I can teach you how to brand yourself in a way that the industry is not just paying attention to your physical type, but also your emotional type which will double the amount of work you get to play.
And in order to do these things, you must learn to write the way the game is currently being played (with your own voice/interests guiding the writing) and build your actor brand to shape you into the money-making magnet that the industry is currently enamored with and willing to pay millions of dollars to see. Which ultimately gives you power, freedom and ensures that you'll work for the lifetime of your care. And more importantly, high visibility in money-making projects gives you the ability to change the world . To change mindsets, to expose folks to new ideas about who and what you are and what you stand for. It also gives you the power to create a legacy for those coming behind you by investing in institutions that hold your values close and pass them down from generation to generation,
I can teach you to write story that builds audience. I can teach you how to build a brand that draws the industry to you like bees to honey. I can teach you how to build audience and get that audience to invest in the future of your career right now, so you can quit the day job that is standing in the way of your greatness. I can teach you how to keep building that audience by virtue of the fact that the stories and brand is feeding your audience what they so desperately need. Once you provide them with that, you create an emotional bond that will keep them coming back for more.
And that, in short is what all institutions in a capitalist country are built upon: creating a work that fulfills a deeply felt need in a lot of people.
There's power in that.
There's power in being able to change the conversation...
There's power in institution-building...
That is what I can teach you to do...xxox
""""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