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Coin Your Heart
The newsletter is dead. Long live the newsletter. STA. The business of theatre.
Brief Candle // Reflecting on a Year of Substack
When I originally started this newsletter, I had a couple of goals. First, I wanted motivation to write regularly and imperfectly. Writing on my old blog had developed a “shouting into the void” feeling and I thought that having subscribers, even just a few people who had voluntarily signed up to receive updates from me, would motivate me to put fingers to keys more often. Second, without any social media profiles, I wanted somewhere that I could announce updates to my personal and my creative life.
I sent out a newsletter every fortnight all 2022, but I’ve become exhausted with the pace and also bored with talking about myself. And if I’m bored of it, I can only imagine how you must feel. Whenever I start flirting with the line that divides solipsism from narcissism, I console myself by thinking “Well, Montaigne did it!” but Montaigne possessed a level of self-awareness and honesty that I am not brave enough for anymore. Gone are the halcyon days of 2010 when I would answer questions on FormSpring with terrifying transparency.
So, after giving this version of my Substack the old college try, I’m curious about what other, potentially better purposes it could serve.
After consulting with my brain trust (Leah, Sara, and Stephen Welch) I’ve decided to rebrand my newsletter as an extension of/supplement to Brief Candle, the Shakespeare zine that I’ve published for the last ten years.
Henceforth, this newsletter will focus primarily on Shakespeare and Shakespeare-adjacent topics, and will drop to a monthly pace. I will probably still occasionally include personal news and updates if I have something particularly exciting to share.
I am also enabling paid subscriptions to Brief Candle at the minimum price that Substack will allow: $5 a month. No content in this newsletter will ever be behind a paywall so your experience will be the same whether you are a paid or a free subscriber; but if you want to kick me a few bucks a month for coffee in exchange for putting out this content, you are welcome to do so.
This newsletter will serve as a bridge between the old format and the new, since I had one final post in my old format ready to go which is about the financial side of theatre.
I attended the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference in Nassau, Bahamas the first week of the year. My equivocal feelings about the conference agenda and the business of making theatre have prompted the bulk of this edition of this newsletter.
On a less dour note, here is a Flickr album of some portraits I took of folks at the conference.
Coin Your Heart
When I first started attending the annual Shakespeare Theatre Association conference (STA), I went to every session, even boring ones about business plans and fundraising and board selection and company management that I would probably skip now in favor of going to the hotel pool. I was so excited to be in a room with professional Shakespeareans, that I didn't want to miss anything, and while a lot of those sessions were mind-numbingly dull, one in particular was revelatory. It was a session led not by a Shakespearean, but by a professional nonprofit fundraising guru (whose name I have since forgotten).
I learned one thing in that session that has stuck in my craw for years. Like any great truth, once I learned it, it seemed so self-evident that I was frustrated at not having come to the conclusion on my own. And if you've ever heard me talk about theatre, you've heard me talk about this.
Theatre is no longer profitable because technology and automation have made most things cheaper and easier to produce (like food, travel, clothing, etc) but theatre relies on human brains to practice and learn and memorize. Simply put: it takes a lot less work to make a loaf of bread in 2023 than it did in 1600, but memorizing a thousand lines to play Hamlet still takes just as long as it did 400 years ago.
...actually it probably takes longer. Advances in technology and automation are probably shortening our attention spans and making it harder to memorize lines, which means that technology is not only making everything else cheaper (and therefore making theatre more expensive by comparison) but it is probably also making theatre even more labor-intensive by making us dumber, which means that the two things are actually both moving further apart in respective labor costs. Shakespeare's company probably had a dozen plays memorized at any given time and could step on stage and perform any of them at a moment's notice. We need months of rehearsal just to perform a single show and we immediately forget it after the show closes.
And on top of that, so much of theatre in the 21st century seems to think it is competing with cinema and television and so there is an emphasis on technical elements, sound equipment, lighting equipment, and massive sets so that a soprano Spider-Man can swing through skyscrapers on stage while singing Sondheim, or whatever it is running on Broadway right now.
All of this means that in 1600, theatre companies could turn a profit on ticket sales alone. Now, most theatre companies wouldn't turn a profit even if every performance of every show sold out. Ticket sales account for a small percentage of theatre companies' revenue. The rest comes from grants and donors.
Unlike a lot of other industries that technology and economics have driven to extinction (video rental stores, phone books, broadsword warfare, representative democracy), live theatre persists because it is seemingly a thing we cannot do without. Lauren Gunderson says something to the effect that storytelling must be a biological necessity for human beings because we're the only species that does it and every human culture does it. And theatre is the most fundamental kind of storytelling. It predates and is more ubiquitous than literature. We need it for some strange reason. So we court donors and we apply for grants.
Courting donors and applying for grants are such time-intensive activities, that most established theatre companies have at least one full-time staff member whose entire job is some flavor of fundraising. Whether it's spending two weeks filling out tedious forms to apply for $600 from the federal government (which will require another two weeks of tedious forms next year detailing how you spent every cent), or utilizing the skills you developed in your acting MFA to convincingly tell a millionaire that he has fascinating thoughts on A Midsummer Night's Dream in the hopes that he'll write you a check, it's a tough job, and one that I certainly couldn't do.
Before the Copernican revolution (pun intended), astronomers and clerics were forced to construct bafflingly complex models of the cosmos to account for every new discovery about the night sky. Someone with a new kind of telescope would discover a new star or a new planet or observe a new pattern of movement, which would contradict existing geocentric orthodoxy, and a bunch of very learned morons would go back to their spirographs and parchment to try to figure out how that new information could fit into a universe with the Earth at its center. Eventually their intra-spherical house of cards collapsed under the simple revelation that shit is much easier to explain if the Earth moves around the sun and not the other way around.
What I mean to say is that when an idea is dumb and wrong (like theatre being dependent on donors and grants, or the sun revolving around a stationary Earth), cumbersome and labyrinthine structures are needed to prop it up. As the dumb idea gets dumber, the cumbersome and labyrinthine structures need to become more cumbersomer and labyrinthiner.
The economics of theatre mean that artistic people spend the vast majority of their professional hours doing decidedly unartistic things like begging for money. It means that people who don't know anything about art make decisions about what art gets made. It means that rather than artists making art and audiences reacting to that art, audiences proactively tell artists what to create. The economics of theatre mean that the arts are effectively being commissioned by the dumbest common denominator, and that's how we end up with Shrek the Musical.
So how do we fix it? What is the Copernican breath to blow over the theatre fundraising house of cards? How do we pay artist a fair wage and provide them stability and the freedom to produce art that is interesting and inventive instead of Shrek the Musical? How do we free artists from having to also be fundraisers and let the professional fundraisers go raise funds for other, more meaningful causes like sending the local high school chess team to the national championships in Fort Worth?
The good news is that the role of government is to take care of the things that we collectively think are important. Our taxes pay for schools and fire trucks and roads, which are all important, so they can probably also pay for art, which is also important. Everyone likes art; even assholes listen to music, so it should be an easy sell to people of all political stripes to increase the National Endowment for the Arts by a modest 10,000% to start with and remove some of the red tape to make the grants easier to access.
It truly seems like the only sustainable way forward. We can keep tasking our astronomers with layering more and more heavenly spheres inside of one another to account for these pesky stars that don’t seem to be moving, but theatre is never going to become profitable again, and courting donors and writing grants seems like treating symptoms instead of a disease. So let’s simply speak the truth: theatre doesn’t make money, but it is important enough that we want to invest in it as a society because we think it has value beyond profit — chiefly, theatre cultivates empathy, the single most valuable personality trait.
Luckily, no political party has ever succeeded in America on the basis of staunchly opposing public funding for universal and necessary services.
I won't elucidate the frustrations associated with seeing an important problem accompanied by a straightforward solution, because that specific flavor of frustration has become an especially familiar one in the last couple years. Also, while I am an idealist, I'm not naive enough to think that the NEA is ever going to take a bite out of the military budget (which is about 18 thousand times larger), no matter how nice it would be to live in a culture that valued art, music, and storytelling even 1/100 as much as it values competition, strength, power, and intimidation.
I spend a lot of time in my theatre work trying fruitlessly to reinvent the wheel. A lot of Elsewhere's methodology is based as much in economic and practical necessity — read: avoiding the need for fundraising — as it is in artistic vision. Spending time and mental energy trying to avoid fundraising instead of just spending that time fundraising is taking the same ingredients and setting them in a less appetizing arrangement. Whenever someone asks me if I want grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for dinner, my reply is always why not just eat pizza?
So why not just eat pizza? Well, I take comfort in the fact that not all decisions borne of economic or practical necessity are bad for the art. Shakespeare was an actor and part owner of his company, and it shows in his writing. You can find austerity measures in the text of the plays: fights and murders that occur off-stage save money. You can find a secondary character giving an overlong speech right at the exact moment when a primary character needs to do an elaborate costume change. Sometimes Shakespeare did his best work trying to make a show easier to produce, and some of my own best artistic decisions have been driven by the need to keep costs down. Cutting the second gravedigger in Hamlet removed the need for another actor, and forced the first gravedigger to banter with the audience, which was one of the highlights of the show.
Because of the basic economic premise of making theatre, otherwise pro-labor people find themselves struggling with the impossibly contradictory questions of fundraising and paying employees. All the artistic and managing directors at STA cheer whenever someone says that theatre artists should be paid higher wages, even though they know that doing so will require them to somehow find more money in an inherently unprofitable and underfunded industry.
By design, unions are popular with workers. They ensure higher pay, better benefits. In professions that follow intuitive economic dynamics, people want to join a union and have the union advocate for them. However, many actors choose not to join a union, and others try to find ways to sneak around the union's rules because they make an already difficult industry even more difficult.
Of course, some people do make lots of money on theatre. I don’t understand the financial alchemy that makes Broadway happen, but the idea that the most expensive theatre is also the most profitable seems like something out of Through The Looking Glass.
But the rest of us struggle, scrape, stress and bicker amongst ourselves about how to divide up the scraps from the table.
And I stand paralyzed by my stupid idealism. Rather than acknowledge the economic reality and operate within it, or start some Quixotic crusade to increase the NEA, I just stand around whining about how the system is dumb, but I have neither the time to fix it nor utilize it.
I wish I had a satisfying bow to tie around this whole idea. Think of this is an extended question about how to do better. Nothing would make me happier than for someone to blow my analysis apart and explain how we can all make theatre profitable without being beholden to fickle donors or the bureaucratic shackles of paltry government grants. How can we make exciting, vibrant art and also feed ourselves without having to hire (and therefore fundraise more to pay for) a team of scrape-and-beg experts?
Maybe if all of us, every single person in this country, collectively decided to donate to arts organizations without waiting to be asked, without trying to tell them what art to produce, but instead just were proactive and generous and gave a few bucks a month to artists with no strings attached, we could just grassroots this problem? That cuts out the middleman entirely. But it only works if we all do it, so every get an accountability buddy and sign up to be recurring donors to a theatre company.
If you’re looking for a place to start, think about Elsewhere Shakespeare ;)