I started every interview by asking my subject(s) to define themselves in relation to their work. This proved to be a surprisingly difficult task for most, full of inherent and ongoing contradictions and uncertainties. This book can speak for no one but the individuals who lent their time and energies to its creation, however, one observation I’d dare to extrapolate is that many theater workers (myself included) have an identity crisis. In an industry that provides for almost no one, where the vast majority of people make their home in theater and their living elsewhere, maybe this is to be expected, but it seems the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this crisis to a breaking point. The confluence of the gig economy and the era of identity politics has caused an increasingly consequential melding of personal and professional identities, so that the question is no longer just “what do you do?” but, “who are you?” and therefore, “what can you do?” or, more directly, “what are you doing?” Of course these questions are not exclusive to the performing arts, but as a result of the complete shuttering of theater as we knew it since March 2020, they feel acute, almost violent to pose to anyone who, at one point or another, has called themselves a theater artist.
And yet, I posed those and many more questions to the over one-hundred artists and arts workers who I was in dialogue with between January and April 2021, either via written survey or recorded interview. My inquiry, broadly, was work—employment, creative work, domestic and personal work, and the idea of “doing the work” of racial and social justice—and how theater folks’ experience of and relationship to work has changed in our new isolated, fractured reality. What was meant to be an excavation of the present ended up being just as much about the past and future of financial stability, physical and mental health, survival for marginalized peoples, and the ways that a career in theater presents these necessities as luxuries.
Who am I to try and diagnose the ills of a centuries old artistic practice turned financial burden? An “emerging” playwright with, at best, shallow ties to a hyperlocal scene and a scattering of its power players. It’s less that I’m attempting to answer questions no one asked, and more that no one asked me. There were many moments during the making of this book that I asked myself why I cared so much about theater when it cared so little for me and my hopes, my thoughts, my personhood. But in the beginning, creating this document seemed like the best thing I could do to try to invest some meaning into our literally and creatively dark pandemic year. I entered this process eager to explore with others the limits and privileges of a life in the theater—an industry on ice and an art form at a crossroads, implored by an uncaring attention economy to change or die. I leave this process, in the eve months before theater’s grand reopening, holding that it is not dead but it is concussed: dizzy, nauseous, and unfit to resume routine activity.
Who is theater for? Not the artists and administrators who it disrespects and underpays, not the audiences who have realized how seamlessley life continued without it, nor the donors clasping their purses and seeking more practical and impactful tax write-offs. Theater as we know it, as we will soon again meet it, resides in the wilderness between capital and progress, feigning to privilege either at its convenience while furthering neither. Should it emulate the models of more populist art forms in order to provide ethical wages and resources for the underserved communities it claims to want to represent? Or, should it divest completely and harness its power as an art of the real, embracing a theater for the people that is completely collaborative, untethered, free, and broke? In any event, the current model is unviable, unfair, and promotes an experience of theater as a hobby that can only be practiced by people with other sources of income, which is not only unsustainable for its artists but also detrimental to the art that is and is not being made from whatever residual energy and creativity they can muster after hustling to meet their basic needs. What could theater be if it wasn’t borne of compromise? If it brought in instead of pushed out? If it could respond to the needs of its practitioners and audiences materially, ethically, sociopolitically? If it wasn’t an inherently white supremacist enterprise? If it took action instead of performing?
This book ventures to explore, but will not solve, these questions. In fact, the following pages are full of some brilliant, some galvanizing, but also many wrong answers—full of individuals grasping at straws, saving face, baring scars, second-guessing, stumbling, face-planting, uplifting, standing in, processing, hoping, realizing, remembering, advocating, demanding, denouncing, reaching, admitting, witnessing, failing, seething, clarifying, prophesying; navigating art, commerce, passion, humanity; and wondering whether theater, as we live it, can set us free, or else let us out of its grip so we can find a new way.