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Handouts and Histrionics

Article III: Engorged Endowments


"If we were truly were doing work of 'redeeming social value,' wouldn't people want to pay us for it?"


The NEA recently released a discouraging study (well, discouraging for us playwrights, in any case) indicating that less than ten percent of adults will attend a non-musical play in the next year. Compare that with the sixty percent that will see a movie in theatres. At least we're doing better than dance. But then, everybody is.

I suspect that the source of this problem is that film is seen as being an inclusive entertainment, whereas theatre is seen as being an exclusive entertainment. So where does that mentality come from?

No doubt any number of sources, but the basic economic problem facing the arts breaks down to - as so many economic problems do - one of supply and demand: there are simply far more of us trying to generate art than there is an audience that wants to view it. And for that, we have nobody to blame but ourselves: if an audience isn't willing or interested in parting with their hard-earned cash to support our work, it's because they don't believe that they're receiving anything in return.

Enter state-sponsored arts funding organizations (like, most visibly, the NEA and the Minnesota State Arts Board), which forcibly take money from citizens, and redistribute it to artists, in order to create work that they will never see, and never benefit from, except in the sense of some vague, undefined "social good." I take great personal issue with this, because what it ultimately means for me is that I spend all year creating art and selling it to people. A portion of the pittance I earn from doing this is taken, then redistributed to other artists whose work I (in some cases vehemently) oppose, and other theatres that I wouldn't be caught dead in, because an isolated group of people decided that their work has more socially redeeming value than mine. The fact that it's a relatively small amount being taken is irrelevant: if I consider the work immoral, then one cent is too much. Theft is theft; to quibble over the price seems, to me, to be missing the point.

When you separate the people who choose what art gets funded from the people who have to pay for it themselves, you wind up with a body of very bizarre, inaccessible art. (Although I have no objection to bizarre, inaccessible art -- in fact, I bear a fondness for it all out of measure -- that doesn't mean that I also bear any kind of expectation for anybody else to support it.) To claim that these selections are made on the basis of artistic excellence is absurd, because who can possibly quantify what that means? People have been trying since Aristotle, and few have achieved the same degree of success.
So this system rewards, not excellence, but those who have learned to navigate bureaucracy, and those who have learned to navigate what is currently perceived as "social good." It's a system designed to prop up some very unpopular, uncreative hucksters, and it's this, I suspect, that has ultimately caused people to dismiss theatre as entertainment.

My colleagues are quick to place blame for the suffering of our medium on the government, for failing to prop them up when they stumble; but ideally, shouldn't our work be supported by the people who are directly gaining from it? If we were truly were doing work of "redeeming social value," wouldn't people want to pay us for it? If only we had some kind of system in which individual citizens could decide which theatres they wanted to survive! But we do have such a system. It's called "free enterprise."

So the real issue, I think, is not censorship, but self-censorship. Larger theatres can rarely afford to take chances on new playwrights, unless they're adapting something that's already famous. Or something that can get covered by a grant, which they've grown increasingly dependent on. I'm inclined, in my bleaker moments, to wonder how much worse actual censorship would be. I've seen theatres begin their season with a group of artists assembling in a room of their own free will and asking "What do we need to say in order to get a grant?" I can't believe that that's the place that a creative endeavor should begin.
And, worse, the answer to the question is inevitably anything secular or multicultural. By which I mean, multicultural in the most shallow, cynical way possible. If it's an African play, then everyone has to be dancing and drumming. If it's a Chinese play, then everyone has to talk like a fucking retarded person and bow to each other. We're losing a whole generation of writers with this nonsense, to say nothing of the audience.

I'm convinced that this is a bigger issue than anyone wants to acknowledge. Through this system, and our complicity with it, we've actually created a national theatre that is incapable of talking about good and evil, about spirituality, about humanism, about man and God, about what happens after death, about the existence of a soul -- no, but we can walk onstage and dissect our neuroses and sex lives, quote Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, dress up student politics as weighty drama, and aimlessly speculate about why the American public stopped coming to see us decades ago.

We're Gen-Xers. We didn't have a defining moment growing up. We didn't have a war. We didn't have a recession. Well, now we've had both. The world is looking to us, as artists, to have a response to that and we've failed them. We've failed them, and modernism has failed us. The First Amendment becomes laughably irrelevant in the context of that discussion, because it's my assertion that theatre in this country didn't die. It committed suicide.