BLOG: Biting the invisible hand

by Alan M. Berks • Nov. 1

In depth |

By way of introduction

I have been depressed, more of less, for the past three years by my professional career. It has effected my ability to write and my personal relationships. For the past three years, I have been sickeningly dull, whiny company. From 2003-2006, I wrote as often as a dog sniffs for food and with as much mindless, joyful curiosity. After 2006, writing—something that has been like medicine and candy to me since I was 11—I found as hard to do as I would find brain surgery, and as frightening.

Some months, I’d force myself to sit in front of a blank piece of paper, holding a pen, following some advice I heard once about the force of habit. I might as well have been holding a scalpel over a bleeding patient’s head. Worst of all was the feeling that no one would care if I let the patient die on the table.

Coming out on the other side now, I suspect my brooding sprang from some amorphous sense of injustice. Hadn’t I worked hard enough, sometimes completing three full length plays in one year? Hadn’t I challenged myself enough, experimenting with a different genre with every script, pushing the boundaries of form in noble service to some grand artistic ideals? Hadn’t I proven myself, with stellar critical reviews and standing ovations at the end of more than a few productions? Hadn’t I treated people well, respecting the audience’s intelligence and honoring my collaborator’s ideas? I mean—What the hell? What else are you supposed to do in this business to get ahead besides produce quality work that people like, and lots of it?

Of course—of course, of course, of course—a good part of my failure to build a successful career was my own damn fault. I understand marketing but failed to market myself. I have a tendency to bristle at authority figures (a tendency I’m sure I share with the authority figures I come across in the performing arts), sometimes consciously saying the wrong thing to the right people and only charming the wrong people with the right lines, watching myself self-sabotage from a distance as though I were a ship captain who actually turned his boat toward the iceberg instead of away from it.

Plus, my fortitude is not particularly admirable. Three prolific years may have been exhilarating for me, but its really nothing in the timeline of a career in the arts, which sometimes seems to operate according to an “opposite of dog years” calendar. One year is like one month when it comes to the orbit of the arts world and when the sun chooses to shine on your part of Alaska.

Surprisingly, the depths of my depression didn’t arrive when I finally started to wonder whether I was any good at this at all. Taste is too subjective, and I knew that already. At least my wife likes my writing. Anyway, anyone who is still trying to make art after the age of 30 is compelled by something other than, or at least in addition to, other people’s high opinion of them. I realized pretty early on in this phase of my depression that even if I came to the conclusion, “I suck,” it wasn’t going to help me much. I’d just have to get better.

The bottom of my depression actually arrived when I finally asked myself what the heck I was expecting? Was I really expecting to make a living? As I playwright? Really? Does anyone make a living as a playwright? I didn’t necessary suck as a playwright, but I did have to conclude that I was a freaking moron. It was a wonder, I realized, that I was still able to find my mouth with a forkful of food.

Are the arts different than other industries?

Five years ago, my best friend was building multi-million dollar homes in Lincoln Park, in Chicago, a leafy, idyllic little urban neighborhood near the lake and DePaul University. He had a plan sketched out that ended with his retirement at the age of 40. A beach in Costa Rica had his name on it, I think.

Now, he’s working a contracting job he hates just to maintain the payments on his debt.

I mention it because I don’t believe that anyone is entitled to their dream just because they dream it, or even because they work hard and diligently at it, or because it’s a pretty sounding, artistic dream. It’s a tough professional world out there in all industries. Restaurants open and close six months later. People sink their life savings into a business, and the inventory doesn’t move. All of us have to do what we do to make the ends meet, and the arts are no different in that respect. So I can’t make a living as a playwright. No one promised me a rose garden.

I do, however, think that the performing arts industry is different than other industries in two large ways: One, we actually seem to take it lying down. My friend laughs at the amount of money I work my ass off for in the arts. You couldn’t catch him accepting that amount of money to build a toilet on your property no matter how much he loved building toilets. More than that he, and everyone else in the world, would argue, cajole, advocate, threaten, conspire, and push to get paid a living wage for the work that he did. Farmers lobby for subsidies. Corporations finagle tax breaks from the city. Rich people hide their money in tax shelters. Unions push for adequate working conditions for their members, all of which is generally considered to be an appropriate demonstration of the mechanics of economic self-interest. But when artists complain, people seem to think that they should just shut up and be happy they get to play dress up.

Second, in so many ways, the system isn’t set up in a way that rewards success. Last weekend in a restaurant, my server was the professional actress in the sold-out show that I had tickets to see later that night. A few years ago, I remember, a stalwart of the Twin Cities acting community offered to clean my house for extra money. Sometimes, I get jealous of all the readings my fellow playwrights have around the country until I’m reminded that they had to pay for their plane ticket to the West Coast, and they have to get back early Monday morning so they don’t lose their temp job. In what other industry can you do a good job, provide skills that are in demand either onstage or backstage, and still rarely be able carve out a sensible living?

The performing arts only make sense economically if you see it as part of the same industry as television and movies. A young actor, writer, or director sharpens his chops on small stages in Minnesota until eventually moving to Los Angeles or New York and, maybe, if they’re exceptionally good, lucky, or pretty, building up to a reasonable, adult-sized paycheck by getting some entry level job on a sitcom.

I’d sleep better if I accepted that scenario, but I don’t. In reality, I believe that television and movies, even the good ones, are analogous to nationwide chain restaurants. They can be good—though often they aren’t—but the experience they provide is very different than the experience that a nice local restaurant provides. Like an idiosyncratic neighborhood joint, theater provides a different type of art and entertainment to the community in which they reside than television or movies. Though I like them sometimes, I don’t want to live in a world where I only get to eat in chain restaurants that were designed by people who live miles away from me.

What’s the point?

We do complain too much in the arts. We spend a laughable amount of time justifying to ourselves, if not others, the special, maybe prophetic, nature of chosen profession. My friend built beautiful houses that were as much personal expressions of his personality and sense of the world as, I suspect, my plays. Many people impact the world in many ways.

Nevertheless, for those of us who have chosen this path in the world, or feel that it chose us, what are the roads to success? How do people build lives in the arts? In truth, for all my whining and depression and disappointment, some people do.

I thought I should introduce this new column with an honest admission of my self-interest. I do have a dog in this fight; I’m biased. I think that art makes life better—my life, certainly, but sometimes other people’s lives too. So, I want to know how we can make it work better. I actually feel the need to know.

So, the rest of the month, I’ll be exploring in this in-depth column, or blog, or whatever you want to call it, the question of how performing artists in this state wrestle with this problem. Some of them have pinned it to the mat successfully for a time. Others are still grappling, and others have given up and walked away. What are the challenges? What are the strategies? What are the new ideas, and what old ideas are still viable? How is this performing arts industry supposed to work so that we can actually, passionately, make more good work?

Please return for regular updates that will include interviews, research, and reports from around the state. In deference to the internet, I’ll try to make each post much shorter—but I can’t promise anything. I bristle at authority, even my own.

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