A Playwright in Today’s World: To Sell Does Not Mean ‘Sell Out’

Vanessa Garcia

by Vanessa Garcia 

How do we make a life in the theater in the twenty-first century while still managing to pay our bills?

The myth of the starving artist is, unfortunately, alive and well in some sectors of the arts—particularly in the theater. I can say that Art saved me, but as in all complicated endeavors, I can also say the opposite. I can say that Art tried, many times over, to murder me in my sleep. My desire to live my life as an artist forced me into ghettos where I dodged bullets, and into days in which the only lunch I could afford was a stolen handful of nuts from a Whole Foods bin. This is not romantic. It’s stupid. I eventually decided: no more.

And I’m not the only one. Artists everywhere have surfaced and said: no more. No more mythic Icarus ramming itself into the sun and melting into the ocean. There’s a way in which that same Icarus can fly, spanned wings across the sky, safe, and yet still beautiful, even awe-inspiring. What I want to argue here, is that the theater and the performing arts are lagging behind other arts—we’re standing in the wings, while the action is taking place on other people’s stages. Television writers, novelists, Young Adult writers, illustrators—all of these artists have found a way to embrace millennial capitalism (for lack of a better term; call it “late capitalism” if you like)—and the theater has been late to catch up.

This is a vision acutely in line with the contemporary generation of neo-hipsters and millennials. “Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration—music, food, good works, what have you—is expressed in those terms. . . call it Generation Sell,” wrote William Deresiewicz in an article for The New York Times in November of last year. “Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist,” continues Deresiewicz, “but the entrepreneur. (Think of Steve Jobs, our new deity). Autonomy, adventure, imagination; entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us. The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.”

To sell does not mean to sell-out. At least not the way it used to. The playwright can either play-in or lose out.

The novelist has already adhered. “These guys [contemporary novelists] are acutely aware of the multiple audiences for which they write,” says Szalay, whose upcoming new book is entitled The Novel After HBO. He continues: “For a generation of novelists that began to achieve fame and distinction in the early twenty-first century—like Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, Junot Diaz, and Dana Spiotta—the term ‘sell-out’ just doesn’t apply.”

For performing artists to be able to adhere, our attitude towards money has to change. In a recent article. “A Dancer’s Retort,” in The Huffington Post, Brittany Beyer, dancer and associate editor of The Dance Enthusiast, also calls for a new form of operation in the performing arts. She writes:

One important issue is the dance artist’s attitude towards money. Many of us have been brought up with the idea that our field is beyond a job— to be an artist is almost a sacred calling. If you have ever danced you will understand. We love our art form and have the conviction that it does others good. With integrity and passion we put our bodies—our very selves—on the line to create. Our work is beyond a job description; in many ways it is a life’s practice or a life’s mission. How does one monetize that?

Healers are “sacred” too, aren’t they? Doctors, for instance. And we pay them, don’t we? We pay them a bundle. There is a whole other discussion here about health care in this country and about what we do and do not value socially and who gets access. The point, for now is—why should artists be poor? Other life missions and practices are paid for. If we pay people to heal our bodies, why shouldn’t we pay them to heal our souls? Perhaps this seems trite, cheesy, or too sincere. But, I think it’s true. And, truthfully, I don’t care about it sounding “too sincere.” Irony is no longer king.

We cannot live without money. We cannot produce art without money. It seems to me impossible not to monetize the result of an artistic process. And, it seems sillier still to pretend like art and money have nothing to do with each other. As soon as artists realize this, the better off we will be. This mindset becomes dangerous when producers, not creatives are the one monetizing—particularly producers who are more interested in the money than the art (not all are like this, I should add). The clearest solution, again, seems to be for the artist/playwright to be tied to the production—to become, like in television, a “Showrunner.”

The Showrunner—people like David Chase of The Sopranos and Matthew Weiner of Mad Men—creates, writes, and produces; manages and markets. The Showrunner is more than just a writer. “The result is a paradigmatically neoliberal vision of the writer and his labor,” writes Michael Szalay in his article “The Writer as Producer; or, The Hip Figure After HBO,” published by Duke University Press this year.

This requires the artist to become a hybrid. Going back to the Icarus myth—allow the sun to give us energy, rather than drown us. This doesn’t mean we must always produce our own work. We can allow traditional models to merge with newer models, this too can be hybrid in nature. Technology now gives us all access to the means of production. The writer can now learn Photoshop. The creative can now market on Facebook and Twitter (and it works). The audience is used to receiving information from multiple sources. Devised Theater trends prove that audiences are open to theater reflecting the world they live in—after all Devised Theater is a form of hybridity, a place where all the artists are Showrunners in the sense that they take on many roles. Now it is time to apply this idea to the way we make money in the theater. It is our job, as theater professionals not to fall behind—not to kill art, or allow it to kill us. It is, in fact, our job to keep it alive, to keep it thriving in a world full of hybrids. It is our job to save people’s lives and to do this, we need to fully understand what it means to be alive, making and receiving art in twenty-first century America.

Vanessa Garcia is a multi-media writer and artist working from Miami and Los Angeles. She’s the founding artistic Director of The Krane, a theater/arts company. She’s currently working on her PhD from the University of California Irvine in Creative Nonfiction, and is a contributing writer to numerous publications from The Miami Herald to The Art Basel Magazine, among other journals, newspapers, and magazines. She’s also currently shopping her novel, White Light, and working on a two new plays called The Cuban Spring and The Underground.

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2 responses to “A Playwright in Today’s World: To Sell Does Not Mean ‘Sell Out’

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. This is SUCH a reflection of my life and dreams. I’m working on this. It’s not easy. But I won’t give up. This lets me know I’m not alone—and isn’t it good when we find out that we are not alone….

    Like

  2. You are NOT alone. How to create art and pay the bills at the same time is the eternal struggle of the artist.
    “Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” – Kurt Vonnegut

    Like

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