Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Economics of Theater, Part II: Funding

My theater is shovel ready.

My theater is ready to beat the Russians to the moon.

I was going to write today more about matters more personal, but the recent budget released by the Obama administration has moved me to talk about the economics of theater in a political sense.  And of course it is personal, for at the same time my theater company is trying to expand, politicians are once again treating theater like it’s a frivolous indulgence.  It is not.  It is an economic engine.  My theater is more economically efficient than infrastructure, more educational per dollar spent than education.

Do I have the studies to show it?  There are a few.  Every impact study done has shown that the return is much greater than every dollar spent.  Google the words “impact” and  “economic” and “theater” or maybe the “arts” and you’ll find them.  Many were done in England or in Canada or elsewhere overseas.  But the ones from the U. S. show the same thing.   The arts give back more than they take.  Much more.

Let’s examine one reason that it’s true.  The so-called shovel test is truer for theater than almost any stimulus around.  Give any of the thousands of theater companies the money now, and you will see that money ready to be put to work.  There are people waiting to create.  And you will not only see every dollar in the work, it will seem like, magically, each dollar has become ten.

My theater is ready to make this country great.

So why does my country hate her so?

Give theater the money, and you will find workers who are willing and eager to work well beyond the amount that they are paid.  You will find diligent, industrious workers and entrepreneurs, small businesses that feed businesses big and small.

Do you want a man to dig a ditch and refill it, Mr. Keynes?  Put an audience member in front of us and we’ll go all night.

I don’t ask this country to invest in theater because it is the right thing to do.  I think it is, but put that aside.  I don’t ask because it feeds our country’s soul.  It think it does, but put that aside as well.  I don’t ask because art can create a bridge between nations.  I think it can, but put that aside.

I ask because it is a good investment.  One of the best around.  I ask you not to do it out of the goodness of your heart, but for the sake of your own bottom line.  Art pays for itself.  Art feeds the economy.

This may seem confusing, because artists, as a whole are poor.  This is because, when the transaction happens, we take most of our fee in fulfillment, rather than just cash.

The cash is great, don’t get me wrong.  But we are willing to do much more work for much less because of the economic value we place on following our passion.

Perhaps we shouldn’t.  That is another subject.  Perhaps we should be like investment banks that take the cash, and a lot of it.  Perhaps our transactions should create nothing in and of themselves so that we need the cash in order to justify the time.

Or perhaps we should be somewhere in between.

But as it stands, we are ready to be exploited for the cause.  Give us the money, and we will work.  Just a little of it.  Just enough so we can manage, and we’ll do it.  We can’t help it, God help us.

And then Hell, we’ll pay it back from the after show drinks alone.  Sometimes quite literally.  Between the cast and audience, just the business created for the bars and restaurants may pay our tiny tab.  The rest is extra.

No rational economic theory, not one, can show why cutting funding to the arts helps the economy.  No rational budget, not one, can show any real impact on the overall debt gained by cutting our already tiny budget more than it has been.  President Obama, you made a plea, an impassioned one, about the need to invest in our country.  The need to invest in our future. .  The need to invest in jobs.

Invest in mine.  Invest in ours.  Invest in our economy.

We need to begin making people more aware it’s true.  We need to place the information on our programs, on our websites, on our blogs.  3LD has told me that from now on they are putting the number of people who worked on the show right in each program.  That’s a start. 

For my show Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which recently played at 3LD, there were over 30 people working on the show.  We would enter between 9 and10am.  We would leave sometime between 11pm and 1am.  That excludes the nights when we worked on the set through the night.  Usually, there would be 5-6 people during the day there, then 15-20 in the evening.

People traveled in to see us.  Hotels, airfare.  People ate and drank before and after.  And though UTC61 was not able to afford paying people much, we paid at least a small something to everyone.

And we created something.

How much did we receive from the state?  A little over $4,000.  We had other funding, from foundations and donors, but if you take away box office, you can say we relied on about $15,000 worth of giving, including the state funding.

How much did we give in return?

We can try to reach out, but we cannot reach out alone.

We need an advocate, more than one.  We need to help out by changing perceptions.  But we need to bridge the gap.  We need to make someone believe, enough to speak out not just in whispers in crowded rooms and not just our of sense of duty but out of a sense of passion, out of a sense that every dollar spent does the work of ten.  We need studies, more than we can fund ourselves.  We need editorials.  We need a speech in Congress.  We deserve one.

Well somebody, anybody, stand up and speak for our cause?

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Economics of Theater, Part 1

Many years ago I made a terrible financial mistake.  I decided to work in theater.

I could have, quite frankly, done most anything.  I certainly had the skills to become a lawyer, and investment banker, or a doctor (though being squeamish about blood might have been a holdback there).  And I have to say that all of them were also interesting to me.  So was being a scientist, a psychologist, a teacher, or any of a number of steadily paying jobs.

At the time, I made jokes about choosing to become a starving artist.  The truth was, however, I thought of that as a temporary hardship.  I had a sort of confidence in my abilities that told me, that if I had talent and brains I would eventually make money.  After all, I went to the theater, didn’t I?  I saw people on stage.  These people were professionals.  They were getting paid.  If I was also talented and smart, I could also get paid.

I was, for the most part, terribly deceived.

This is the truth: the industry is full of talented, intelligent people who barely make a dime.  That there is so little money available, and such a huge pool of talent, that in fact the probability is that an intelligent, talented artist will barely make a dime.

This is not a hard and fast rule, of course.  There is a very small percentage of people who work in theater who get paid decently.  There is also a small percentage of people who win the lottery.  The wise man does not make the lottery his career.

Unless…there is another economic benefit to playing the lottery that is unseen.  And in the lottery that is theater, there is.

What brings up these musings?  I have reached a point in my life that, when I was young and considering working in theater, I would have found encouraging.  I work on exciting projects.  I just closed a show that I was very proud of artistically and which was sold out, after receiving good reviews in major publications. I have been reviewed well multiple times in the Times, the Village Voice, Time Out, and a myriad of other journals I consider important.  I have worked with my heroes (and yes, the Václav Havel relationship has been particularly rewarding for me) and been considered a colleague and a friend.  I have seen words I’ve written come to physical life before me, in front of an appreciative crowd.  I have put together large, significant festivals.  I have written/directed Off-Broadway.  I have run a theater company for nearly 20 years.  I have written books that have been published, sold, and read by an appreciative audience.  I have imagined a work, and it has become flesh.

And often, it gives me great joy.

On my next tax return, the amount noted for income will be smaller than when I was a college student with a summer job.

How am I able to sustain myself?  Why have I chosen to live in this manner?

Both are complicated questions, and relevant ones as I try to discover how to continue to sustain myself.

So I am going to be writing a few blog entries on this, both for myself and others I know going through a similar point in their lives. I haven’t written blog entries for a while, and probably won’t for a while after—too many other projects.  But this will be, should I manage to complete it, a series of sorts, about theater and economics. The other blog entries will have other answers, or maybe other sorts of questions, probably in more pure economic terms.

But this is the simplest answer to begin with:  I have a calling.  Perhaps it is pretentious to say so, but since my whole adult life has been devoted to that belief, I claim that right.  I mean it in the way a clergy person has a calling, for being in a theater, for me, is what I imagine being in a church or synagogue is for the devoutly religious.

Years ago, I saw a scene in a movie that epitomized the current dilemma for me.  It was a fun movie, if not one with any particular aspirations to greatness. It was a comedy that was a bar joke:  about priest and a rabbi--these being Edward Norton and Ben Stiller in a semi wacky Upper West Side comedy called Keeping the Faith.  It was filmed blocks away from where I live.  I watched it because of that and because I was dating a rabbi at the time

Edward Norton was experiencing a crisis in faith.  He went to an older priest, as I remember (and I haven’t seen this movie since, so perhaps the way I am recounting this tale is off…) and told him he was considering leaving the church.   The older priest told him, when you commit to the church, it is like committing to a marriage.  You don’t do it once.  You have to keep on doing it, again and again.

I feel like I have at times sacrificed my romantic relationships to theater—which is not to say, as I write this on Valentine’s Day and happen, this year, to be single, that being single is a necessary condition.  But it has made certain relationships harder.  I have probably sacrificed having children to theater.  There are those who have managed children and theater, but they seem few to me.  And I have most definitely sacrificed future financial security to theater.

And each time, I had to decide where my commitment lies.

Time for me to recommit again.  I am in love.

Happy Valentines Day, theater.  Don’t worry, I’m not expecting chocolate.  By this point, I know you too well.

I’m OK with that.  But if you want to slip me a couple of bucks for putting out, I won’t take too much offense.