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Art and ambition, art and survival

October 16, 2009

I just finished watching La Vie En Rose, the film about Edith Piaf starring Marion Cotillard. Aside from the constant tragedy that seemed to befall her at every turn, what struck me most was how she was portrayed as needing to sing, how for her, singing was living. She had passion, but it was also desperation that drove her. She stumbled through life, but her singing kept her afloat. She was volatile, damaged, and so often afraid, but her voice saved her.

Contrast that with the downtown theatre community. I heard some compelling anecdotes and speeches at the Free Night of Theatre event today. And I saw some performances. Few had that spark, that fight for survival in them. Maybe one. The woman from Living Theatre had pretty much been through it all. But as my husband pointed out, everyone admires her, but no one in that room wants to be her. Yet no one wants to admit as much.

There are few downtown theatre companies who know who they are and what they want. Theatre companies are stuck in this place of self-pity and self-decpetion. They have no funding, yet they seem disinclined to embrace commercial ventures because it seems, well, commercial, as if making money means you’re selling out. Yet they cannot make art for art’s sake because this country doesn’t value art enough to do that. You have to fight to get art made. We shouldn’t fight for mediocre art, and we shouldn’t put up a mediocre fight for “real” art. You can’t be commercially successful or truly artistically inspiring if you simultaneously disdain commercialism and idolize Broadway. They can’t admit that they dream of Broadway, and they refuse to admit that they want to make some money. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that dream. But you’re never going to achieve it doing it halfway with no budget telling yourself that Broadway’s not your dream if it really is. And if it isn’t, then figure out how to get the money to make the theatre you want to make and stop whining about the lack of funding. There is a way to sell just about anything. Figure it out and fix it. Pay your people. Pay yourself.

Time for some self-reflection. What’s downtown theatre trying to be? Is a stepping stone to Broadway? Is it enough to produce good work? Are you grant-funded? Are you trying to build an audience base? Do you want to sell out houses night after night? Who do you collaborate with? What partnerships have you established? What kind of plays do you produce? How are you marketing your work? Do people know who you are? What are your goals as a company, and how do you intend to achieve them? What’s your dream? Be honest about it. Make it happen.

For such an artistic group of people, I’ve never been so bored for lack of message. What are you trying to say? To whom are you trying to say it? Who are you, and what do you do? You’d better have a damned good elevator speech ready, and some materials that look decent because you don’t get that many chances to convince me. You’ve got to make me want to hear you. And enough, already, with the postcards. Use your imagination and get some materials that do more for you. Seriously, when’s the last time you bought tickets because of a postcard?

I just finished singing a concert to a half-full, but wildly enthusiastic, house at Lincoln Center. Most of the audience looked like they had grey or white hair. Let’s get some bodies in those seats. Let’s make people realize that art is important. So is making a living, but they are not mutually exclusive. If you remain unconvinced that art is life and to lose art is to die, then find another job. If you believe that to be an artist, you must suffer in poverty and obscurity, get another job. The last thing we need is more starving artists. We need thriving artists who know their worth and demand payment in cash, by barter or otherwise. Stop complaining. Go make some art.

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