How We Look to the Kids

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photo by Sarah Marsh

What was supposed to be 120 minutes’ pedagogy at Cornish College of the Arts this week turned into eight hours’ plotting of the future of show business in America – the ten graduating seniors in Advanced Analysis were too well versed for us to bother much about theater’s past and present. They were aspiring writers, actors, directors, dramaturgs, designers. They were smarter than any ten human beings I’ve shared a room with in dog’s years. It was scary. A jealous part of me wanted to kill them all in the shell. Two professional dramaturgs (professors Sarah Marsh and John Kendall Wilson), and one loudmouth from Los Angeles who sometimes writes about theater, completed the seminar roll.

I’d been feeling old lately, coming from L.A. as I do, where we’ve got some heaviness weighing on our theater scene. But I’ve known for years that if I want to feel sharper and healthier, I just need to spend time with people no older than half my age. In my middle years, such folk are easy to find. I found them in abundance in Seattle. After that first night’s work, I felt so young I could easily have got carded for beer, if I still drank. I don’t. So no, I didn’t test the theory. Fuck you. But I felt young. Really young. Like, thirty-seven.

This is partly because these artists are themselves still young enough, passionate enough, to believe with a profound faith in art for art’s sake. In fact, besides the political issues precious to college students (questions of gender, race, all the identity stuff) they seem to care about little EXCEPT the art in art. My presence had been requested primarily I think to direct their attention toward some of the less ethereal and holy elements of practical application. We talked about the way things work and the way things oughtta; what the kids can expect when they get out of school; how the market has changed; where the jobs aren’t.

One of the facts I introduced to these fine people was a condition of which both the students and the professors were Eden-innocent: the way in which America’s stage actors’ union is matter-of-factly, city by city outlawing the art part of the theater industry. This is the way with busy academics: they are violently well-informed on theory, but that takes up a vast amount of time. 99 seat waiver contracts – under which union actors could create their own work in their own membership companies – was a concept brand-new to these Pacific Northwesterners, just two weeks after Equity councilors voted it out of existence in my town, very much against the wishes of its membership.

Pathetically, the younger folk were still under the impression that after they graduated, they could if they wished form theater companies and produce their own work. Good luck, I told them. If you want to be what Charlayne Woodard calls “a professional,” if you want to run an Equity house, you’ll have to work three jobs just to be able to pay the actors and stage managers, since no Equity company can claim tax-exempt status and since tickets don’t cover costs even for the majority of Broadway shows.

Oh, the kids said, to make art, we’ll just waive our salaries. Then, I informed them, you’ll waive your right to union membership. Don’t believe me; ask Mary McColl, the executive hired by Equity to efficiently destroy the L.A. scene, an artistic community unique in all the fifty states.

The kids had been doing a lot of research lately in Marsh’s class, studying facts and figures related to the various productions in the Seattle area. Seattle’s a healthy enough community for its size, producing somewhere under 100 stage shows per year. The students and the professors were amazed by the number of theaters that had been active under the 99 seat plan in L.A. (184, according to Equity) and the volume of productions being put up (by varying estimates as few as 500 or as many as 1000 in some years) since Equity lost a court case against its membership in the late 1980s. Even the ivory tower could see that that was an awful lot of theater. But no more, I said, if Equity has its way. No more art unless every actor gets paid minimum wage.

The kids laughed out loud. They looked at my face. They stopped.

Wait, they said. How can a labor union tell us what we can or can’t do with our art? How does that possibly work?

It only works, I said, if you want to do work under the auspices and protections of the union, which understands theater only as a commercial enterprise.

Again, the kids laughed. Theater as money-maker, they said, thumping their history books. That’s a good one.

I said that there were cities like Chicago, where well over half the professional stage practitioners are non-union, and produce a great deal of work with artistic integrity, ignoring the Disney-musical stuff that Equity prefers. They aren’t rich, I said, but they’re free.

The young artists sighed with relief and said, Oh, good. Fuck some outdated institution that doesn’t understand basic entrepreneurial models that have existed since the dawn of theater.

And we talked of other things.

Because they’re kids. They don’t give a damn about money. They couldn’t care less about health insurance or pensions: they’re never going to die, and they’re sure as hell never going to retire.

Remember?  

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