“The money in the chorus isn’t very good, is it?!” she said. “No.” It was less than you’d get for scrubbing floors. The reason was that, when you advertised a dirty floor, hundreds of hopefuls didn’t turn up.”
- Terry Pratchett, Maskerade
A few months ago, I was privately asked what I think the future of theater is going to be.
At the time, I didn't have viciousness I thought I would need.
Then an interesting side effect of covid I don't think anyone anticipated came to pass. As the weeks have rolled on, it's becoming increasingly clear that an unplanned cleaning of house is happening in the American theater community.
Put simplistically, Theater effectively isn't happening for the rest of the year.
And what there is will be few and far between.
And I think, at a subconscious level, more and more people are realizing that.
Or, as a friend put it, Theater will always be with us. Because telling stories in a room with other people is a cornerstone of our civilization.
But theater AS WE KNOW IT is dead or dying.
And as people are realizing that, more and more people are bringing more and more ugly truths to light. Ugly truths about companies, decision makers, and the like.
Because for every artist out there, there's dozens willing to take their place. And nobody wanted to be the one who dropped the dead stinking fish in the pool of the their networks.
But one by one, lights are coming on, switches are flipping, and more and more people are saying, "fuck it, what are they gonna do, not cast me for the shows they can't do?"
Oh, ain't that a feeling I understand all too well.
A lot of it I felt when I left theater behind me two and a half years ago.
Daily I discovered more and more ways what I'd left behind was fucked up.
But I downplayed it.
Like a nasty breakup, I kept quiet about a lot of shit, because a lot of people I cared about hung out with my ex, even though she was an abusive bitch.
But right now, with the country, if not the world, in survival mode?
I think it's time to drag some shit out in the light.
For my friends struggling to provide for themselves in an industry collapsing around them.
And For the starry-eyed high school theater nerds convinced they're going to be the ones who make it.
Put in your mouth guards, because I'm not gonna pull my punches.
Part One: Theater is either an academic discipline or a vocational trade.
Pick one and stick with it. (Spoiler alert: better odds are on "trade.")
I've noticed a startling number of established but small companies (200-400 seat houses) with what they call apprentice programs. These programs hire young, newly graduated artists, offering both training and part-time work for a performance season or a year, whichever is shorter, usually with an accompanying stipend.
The sheer number of them tells me one of three things is going on:
One, Undergraduate B.A. and BFA theater programs are insufficiently training the incoming adult actors for the professional world.
Two, These companies have latched onto the trades apprenticeship model to gain the labor of incoming new graduates at a reduced rate while advertising the work of their own company and training said new artists to their standards.
My money is on three.
Education in general is having a massive upheaval right now. In March, 55 Million students were given a test-drive in homeschooling and online learning. A lot of parents are catching on to the fact that six months of curriculum can be learned in two. A lot of university students are figuring out that the same material gets learned whether it's attached to a fancy campus or not.
And remember: we are all in survival mode right now. Your primary job is to care for yourself and your dependents. If what you do doesn't achieve that, you need to do something else.
Face it, theater folks: we're the ones who infected the world with the whole "survival gig" bullshit, and everyone's sick of it. The cure should begin with us.
There is no fucking reason to spend a mid-five figures a semester for a degree that won't pay that out annually just for performing.
What's an average undergrad these days, $40-$60K/semester?
If you're earning that much a year JUST from acting in theater off of Broadway, you're a fucking liar. Maybe there's a national tour out there that hasn't been taken over by SETA contracts. But that's just another facet of the fact that no producer is paying actors anything worthy without a union holding a collective gun to their head.
(And don't think this is a screed about growing union strength either. The ONLY union in the business I haven't seen show their ass when covid struck was IATSE.)
So the BFA-industrial-complex keeps feeding legions of bright young things through their programs each year, putting a bigger and bigger percentage of them in indentured servitude of student loans, only for them to compete for the chance to... undergo an apprenticeship to learn everything that the fucking loansharks at university either didn't know or didn't bother to teach them?
And those who fail that initial round of competition keep struggling to apply their skill set into something that will make them an honest living, dropping out of the professional theater world one by one.
Some become middle-class arts patrons or the backbones of community theaters, and gods love them for that.
Some poor suckers go back to school in an educational arms race, becoming more and more knowledgeable but somehow never manage to articulate how that hasn't made them worth any more to those who cut the checks.
And some just go back to academia and never leave, carving out small fiefdoms that let them live somewhat comfortably and with their hands in their passions, even if it means feeding a new crop of wide-eyed theater kids to the beast every coming fall.
And it's not just me saying fuck that anymore. Higher ed in general is about to reap the whirlwind.
The ever-growing canon is more accessible than ever. There is no viable reason theater needs to be more than an Associate's degree discipline at most, augmented by apprentice companies post graduation. Even technical theater can be taught as an offshoot of heavy equipment operation.
But the vast bulk of American university theater needs to be extracurricular. Then it can actually serve to "broaden the scope of human experience" (at least that's what I think the fucking human traffickers that flock to SETC every year to peddle their indentures are spouting lately) to undergraduates without deluding anyone into thinking such is a viable career path.
Besides, a lot of such programs have been griping about their worth relative to athletics, might as well sink to their level and see how they swim.
Higher Ed in the U.S. is about to take a hardcore shellacking. And it's about fucking time it has. Maybe when we've whittled down undergraduate level theater programming to the handful of prominent conservatory programs, then we can take a nice long look at exactly how their diversity initiatives are working.