OBIES 2011: Take This Job and Fill It


We’re living through a rough time for workers. Corporate executives, politicians, and pundits all suddenly love cost-cutting, and the cost they most love to cut is that of their employees’ wages and benefits. To downsize, to outsource, to maximize productivity while minimizing workers’ earnings—these are the goals engraved on every business leader’s heart. Or, at least, they would be if business leaders had hearts.

The realm of the performing arts, where even a solo event requires a multitude of collaborators, is in no way immune to cost-cutting pressures. While public funding, even for the best-established and most culturally conservative institutions, slides slowly down the drain of neo-con disapproval, every belt pulls tighter and every eye darts about in search of the angle, the name, the gimmick that will bring in money to cover the shortfall. We are under the gun, and we all know it.

Money can be found, of course. Economic downturns are redistributions, not vanishing acts. The disappearing value of your foreclosed home went into the pockets of the crooked lenders that made the real estate market bubble by peddling subprime mortgages; the disappearing tax revenues that made federal and state deficits balloon went into the bonuses of big corporations’ executives and the high-priced lawyers who make sure that they and their corporations pay no taxes. The question, of course, is how the arts get to the surplus money that the rich have stashed away: You can’t simply walk up to a vice-president of GE and convince him that he needs to endow a repertory theater more than he needs a fifth vacation home, while kidnapping and extortion—though tempting where the rich are concerned—are illegal. Artists, regrettably, tend to have a conscience.

Even with a conscience, though, the arts can find ways out of their straitened financial situation. Having a conscience may even prove an asset, especially in the theater, traditionally a place where moral values and spiritual meanings are debated. The right, which is oblivious to all culture except the culture of profit-making mass distraction, pays constant lip service to a wide range of moral dogmas which it doesn’t believe in and doesn’t practice. Hypocrisy is America’s favorite sport.

This gives the theater a moral advantage: It can, if it doesn’t get too self-righteous about things, dramatize the issues that hypocrisy and lies try to paper over with accusatory buzzwords. A certain alertness is called for, which has not always been theater artists’ priority in recent years: I don’t mean alertness to hipster notions of what’s current, or to trends in the mass-market showbiz that rakes in hard currency, but alertness to actuality, to what’s going on in the world and to what those goings-on mean for ordinary Americans as individuals. And I mean alertness in terms of having a fine-tuned bullshit detector for shibboleths on the left as well as on the right. “You must always think about everything,” says a character in a play by that socially alert guy, George Bernard Shaw, “and you must think about it as it is, not as it is talked about.”

Some individuals who played major roles in giving the New York theater that meaning and that alertness over the past five decades died this year. I’ve put off mentioning them till now because this article is about us and the future, not about me dwelling on the past. Ellen Stewart, to take the example that instantly leaps to mind, did not come to New York to break into the theater. She had made some money as a fashion designer, she had some aspiring playwrights among her friends, and she’d seen some of them get snarled up, futilely, in the commercial theater system.

Accordingly, she started putting on plays in her apartment. She had probably never heard that someone in a Clifford Odets play had once said that “life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills,” any more than she had heard of fire laws or light plots or 501(c)(3) status. Over time, she learned about these things, but she never viewed them as primary matters, merely as obstacles to be gotten over. She was “dedicated to the playwright and to all aspects of the theater.”

Look where she started, look at what she achieved. I was talking about politics when I said “alertness,” up above, but thinking over Stewart’s story reminds me that there is an inner alertness, too, that we need to cultivate. Stewart, who did not read scripts but picked up psychic emanations from them (nobody was ever sure if she called those impulses “beeps” or “peeps”), became a center of energy for a have-not theater in an affluent time. La MaMa did not begin as an institution; it fought its way up to being an institution. Who wants to be the next impulse-riding fighter for art to make magic and meaning grow from the corner of his/her living room? Applications are now being taken.

Or consider Lanford Wilson, a college dropout and aspiring writer who, in his wanderings, fell in with a batch of idealistic college grads (in Chicago, where many such things begin), and went on from early, eccentric monologues and one-acts—some of them produced by Stewart at La MaMa—to become one of the touchstone writers of his age. Passionately concerned for individuals, Wilson saw the world in group terms: All his best plays are social microcosms. A lonely, dreamy boy from a broken home, he built himself a family in the theater, and built his family into a company that gave meaning and presence to dozens of other artists. Look where he started and look what he did. Are you an artist with nest-building instincts? Apply now. Opportunities unlimited.

I don’t mean to say that it isn’t already happening. I urge it on because it’s already there, and I say that it will defy the gun we’re under, and will prove more important in the long run than all the media jargon and accusatory crud spewed out these days over anyone who tries to do anything good or valuable or even moderately honest and meaningful. I see artists with spaces making homes and chances for other artists; I see chances cropping up everywhere. In the weird boom-bust of our unstable economy, I see vacant real estate, which always means a place for new theaters to roost if they have strong arguers or good finaglers to give them a hand. La MaMa lives in a former pretzel factory; Wilson’s Circle Rep began in the vacant loft above a supermarket.

True, friends with deep pockets helped them out, but theaters have an amazing gift for acquiring friends. When people start muttering about the grim future, I think of the past, when people also muttered, constantly, that there was no longer any hope for acting, for playwriting, for anything creative to happen in the theater. “We give birth,” says Beckett’s Vladimir, “astride a grave.” Pessimists see the grave; optimists see the birth.