Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Artistic Career

Chapter 0: Forget Everything

I’m beginning this book with Chapter 0, because it is actually something you have to do before you begin moving forward. It is a foundational attitude necessary to begin your journey.

Basically, you have to forget everything you think you know about theater. Not forever; just for now. Let me explain.

Remember the beginning of Dorothy’s journey in The Wizard of Oz, when she is instructed to “follow the yellow brick road”? Her first steps on that journey actually take her in a spiral, not a straight line. Had she stopped after the first few steps, she would have found that she was facing in the opposite direction from where she ultimately wanted to go! But it was necessary for her to walk in a circle to shake off her natural sense of direction (Kansas is all about straight lines, right?) and open herself to a new approach.

That's what I'm asking you to do, too.

To start your journey, you have to forget everything you think of as truths about how theater is made, what it looks like, and who has to be in the audience. You have to abandon your preconceptions and assumptions. Only then will you be able to consider your creative life afresh.
Sociologists refer to these underlying assumptions as “doxa,” the ideas that are “given,” that “go without saying.” They are the ideas that we absorb during our creative life that seem unquestionable, but they are also stories that may be standing in the way of following our creative path. So:All of these things ultimately may or may not be true—or, at least, true for you—but they must be intentionally examined and consciously chosen, not simply inherited from authority figures, mentors, and the Grand Myth of Theater in the US.

The economist E. F. Schumacher, in his book Small Is Beautiful, wrote “All through our youth and adolescence, before the conscious and critical mind begins to act as a sort of censor and guardian at the threshold, ideas seep into our mind, vast hosts and multitudes of them. These years are, one might say, our Dark Ages during which we are nothing but inheritors: it is only in later years that we can gradually learn to sort out our inheritance.” In my experience, the Dark Ages for theater people extend far beyond youth and adolescence. Ideas about theater careers and how theater is done are constantly hammered into us by our teachers, by other theater artists, by the stories told in the media. Eventually, we come to believe in TINA: There Is No Alternative.

But there are alternatives—we've just forgotten them. Or more likely, we were never told about them in the first place.

Someone Else’s Dreams: A True Story

This is an excerpt from Seth Godin's fabulous book The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? (Highly recommended.) It illustrates the way our preconceptions about "the way theater is done" shapes our career path. Godin writes:

“Sarah loves to perform musical theater. She loves the energy of being onstage, the flow of being in the moment, the frisson of feeling the rest of the troupe in sync as she moves. And yet . . . And yet Sarah spends 98 percent of her time trying to be picked. She goes to casting calls, sends out head shots, follows every lead. And then she deals with the heartbreak of rejection, of being hassled or seeing her skills disrespected. All so she can be in front of the right audience. Which audience is the right one? The audience of critics and theatergoers and the rest of the authorities. After all, that’s what musical theater is. Its pinnacle is at City Center and on Broadway, and if she’s lucky, Ben Brantley from the Times will be there and Baryshnikov will be in the audience and the reviewers will like her show and she might even get mentioned. All so she can do it again.

This is her agent’s dream and the casting agency’s dream and the director’s dream and the theater owner’s dream and the producer’s dream. It’s a dream that gives money to those who want to put on the next show and gives power to the professionals who can give the nod and, yes, pick someone.”

Sound familiar? He then continues with some important truths that I hope might resonate in your heart and mind:

“But wait. Sarah’s joy is in the dance. It’s in the moment. Her joy is in creating flow. Strip away all the cruft and what we see is that virtually none of the demeaning work she does to be picked is necessary. What if she performs for the “wrong” audience? What if she follows Banksy’s lead and takes her art to the street? What if she performs in classrooms or prisons or for some (sorry to use air quotes here) “lesser” audience? Who decided that a performance in alternative venues for alternative audiences wasn’t legitimate dance, couldn’t be real art, didn’t create as much joy, wasn’t as real? Who decided that Sarah couldn’t be an impresario and pick herself?
     The people who pick decided that.”

This is why I suggest that the first step is forgetting everything. Because the dreams of the people who do the picking--the gatekeepers--are powerful; and they limit your options. They box in your imagination. It’s like a 3-card Monte game you see on the street of a major city. The guy who’s running it, who’s dealing the cards, convinces you that there are only three choices you can make: left, right, and center. What’ll it be? What’ll it be? What’ll it be?

The Dealer does his best to distract you from focusing on what is most important to you, so that you lose sight of the important card. And most of the time you do. All of the games in a casino are rigged to favor the house. But there are other games to be played, games that give you a much better chance of winning. You just have to walk away and find something else.

The Most Important Thing You Need to Forget

Here’s the most important obstacle that you need to set aside: that you need permission to create your art. You do not need to be “picked,” as Godin says. You can be in control of what you do, when you do it, and for whom you do it. Artists do not beg for permission to create art. This should be your mantra.

The goal is to remove all the tracks of A Chorus Line from your mental playlist. It does not provide a model for an artistic life:

God, I hope I get it
I hope I get it
How many people does he need?
How many people does he need?
God, I hope I get it
I hope I get it
How many boys, how many girls?
How many boys, how many...?
Look at all the people!
At all the people
How many people does he need?
How many boys, how many girls?
How many people does he...?
I really need this job
Please God, I need this job
I've got to get this job.

To quote another song from the same musical, “That ain’t it, kid. That ain’t it, kid!”

This page has paths:

This page references: