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

Chapter 2: You Are Not an Employee

There are several crossroads in this book: points where you face a decision between two options, two paths. One takes you along the road to independence, and one takes you outside this book. You can’t straddle them both; you can’t run back and forth between them. You have to choose. So here is the first crossroads moment for you:

     You are an artist, not an employee.

This has nothing at all to do with the quality of your work. Works of overwhelming genius have been created by employees, and works of mind-numbing mediocrity have been created by artists. Nor am I suggesting that one route has more value than another. The distinction I am drawing concerns one thing only: agency.

Artists have agency. They are in control. They develop a personal vision, they set goals, and they chart a course to achieve them. They do not have to fit into somebody else’s ideas about them. They initiate. They do not have to ask permission.

Picasso didn’t wander around the streets of Madrid in 1903 waiting for someone who would tell him what to paint and give him some canvas, a brush, and some tubes of oil. He decided he was going to paint a picture of an old man playing a guitar, that he was going to use mostly blue paint, and the result was his masterpiece The Old Guitarist. He wasn’t famous or wealthy—he was a poor 22-year-old—but he knew what he wanted to do at that moment to develop his skills and express his vision, and he did it. A few years later, after having moved to Paris, Picasso and Georges Braque didn’t ask permission to start developing the ideas of cubism, they just started painting and talking and painting some more. Along the way, they encountered ridicule, resistance, external obstacles. The doors of galleries were not suddenly opened wide to let in crowds of rich art dealers willing to pay millions to get their hands on the work. But they didn’t have to ask permission to be allowed to put paint on canvas.

Agency is scary. It requires a lot of thought, reflection, imagination, and guts. At the end of Seth Godin’s story about Sarah quoted in the previous chapter, he says:

“When Sarah chooses herself, when she makes her own art on her own terms, two things happen: She unlocks her ability to make an impact, removing all excuses between her current place and the art she wants to make. And she exposes herself, because now it’s her decision to perform, not the casting director’s. It’s her repertoire that’s being judged, not the dramaturge’s. And most of all, it’s her choice of audience, not the choice of some official, suit-wearing authority figure.”

If you’re not willing to put yourself “out there”—if you prefer to be told what to do, how to do it, and when—this book is not for you. Which is OK. Just put it back on the shelf.

Agency requires a willingness to take a risk, and to take responsibility. In reality, this isn’t much of a problem for theater artists—pursuing a career in an art form in which most professionals make nothing in a year is by definition a risk. But the usual way of approaching it involves a series of smallish investments, so that we don’t sense the risk so intently. We get a day job, and then we save up and pay for that photographer to do our photos, we pay to create and host a website, we buy the clothes we need to try to get a job, we take jobs that pay less than we’re worth in order to have the flexibility to audition or leave to take a gig, we pay to take classes, we take unpaid internships to get a foot in the door, we give a percentage of our income to an agent, we do dozens of things that cost money in the hope that somebody will finally let us actually do our work

Or we can simply stop asking and choose ourselves.

The path I’ll be describing in the following chapters has a lot of the risk front loaded, which will make it seem extra risky. It will also seem as if you’re departing from a well-worn path (you are) and are all alone in the scary woods. But if you add up all the sacrifices required by the traditional way, you’ll probably find that, over time, it’s no safer than this new way.

You’re betting on yourself, instead of betting on the ability of strangers to recognize your talent.

I'd bet on myself every time.

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