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

Chapter 6: Start from Zero

You're probably starting to question whether becoming an owner in the face of over a hundred years of theatrical domination by businessmen is something you really want to do. Can’t say I blame you.

But you don’t have to fight the Theatrical Syndicate in order to become an owner, nor do you need to instantly become Shakespeare and the King’s Men. You just have to remember a couple short sentences from Peter Brook’s justly famous The Empty Space:

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

An empty space. A person in it. And one person to watch it. That’s it.

It’s so simple! And yet at the same time, so powerful.

So often, our inherited beliefs about what is required for “theatre to be engaged,” to use Brook’s phrase, serves as an obstacle to actually doing theater. The minute that we think that we want to do a play, a multitude of assumptions arise: we will need to rent a theater because that’s where theater is supposed to happen in order to be taken “seriously” (by which we mean in order for us to be able to feel good about having devoted our time and our love to it) is one such assumption. This leads directly to other problems: we must find the money to pay that rent, which requires that we work a day job that pays a salary high enough that we can save the surplus for that rent, or maybe we have to work a second job to get that money—but of course, those jobs take time from our day and energy from our mind, which is an obstacle to moving forward creatively. Not an insurmountable obstacle—none of these obstacles are insurmountable—but something that saps our energy and delays the work.

Once we decide to rent a theater, we have to find an “audience” of a certain number of people to cover the cost and make us feel legitimate—I mean, who would want to do a play for one person, like Brook suggests, right?—and suddenly we require posters (money) and ads (lots more money) and press releases (time, paper, and postage) and Facebook events (free—hooray!) and—well, you get the picture.

Each additional assumption we have about what makes theater “worthwhile” requires more and more resources—resources like time and money (which in reality are essentially the same thing[1])—and soon the product we’ve built requires high ticket prices (which affects who can see our play) sold to many, many spectators just to break even, much less pay anybody and… well, you know how this ends: usually we give up before we start, or we press on only to lose just about every dollar we’ve sunk into creating this work of art. At the end, we’re likely exhausted, we’re probably poorer, and while we may be proud of what we’ve created, and enjoyed the people we had a chance to get to know (or maybe we didn’t) the amount of time it will take before we can gather all the resources needed to do the next project grows longer and longer. It difficult to create an audience under those conditions.

So I say forget all that, at least for the moment. Check all that baggage you acquired during the “Dark Ages,” to use Schumacher’s term, and free your imagination to take flight. You can reclaim whatever ends up being important to you after the trip.

Consider Spalding Gray, who created powerful and poetic masterpieces with his words, a folding table, a microphone, and a glass of water. Think of John Leguizamo, who played all of the characters in Mambo Mouth and Spic-O-Rama, and Eric Bogosian, whose one-man shows were absolutely brilliant. Or more recently, Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me. Eventually, some of them expanded their resources, and you can too when you need to do so, and are able to do so sustainably.

I’m not suggesting you start by doing solo shows, but rather that you start imagining from an empty space, an actor, and a spectator and then consciously, carefully add elements that you believe to be necessary to make viable the productions that interest you. Do so with the complete knowledge and understanding of the effect of each choice on your ability to lead a creative life.

The fact is that unless you are literally homeless, you have everything you need right now to “engage theatre,” if you have forgotten your preconceptions and adopted Peter Brook’s starting point. You can clear a space in your living room, your basement, your bedroom, your kitchen. You can move a couple chairs there for a spectator or two and do a 10-minute play, or perform a story from your life, read a short story, or… For that matter, you don't even need an apartment. You could do a play in a park—what if you did a production of Edward Albee's Zoo Story on a park bench?

In other words, you can create independently without it costing you a dime (except for royalties—more on that later when I suggest including a playwright in your company).

The only thing that is stopping you from doing this is the voice in your head that says, “That’s not the way things are done.” That’s not the way they taught me in college, in high school, at the conservatory, on TV.

Forget that voice.

Start from zero. Start from what Peter said.
[1] I strongly recommend you get a copy of the book Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. This book changed everything for me.

Continue to Chapter 7: Meet Mike Wiley

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