Anthony J. Piccione
“It’s not about money. It’s about sending a message.”
While that exact quote might originally be from a superhero film, I think it is fair to say that it also best describes how many artists in the theatre community feel about their work, as well as what many of them still like to say to people. They talk about how theatre is about creating both high-quality entertainment and thought-provoking art, not about the money, and that anyone else in theatre that thinks differently is a fool. They are right to believe this, as anyone who seeks a career in the arts should only do it if that’s something that they are truly passionate about, and it SHOULD have nothing to do with money in any way, shape or form.
However, when you put aside the aspect that refers to why they WANT to be in theatre – as opposed to some of the decisions that some theaters have had to make in recent years – it is worth asking: Is theatre really not about the money anymore?
For years now, especially since the onslaught of the Great Recession in 2008, several theaters – both small and large – have been forced to make significant cuts or changes, or have closed down altogether. To avoid the demise that many theaters have already faced, some other theaters have taken into account what shows they should do as part of their next season, what other kind of programs or fundraisers they may host outside of their Main Stage seasons, as well as some other factors as they try to make sure that they have enough money to keep the doors open for another season after that. And of course, all of what I’ve mentioned is without even referring to how it obviously could affect the level of pay of many professional artists – who do this to pay for rent and groceries – as a result of some hard decisions theater companies have had to make.
It is a sad reality that has affected the decision-making of many people in the theatre community that otherwise might have been different, if not for the prospect of their theatre company shutting down within a year. Sure, I love seeing productions of Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd and Rent just as much as any other theatergoer. However, as I’ve stated many times in previous columns, some musicals are simply too overproduced, and when theaters are forced to stick with the “tried and true” shows each season, it hurts not just playwrights who are seeking opportunities to see their work produced, but also other artists in the theatre community who are craving for the chance to take more creative risks in their work, as well as audience members who are craving something fresh and exciting that they’ve never seen before. I mean no disrespect to any of the theaters that I may be implicitly referring to in this column, but the fact of the matter is that it negatively affects what artists in the theatre community are able to do and what kind of shows audiences will be exposed to, which in turn – in my opinion – could leave great theatre companies as mere empty shells of their former selves, simply fighting to keep their theatre company going for the sake of keeping it going. Let’s all be honest: Is that REALLY something worth fighting for? Shouldn’t we – as people involved in theatre because we strive to create great art – be hoping and fighting for more than just that?
So the question is: “How do all of these issues related to money get resolved?” Well, I’m sure anyone who spends enough time in the theatre world will agree with me when I say that, ironically, the answer is…MORE money. More specifically, in this case, I’m referring to increased funding for the arts. Unfortunately, at a time where funding for the arts is under siege at the state and local level, I don’t see this improving any time soon, at least not until artists start standing up to politicians – regardless of who they are – that refuse to do enough to support arts funding. (In the last gubernatorial election here in Connecticut, for example, I personally didn’t vote for either candidate because neither was particularly friendly to the arts.) But in any case, increased funding for the arts is the only immediate solution that I can think of that would help to solve this problem of several theatre companies being under financial strain.
The bottom line is this: As someone who writes plays, has acted in several of them, worked backstage on quite a few others, and loves to go see them as an audience member when he’s not doing that, I’d love nothing more than to be able to still say that theatre is not about money, but simply about our unconditional love for the art form. It’s why I got into theatre in the first place, and I think that’s the case for most others in the theatre community, as well. However, when theaters across America – big and small – are relying on large amounts ticket sales more than ever…just to be able to stay open, I’m starting to believe – and it makes me very sad to say this – that a big part of why people in theatre have to make certain decisions is so their companies can make money. Not to make profits, mind you. Even if that were why some people were in the theatre industry, it’s hard to be able to do much of that unless this is Broadway we are talking about. I’m just talking about money to survive, so they can continue to try and make more money just to stay afloat, and continue a seemingly endless cycle of relying of money just to stay afloat.
If you ask me, few things can be more depressing to someone who loves theatre than that…