#URStage - Oh, The Artists and the Coal Miners Should Be Friends

Aaron Netsky

OnStage New York Columnist

#URStage is a column devoted to publishing the real world issues facing artists today, on and off the stage. If you are interested in contributing, email us at onstageblog@gmail with #URStage in the subject line. 

I watched the inauguration. I don’t know why, probably for the same reason I felt compelled to watch so much election coverage. The hours devoted to the inauguration on television actually had very little ceremonial stuff and quite a lot of discussion, and political discussion is my favorite background noise. I hold out hope I may hear some pearl of wisdom to help me understand the issues and the outcomes amidst the mostly repetitive observations. And I did.

Something made sense to me in a way it hadn’t been before, perhaps because I was hearing it in a different context. One commentator mentioned the coal miners who voted for the person who said he was going to bring their jobs back instead of the person who promised they would be retrained for the solar energy jobs of the future. She pointed out that they didn’t want to be retrained, that they’ve worked all their lives in jobs they love, often the same jobs as the previous generations of their families, and couldn’t conceive of doing anything else. I suddenly realized how much, as an artist, I could identify with that.

“Safety job” and “security job” are phrases I started hearing a lot when I moved to New York City to pursue a career in theatre. The classic “safety job” for someone who aspires to be an actor is waiter, but it could be any service industry job, from usher to bookseller. And these jobs can hurt, not because there is anything wrong with the job, but because they are not what the actor, or any kind of artist, worked for years and years to prepare to do for the rest of their life. The longer the artist stays in such a job, the more the fear sets in that that thing the artist is most passionate about is slipping away. To put it in language modern musical theatre fans will understand, it feels like they’re going to miss their…shot. Eventually, they start to feel that no matter how much effort they continue to pour into their passions, they may have to settle into something completely different and less satisfying, a terrifying proposition. This is how the coal miners feel about abandoning the mines for solar energy jobs.

Now the artist might argue that fossil fuels is a fossil industry, and it’s going away eventually anyway, and it’s best if we stop draining the planet of its natural resources sooner rather than later to combat global warning, so it’s different and worse for the artist, whose work will always be relevant. But the coal miner might argue that what the artist does is completely frivolous and self-indulgent, and at best it provides some entertainment for the coal miner and other “real Americans,” but in all likelihood what the artist is doing is happening on such a small scale, in such a small pocket of Manhattan or Brooklyn, that it’s not even doing that, and therefore it’s different and worse for the coal miner, who at least puts in a hard day’s labor for a living. This is where we differ. But this is not about where we differ. We know where we differ.

This is about coming together, which everyone on television keeps saying we need to do, but they’re not really saying how. We can find common humanity in our common fear of letting go. Fear is a powerful unifier, and what I realized was fear of not being able to do what I love goes beyond myself and the people on my Facebook feed who are also struggling to get their work noticed. 

When former Vice President Joe Biden was first a senator, he received the following paraphrased advice: question someone’s judgment, not their motives. Certainly, some people did vote for the new president for the wrong reasons, reasons having to do with a blatant disregard for or outright hated of anyone different than them. Those people do exist. But the majority of people who voted for him were like those coal miners: for so long they’ve just gone along with their lives, and now they are expected to change because of the way and the needs of the world. They might even consider what they do an art, their art. And I can understand that, as I face the prospect of having to make my way in the world doing something not related to theatre or writing, which I consider work, and which I’ve worked hard at becoming great at for years and can’t conceive of devoting my time to anything other than. Suddenly, we have something in common, the coal miners and I, and my image of them is a little less fuzzy.

I see a lot about what artists should do in the world we now live in, but one thing should be to try to understand how we got here. Not all art can be a backlash; some of it has to be uncomfortable exploration. A few years ago, the musical Hands on a Hardbody came and went faster than I felt it deserved to, and I think a large part of that had to do with a complete disinterest in the motivations of Texans desperate to win a pick-up truck on the part of people who go see musicals. Broadway audiences missed out on a painfully human score that shook me as much as the score of Fun Home did.

I know artists like to feel like no one understands them, least of all the people who voted for the current president, the people represented by most of the characters in Hands on a Hardbody. But as I wrote above, I keep hearing that we need to come together without any suggestions as to how, so when I saw an opening I had to share. It’s a human drama kind of thing.

Aaron Netsky's writing has also appeared on Slate, Atlas Obscura, TheHumanist.com, Thought Catalog, and Medium. He has written a few novels, one of which could become the definitive musical theatre novel if someone would publish it. He has worked in a variety of jobs off- and off-off-Broadway, most recently on an East Village production of Anna Christie. Check out his personal blogs (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com and http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.