Theatre As Commodity: Saving Our Industry By Undoing Our Worst Mistake

We are a luxury good. And that? That’s not a compliment. It’s a calamity.

Chris Quintos in The Chalk Boy by Joshua Conkel at my theatre, Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Theatre is a shared artistic experience, both in its creation process and in its performance. In human history this shared artistic experience has been framed in a multitude of ways — as ritual, as religious observance, as entertainment, as propaganda, as resistance. And while it has been — and will continue to be — all these things in modern America, what it is primarily for us is a commodity. Framing theatre as a commodity is at the root of every major problem we have.

In 1954, we made a pretense of detaching art from commodification by the establishment of the nonprofit tax category, enabling nonprofit companies to collect tax-deductible donations & generate income without having to pay corporate income tax. Like absolutely everything else, this has primarily benefited the privileged.

Systemic racism, sexism, ableism, and transphobia are inextricably bound to classism and the commodification of the arts. All of these problems need to be addressed at once.

INDIVIDUALS

The number of people making a living in the theatre is vanishingly small, and able-bodied white cis men are widely overrepresented. Most theatre is small, local, and underground, dominated by women and BIPOC who make almost nothing doing it. Well-funded theatres reach into this community occasionally and pluck out its white men while sourcing the majority of its hires from the same tiny handful of MFA programs that are the gated communities of the theatre world. While this has improved somewhat in the past ten(ish) years, it has improved at a glacially slow pace, in part because the commodification of theatre at all levels roadblocks progress and makes gatekeeping the far easier choice.

At every step on that journey, there are roadblocks for women, BIPOC, people with disabilities, and trans people. Economic disenfranchisement has long been a tool to protect privilege, and we have upheld that systemic injustice because the problems seem too big to solve. Whose family can afford theatre tickets, who gets arts education in schools, who can afford to attend an MFA program, who can afford to work for below-poverty-level wages before landing that LORT gig — and for many, especially women, BIPOC, people with disabilities, and trans people, after that LORT gig is over — all gatekeep who is able to become “professional.”

Imagine calling a doctor who runs a free clinic an “amateur doctor” or an attorney who works exclusively pro bono an “amateur attorney.” This is absurd; medicine and law rigorously control who is licensed to practice their craft as a “professional” based on education and experience. In theatre, we base this purely on income. How many weeks you were employed at a theatre with an AEA contract, which itself is based on income, determines who is a “professional.” These “professional” gigs are given disproportionately to white, able-bodied, cis men, weaponizing our art form against women, BIPOC, people with disabilities, and trans/nonbinary/GNC people.

ORGANIZATIONS

A small handful of companies, almost all run by able-bodied cis white men, collect the majority of the available funding. The importance, value, and prominence of a theatre organization is based on its annual budget. If your annual budget is below a certain amount, you quite literally don’t count — your stats are left out of every major study and your needs and concerns are left out of every initiative. Only theatres with a certain level of income qualify for inclusion in “the theatre.”

Theatres with incomes below a certain threshold are considered “amateur,” and beneath consideration. The more money a theatre has, the more power and influence it has. Considerations of quality or artistic experimentation are a distant second behind who is able to pay people the most money. That’s an important consideration — people should be paid fairly for their labor — but it should not be the primary evaluation of an organization’s worth. And of course, which organizations are given funding and how those decisions are made are steeped in the commodification of our art, which is bound to systemic inequities. Studies show that companies run by BIPOC get less funding; boards consider a candidate’s ability to bring in high-level donors a primary (if not THE primary) consideration in hiring and retaining Artistic Directors; grants are often given to white-run and abled-run theatres that do “outreach” to BIPOC and disabled communities rather than give funding to the smaller companies that are already doing that work. And so on.

AUDIENCES

Audiences are hounded for donations after paying an exorbitant amount of money for tickets. It’s shocking to charge $40 for a single ticket to a single performance when $40 will buy you a pair of padded, reclining seats with cupholders in a movie theatre, and no matter how you try to excuse it with “theatre is a unique experience,” “live performance is inherently more valuable,” or “it costs much more to produce than $40 a seat,” that’s a tough sell to the average overworked, underpaid American with very little free time and even less free money and we know it. We all know it. At the end of the movie, no one comes out and asks you to put even more money into a basket; no one emails you once a week forever after asking for money.

Theatre IS a unique experience; it DOES cost more than $40 a seat to produce. And yet the cost to attend is prohibitively high. Half price tickets for people under 30 is an expired Tylenol that theatre found in the bottom of its purse when what it needs is major surgery.

And what are you all thinking right now? You’re thinking, “$40 is cheap; most companies charge much more.”

FUNDING

We charge these kinds of prices because we must in order to survive. The truth is that most of us are barely surviving.

As a producer, I often heard, “If you can’t afford to pay everyone (amount), you shouldn’t be producing theatre.” This is the “let them eat cake” of the arts world. “Only the wealthiest theatres should be producing” is not the solution we need. “Just get more funding,” also something I was told over and over, isn’t a real answer. It’s magical thinking. There is no more funding.

We don’t just need more funding. We need better funding. Funding needs to be more practically and usefully conceptualized.

Right now, funding is based entirely on a for-profit, commodification model. We are supposed to imagine that we are selling a product to an audience. We should charge that audience as much as possible, pushing the limits of what the market will bear, and still work relentlessly to “upsell” them, to convince them to give us even more in donations. We do everything we can — we are forced to do everything we can — to cater to a wealthy audience, to keep them happy, to keep their wallets open.

We are a luxury good. And that? That’s not a compliment. It’s a calamity.

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. And decoupling our art from commodification requires decoupling our art from the systems of hierarchical privilege that are bound together with it.

We need money to survive, and by “we” I mean both our companies and our individuals. Right now, in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, our industry — along with the rest of the US economy — is contracting, and there’s no way to know who or how many will survive. It’s a terrifying time. In many ways, it feels like now is not the time to address these major, systemic issues. But I think now, while everything is in flux, while most of our industry is paused, is exactly the time to create a better, more sustainable future.

We need to imagine ways in which our art is not valued by its success as a commodity, at every level.

Imagine more equitable funding. Imagine removing financial gatekeeping from grant applications. Imagine not caring if the money is “used well,” defined by the creation of a successful commodity. Imagine paying theatremakers a salary because they are theatremakers, whether they are part of a company, a production, or not. Imagine funding for operating costs, removing the need to lie on grant applications that all funding goes to production costs for that one sexy world premiere. Imagine funding playwrights because they are theatremakers, not because they wrote a sexy world premiere starring a celebrity. Imagine not caring about celebrity. Imagine free college and free MFA programs, including housing, ending MFA gatekeeping, then imagine fully funded arts programming in our public K-12 system, funding that’s centralized and untouchable, unable to be cannibalized for higher admin salaries at the local level by firing teachers and canceling programs. Imagine every child in America having arts classes. Imagine widening the definition of “arts” to include non-European art forms. Imagine kathakali being as valued as ballet. Imagine performance being as valued as STEM. Imagine capping all tickets nationally at the price of a movie. Imagine being able to make a career in theatre even if you didn’t marry an attorney or an engineer, even if your parents aren’t wealthy, even if you have no inheritance. Imagine how the entirety of our industry would change if access to its creation was no longer determined by income.

Imagine the circle of theatremakers, including funders, all looking at each other and saying, “We have decided to care for one another, as one community, to protect theatre as a shared human experience rather than a dog-eat-dog construct that values the privileged only.”

Systemic change is a challenge in theatre because we’re not just one field. We are multiple fields that collaborate to produce our deeply collaborative art form. Systemic change requires buy-in from funders, from donors, and from theatremakers simultaneously.

Every corner of our industry values the economically privileged. Our culture has spent generations disenfranchising people who are not able-bodied cis white men and creating systems based on the values, beliefs, needs, and desires of those able-bodied cis white men. Anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-genderist, anti-ableist work must be done as such, and it must be done in tandem with reshaping the commodification mindset and rejecting economic privilege as a core value, from playwriting to closing night.

Next up: That’s big talk, Melissa. Just how do we achieve this?

YOUR TURN

I have my ideas, but I want this effort to be collaborative. I want to hear from you as well. What are the ways in which you think theatre should be decoupled from commodification? Do you think theatre should be decoupled from commodification? Or is there a different solution? Email bittergertrude@gmail.com with your thoughts to include in my follow-up post.

Originally published on bittergertrude.com

PhD, D&D DM, Disabled Cyborg, lifelong educator & theatremaker now working as a JEDI consultant (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion).

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