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Theatre: Big Fish, Small Pond

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES Jan/ Feb 2012

Let’s do a case study here; a hypothetical one, but one based on observations over the years of a number of low-level theater professionals.

You start out young. Your mother or a friend or a teacher puts you into your first production. Maybe it’s the school play; maybe it’s a community theater; maybe it’s a church production; whatever it is, you do it. You’re expressing yourself. People are paying attention to you. Your visibility gets a great lift. Your relatives all come to see the show, possibly including people who never paid much attention to you before.

You’re hooked.

You keep going. High school, community, maybe local college productions that need young people. You’re good at it; you’re praised, when you audition, you get cast.

Now your parents are getting seriously worried about you. At first, they liked this new interest of yours; they thought it was good for you to be expressing yourself, taking responsibility, working with others, having contact with adults in a purposeful environment, and so forth. Now they’re seeing their child poised to decide to become a theater artist, and visions of starvation dance in their heads — or, more likely, visions of long-term support past the age of your adulthood dance in their heads. (Parents love their children, but sooner or later, parents want them gone.)

You take the jump to the next level. Now you’re a theater major somewhere. You were lucky; somebody, your guidance counselor, the community theater director, a faculty member at a local college who directed you, somebody gave you good advice about what schools to try for, and helped you get into a good one.

It turns out you are good. Your success continues at this new, higher level. Your skills improve. You mature. You start understanding that this is an art form, that the reason to do it is not the attention it showers on you, though that craving continues undiminished. You start learning to deal with your material in depth, to make it valuable and rewarding to watch you. You branch out; you start directing and designing as well as acting.

With the help of your mentors and peers, you make the jump to actual paid work. Now you can call yourself a theater professional. You don’t make enough money at it to support yourself, but that doesn’t matter — yet. Now things are getting tough. You learn what it’s all about to audition and not get cast, to interview and not get chosen to direct. But you do work; you do get paid; your theatrical income starts to be a pretty significant part of your living. Perhaps you’re also getting some TV or movie work. And yes, you’ve moved; you’re now living in one of the big towns, LA, New York, Chicago.

Time passes. You’re not making progress any more. The level of work you do, and the venues in which you do it, are stagnant. But you’ve gotten involved with a small resident professional company; SPT contract, fly-over country. They like you; you like them, even if it is in fly-over country. Their artistic director retires; they tap you for the job. You’re ecstatic. No more day job! Theater now is your day job!

You move from the big city into fly-over country. Five years on, that’s where you are. Ten years on, that’s where you are.

The audience is stable — read small. The budget is stable — read small. Your income is stable — read small. Are you growing artistically? Is your work of value? Are you making a contribution? Are you a respected artist?

The nagging feeling in the back of your mind is that the answer to these questions just might be — “No.” You meet your local major donors; they think you’re “just fascinating” — read freak. You meet your local high school drama club; they think you’re amazing; you know what they don’t know. You attend your college reunion; your classmates praise you for having toughed it out and stuck by your guns; they sleep at the Hilton, you sleep at the Motel 6.

You’ve topped out; you’ve hit your ceiling.

How do you react?

It took a pretty strong ego to get you this far. Now you give it free rein, and there’s no one to stop you. You convince yourself that your theater, unlike all the other theaters like yours, is special. You have your own way of doing things that’s better than all the others. You do the plays others don’t do. You create work of special value and importance, which is unfairly ignored. Your judgment, taste and skill are at the highest level, even if you choose to stick by the community and the colleagues you have developed.

You have arrived. You are the big fish in the small pond. You make sure you stay that way by making sure that the people who get in at your theater are those who share your opinion of you. You make sure that those who govern your theater appreciate your fine qualities. You go on, and it all becomes a habit; you don’t even know you’re doing it after a while.

Partly this is you, but more importantly it’s the effect of the circumstances of the industry you work in. You aren’t alone; most of the people who work in the business are in the same boat you are, and for the same reasons, and with about the same reaction. The industry is so fragmented, so chaotic, so unsuccessful in paying its own way that almost all career paths through it are dead ends, as yours is. It is, essentially, a lottery at every level; equal talents and abilities do not rise equally. It is fundamentally, deeply unhealthy; unhealthy for the work, unhealthy for the people. You have come to the end of your road in it as a big fish in a small pond, with all the personal damage that entails, but both those above you and those below you display the same symptoms: the highly developed ego, the high level of denial, the underlying profound frustration.

There have been, and there are, times and places where your art, and the other arts as well, did not function in such an unhealthy way. It may be possible to change the situation. It may be possible to change your society to the point where artists are respected, where viable career paths exist, where a populace exists that understands and values artistic creativity in adulthood. All this may come to be. It’s probably too late for you, but some of those young people you talk to at the high school drama club, who are so highly impressed with you, may see it, if enough of the right sort of work is done.

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