Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Theatre and Labor Relations

There's some back-story reading necessary to provide context for this post, but, it's interesting stuff, so check it out:

Mike Daisy wrote and performs "How Theatre Failed America" and if you don't know what that is, you've got a lot more reading to do if you wanna catch up. Google it.

Teresa Eyring wrote this editorial response in the current issue of American Theatre

Mike Daisy wrote this reply.

This is what i think about it:

In these contrasting opinions I've noticed something bigger than the questions about theatre being presented. I really really like a lot of what Mike Daisy says, most of it is stuff that was obvious to me as soon as I started producing theatre and it's great to have my perspective validated by someone much more connected to the "real" theatre world.

But, i strongly disagree with Daisy's claim that theatre artists are entitled to benefits and garaunteed long-term employment. Eyring's claim that this problem doesn't exist is specious for the reasons Daisy points out, but it does open the door for my conclusion: theatre should not provide such things.

I look at these things from an economic trends perspective. The institutional patronage system that Daisy is looking for is old school capitalism. He seems to want the theatre artists to become "The Company Man". That's regressive. Corporations are doing that less in every sector because innovators found greater efficiency in loose freelance, subcontracting and flextime arrangements. Trying to establish (or re-establish) old school capitalism on theatre artists where it seems doubly inappropriate given casting and the project orientated nature of theatre work, is bound to fail, as it should be.

It was the creative class that spearheaded this rearrangement of labor relations, and yes, the transition is sloppy, leaves people out of things like health insurance and benefits, but as labor relations go, freelancing and shifting employment can empower workers as well as benefiting companies. What's more, it's a radically different labor relation, which is a step toward a post-capitalist society, something i think theatre will be VERY invovled in.


Art said...

Hi There,

I first saw your comment on Leonard's post and left a comment.

I thought I would leave the same comment here.

I really like what you say here, but I disagree to a certain extent. The best, most innovative corporations are still trying to find ways to KEEP their most valued creative employees.

You are correct: The younger, creative workforce is much more mobile and it is not uncommon for 20-30 year old creative workers to leave and return to companies, (with three or four years in between,) and one of the most recent statistics said that the average gen-mil/gen-Y spends about 1.1 years at a job.

However, the most innovative and forward looking companies are the ones who succeed in trying to secure the best talent.

While it is true that we are increasingly living in a "consultant" culture, it is also true that innovators want the creative people working for them as employees.

You think theatre would be regressive by doing this? Ask Netflix who would routinely tell headhunters: "Money is no object."

Companies like Google are constantly finding ways to lift corporate impediments to creativity.

Of course, this is all about the pursuit of excellence as well. Which is why this whole thing cannot be looked at as apples to apples.

There is a bottom line in the companies I am talking about here. But what is the bottom line in the arts?

Art said...

Hi Rex,

By the way,

I really like the blog and just added you to my blogroll.

Scott Walters said...

Hi Rex! I agree with almost everything Arts says AND that you say -- which is weird.

Let me say this: the parallel between theatre and business is not perfect. I like the analogy, and I must confess I find a lot more inspiration and commitment to innovation in the business section of the bookstore than in the theatre section, and I really liked "Free Agent Nation," but... well, I believe that the best theatre is done by an ensemble of people who work together over time, not the one-and-done pattern of today's theatre scene.

One of the big changes of the post-capitalist world is that, instead of being company men, people have become entrepreneurs. I like that, and I think that attitude needs to form the basis for a new way of doing things, where theatre artists aren't hired by outside people but rather produce and manage their own work as partners. To me, that's the real development in our economy and in our theatre scene.

R. Winsome said...

Hey, thanks for commenting.

Art, if corporations are looking for ways to retain creative employees, that seems to bolster my point that freelancing and freewheeling is empowering the modern creative worker. Netflix trying to retain talented workers with big bribes are also regressive, and they will ultimately fail. The best and brightest creatives don't wanna work for a single company their whole lives. The modern worker is this way because big paychecks aren't the only thing that matters to them, doing interesting work is more important. It's the artist mentality and it's bleeding over to the rest of society. Which is why this shift in labor relations is revolutionary.

I think the big well-funded theatre companies doing published works oughta go with the flow here. I agree with Mike that the asshole administrators have to stop building new buildings, pandering to aging audiences, and treating the artists like a second priority, but i think the change oughta be just paying artists more so they can afford their own health insurance and the other costs of freelancing. Maybe we can get national healthcare, then the point is moot, eh?

Scott, there is definitely a place for ensamble companies as well. Many of my favorite companies are ensambles, my company is a hybrid, and there definitely should be more small groups of artists creating new works collaboratively written and developed with the cast in workshop, but i think it's going to be a long time before there are enough Missoula Oblongatas to replace "normal" theatre companies. Also, i bet Missoula Oblongata would greatly benefit if their works were picked up and produced by sedentary companies after they are finished with them.

We need more of what you're advocating, but what you're advocating shouldn't- probably can't- entirely replace sedentary companies who produce established work. The two forms should find a mutually beneficial balance.

Also, why can't an ensamble come together for one or two big projects, then fall apart and come together with new members and new purpose for the next couple? One or two core people can start these projects, bring back whoever they've worked with in the past who is available and appropriate to the new project, and keep the mantle alive without being bound to changing personal lives and priorities.

Scott Walters said...

You raise a good point. One of the mistakes I think many ensembles make is being too small. I think there should be a large number who reconfigure according to the project. And I want ensemble members to be entrepreneurial about projects, so that they come up with projects that explore something that they're interested in, and they make it happen.

Art said...

Netflix trying to retain talented workers with big bribes are also regressive, and they will ultimately fail. The best and brightest creatives don't wanna work for a single company their whole lives.

Hi Rex,

Your statement above over- simplifies my point.

Netflix and other companies are not just paying more money, they are offering work on the most cutting edge and forward looking projects.

Believe me, (I am recruiter by day for almost 10 years,)creatives will work for the same company for 50 years if they can continue to be challenged, get the respect of their peers, are provided with the best technology and the company continues to adapt to new ways of working.

Even in the new economy, ome of the most brilliant engineers and designers will work for a single company of the likes of Raytheon, Boeing, NASA, for their entire careers. (Yes, that will include some Gen-Y and now Gen-Mil types.)

Netflix, while going up and down in stock occasionally, has successfully fought off Wal-Mart, Blockbuster and is currently in a fight, (possibly to the death,) with On-Demand Cable providers.

These types of challenges motivate and energize creative innovators.

Remember, I said that I disagreed with you to a "certain extent." :)

Some of your statments I am on board with.

R. Winsome said...

Art, excellent response. Thank you.

It seems that Netflix et al (google is probably an even better example) are retaining talent by contuinously offering new and exciting projects to the workers. These things are probably more attractive to the creative worker than benefits and paychecks. To some degree these companies have to re-invent themselves to keep the best and the brightest excited about working there.

Which begs two questions: 1. if we generalize that, what will it do the the economy at large? and 2. if we bring it back to theatre, where does that leave us?

in regards to #1: it seems to me that if more and more of the workforce values excitement and challenging projects over benefits and patronage there are two ways their needs can be met. One is switching jobs frequently, the other is companys reinventing themselves to fullfill that need. I have a gut feeling that the former will become the trend that defines the new society.

On the second, less tangental point: what theatre company can follow the netflix model? Who can pay actors tons and give them benefits, and take on risky challenging work? With today's theatre audience? i doubt anyone can.

Art said...


To answer the 1st question: What will it do the economy at large?

It could be scary. As Richard Florida points out in his books, the danger of increasing inequality and class separation is great.

He has excellent example: The young creative hitting the all night coffee shop to fire up the laptop and work on an exciting project might be making 100K plus with a possible bonus, but the waitress and the busboy at the same shop are making 10 dollars an hour on the third shift.

To answer your last question, I just want to make sure that we are on the same page:

I DON'T think theatre and business are the same. I'm not sure the Netflix or Google model will help us.

But we CAN learn from the most innovative and progressive businesses.

Remember, THEY are stealing our best ideas from us.

As I point out to people: See that funky looking person on the subway, the one rocking out to a song on that interesting looking I-pod thingy? Remember that person who came up and asked you to shoot some video of you with that new model, miniature vidcam?

You may have been a victim of stealth marketing. Coopted from Augusto Boal and company by big business.

R. Winsome said...

Art, i think Richard Florida's prediction stands in the short term, and under the assumption that the rest of capitalism will stand. I don't think that's the case though. That systems is crumbling and going through it's final death throes. If freelancing is a new labor relationship, then that is a fundamental change of one of the defining relationships of the economic system. This new relationship replaces wage slavery. There are also new products (the fastest growing sector of the economy is arts and entertainment) new processes (virtual reproduction) new property relations (piracy and collective commons liscences) and new relationships between the product and the end user (citizen consumers). These changes constitute a difference at least as big as the difference between the feudal mode of production and the capitalist one. The big companies will only steal our ideas and co-opt our talent for as long as the monarchs co-opted the capitalists through merchantilism. Once artists are organized and aware of our real position in society, we'll tear down the political system just as inevitably as the revolutionary wars that accompanied the rise of capitalism. What follows after that is very difficult to predict, but i expect the replacement system to be less hard-wired for inequality.

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Ben Turk said...

Re-reading this years later, after touring like crazy with a couple of DIY projects, (see insurgenttheatre.org) and moving into an egalitarian community, my statements feel pretty naive.

The business world already controls and has adjusted to the new labor relationships. Other worlds and forms of life have been readily available for decades. Transition doesn't need to develop a new society or political economy, we just need to drop out of the old one and into new ones that already exist and are clamoring for members.

When we get past our white artist privilege, we'll see that the state exerts massive control over the population in this country. The US has the highest incarceration rate and the largest police budgets in the world. It is not a free country or a democracy, and artists can only have a positive role in revolution if they cease to prioritize art and instead prioritize politics and connect with and make themselves useful to communities of resistance.

Any artist who takes money from the state (without conning them and re-directing the money to legal support or resources for the resistance) is a sneak, a snitch, a scab, and (perhaps most devastatingly) a lousy artist. American art that does not recognize, reflect and attempt to resist the US police state is ignorant and superficial crap. It is not a hammer to shape society, NOR a mirror to reflect it, it is alienated navel gazing to distract and passify society. This shallowness oughta be unacceptable to serious art communities.

Richard Florida is right about growing inequality, but he doesn't look at the full injustice of it. For example, middle class white kids are getting recognized and attracting investment into formerly poor neighborhoods by doing "street art". This is an appropriation of graffiti, which used to be markers of gang territory, a sign to stay out of that neighborhood. Look at it, the creativity of poor urban black people is plagiarized by middle class white people and thus becomes a tool of gentrification, of taking peoples homes away and incarcerating them. Artists need to recognize and take responsibility for this shit.