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LD On The DL: The Dysfunction Between Theater and Money

Schools and universities churn out students who want to make theater their career -- from actors to designers, from onstage to backstage. These institutions impart our next generation with extraordinary skill sets, the totality of which is too great to adequately delineate here. However, one skill always seems to get missed. My business partner and my school missed it, many of our friends' schools missed it, and the folks I'm seeing graduate today don't have it either. We are not teaching this next generation how to have a career in the theater and a functional, healthy relationship with money. The consequences for the individual, the theater company, and theater as an institution are far reaching and not very positive.

The first sentence you probably heard at the start of your career in theater was, “You do it because you love it. Not because you will make any money.” This common phrase bears a closer look. It's a perfectly innocuous statement to all the volunteer theaters or little theaters across the nation. These programs are staffed with people who have day jobs, or whose incomes are not or ever will be theatrically dependent. However, to aspiring theater professionals it's a kick in the gut. What the individual learns is to divorce the relationship between a career, in this case theater, and money. That's not a good lesson.

For one it doesn't even make any sense. But apart from the sheer absurdity of it, secondly, you call into question the definition of “career.” An activity one invests time, skill, and money into without expectation of pay is a hobby. Why would anyone get a four year degree or a masters for a hobby? Three, the internal dynamic created over time promotes burn out and leads to staggering attrition. The young theater professional must earn money elsewhere, since theater and money were artificially separated long ago, in sectors of the economy not pertinent to his or her training. That wears on most people, who abandon theater for a job where career and money are still happily married. The result of this dysfunction always ends similarly for the individual: the former theater professional moves on. “I guess I just don't love it after all,” they'll say, as if the notion of fair compensation for services rendered is somehow inappropriate when, in fact, it underpins our entire economy and way of life.

The effect of this dysfunction is bad enough for the individual, however, for the young theater company it leads to even more trouble. The first definition of “company” in the dictionary reads, “A commercial business.” For the rest of the economy the purpose of forming a company boils down to one thing: making money. A company, any type of company, with a dysfunctional relationship to money is a rudderless ship in a variety of ways.

For starters I see actors form theater companies to do, “Work we want to do.” However, they lack any formal training regarding budgeting, fiscal policy, or other generic business skills. The notion one needs little to no business experience to form an actual business is naive and short sighted. Without training in common business techniques, how can the young company be expected to survive? Often, it doesn't.

Secondly, because of this dysfunction the theater company ignores the most useful metric to gauge effectiveness, i.e., money. Can anyone imagine an ad firm saying, “It's the unsophisticated audiences' fault this campaign didn't make any money?” Of course not.

Third, by not focusing on money theater companies rely on talkbacks as their main source of metrics. This is hardly an effective approach. The grouping of like minded people from a particular community giving honest, unbiased feedback regarding work seems awfully unlikely, and perhaps a little incestuous. Ad firms don't ask other ad firms if their work makes sense; it doesn't matter if it makes sense to them. Talkbacks do typically generate lots of love and good feelings. Unfortunately, love and good feelings do not pay the bills or offer real guidance about the young company's direction or staying power. Success cannot be everyone “loving the show,” while the company posts large losses on the production.

Finally, the formation of a company requires real dollars; I've seen people cash out their IRAs to mount a production. If money is this dysfunctional subject nobody speaks of, then probably nobody asked what the ROI is of mounting this show or starting a company. I do not know of a business plan that asks investors for money in return for love and good feelings anywhere but in the performing arts. Rather, it'd be better to keep the IRA intact and produce accessible, pertinent work other people actually want to see and, thus, are likely to pay for.

The story of the young theater company ends much like the story of the young, individual theater professional. At some point the actual toll of this endeavor becomes apparent, burnout ensues, and the company disappears having cost the individuals something even more precious than money: time and spirt.

I think this dysfunction has far reaching, negative consequences for theater as an institution. I don't have to make the case for a vibrant theater to this crowd. I think we know its potential, most of us got our start there. In our world of powerful, divisive media outlets we are a country with seemingly insurmountable, manufactured, ideological differences. We need and I think yearn to feel connected to each other more than ever. Theater specifically, and the performing arts in general, can be that glue. However, not if our young professionals are burning out by 30. Not if our theater companies, industrial machines for telling our shared story, lack the tools to survive in our economic system. Not when we train our people to ignore the primary means needed for long term survival, money. Nobody but the large, divisive media outlets are saying anything.

This pattern of dysfunction between professional theater and money needs to be broken - for our young professionals, our young companies, and for the theater as a whole. Our colleges and universities are the best place to break the cycle, teaching the next generation to embrace, use, and function effectively with money. Money should empower us, money should enable us, money should validate us for a job well done. It is not the enemy.

Our naiveté of it is.


Lance Darcy is a Lighting Director and Director of Photography for The Lighting Design Group, based in New York City

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