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Nathan Thomas
The Richness of What We Do
Scene4 Magazine-inView

July 2012

Snapshots . . .

* Recently I visited Metropolis (the city so nice . . .) and stood in an express subway car.  Three young men had followed me into the car.  One guy had a boom box, the other two bounced along with boom-box-guy.  The doors shut.  The guys announced a show was about to begin.  In a second the boom box, true to its name, boomed.  All three guys did some amazing dancing for two minutes. Some mild applause actually came from a few jaded mid-towners.  One of the guys caps came off, and a few dollars came into the cap.  The subway arrived at 14th St.  The guys moved to the next car for the next show.  I admired the men for their chutzpah, their skill, and their entrepreneurship.  

* Recently my wife, my toddler daughter, and I piled into the car and drove to a not-too-distant big field for a hot air balloon launch.  Five bucks a car.  A buck fifty for fresh lemonade made right in front of your eyes. We sat in the shade of a few trees on a slope next to the field, enjoyed the cool breezes, and sat agog at the sheer spectacle of delicate silk several stories in height take rather large men into the open blue of an afternoon sky.

* A typical weekday morning.  I listen to gasbags talk politics on cable news while we get ready for work or school.  The day after Wisconsin's governor won a recall election, many gassed about unions.  Not a single cable news employee mentioned whether or not they themselves were members of AFTRA and had access to union health care benefits or pension benefits.  (Yes, I'm talking about you, Joe.)

* The history of the word "rich" has to do with power – not wealth. It's simply that over time to have one implies the other.  The powerful person without wealth is either Ghandi or a saint.  The wealthy person without power is an oxymoron.

Let's take a brief look at the history of entertainment economics. I hope to draw your attention to a few salient points.

Theatre that we might recognize today in the West probably starts in Athens.  At a big city festival, after a great civic barbecue, people watch a few days of plays. The playwrights engage in competition. The performances are sponsored by wealthy citizens who put up the money for each competing playwright to mount a production.  This sponsorship appears to both be "expected" of the wealthy as well as a matter of civic pride to sponsor a competitor.  Largely the same holds true in early imperial Rome – a wealthy citizen or wealthy family sponsors ludi – "games," "plays," death matches, what-you-will.

So we had "angels" as we have today.

The theatre did not disappear during the so-called "Middle Ages."  It dispersed.  Jugglers, jongleurs, troubadours, and talent of every kind continued to work.  Some in the same way as my subway entrepreneurs worked – they found some willing folks, put on a show, and passed a hat.  They went to the big house and sang for their supper.  They taught a waiting gentlewoman the latest new dances.

Over time many European – particularly English – towns performed religious plays, pageants, and cycles.  The economic support in many cases came from union money – the guilds provided the means by which these entertainments came to pass.

So, essentially the citizenry of the town – or the town itself (if you think of a town as a corporate unit) – or the government, if you're willing to stretch your notion of government – provided backing for civic entertainment.  As some cities, counties, states, and countries do today.

Shakespeare's England is anomalous.  A group of men came together and formed a company of share-holders.  These men shared in the profits.  And, in Shakespeare's company particularly, each shareholder got multiple slices of the pie.  Shakespeare acted.  He sold plays to the company.  He joined with the Burbages in being a landlord of the property in which they performed – so he got a bit of rent.  One of the guys was a member of the grocer's guild, so he got a big chunk of the concession trade.  Costs were minimal.  So, many of these men were able to accumulate real wealth.  (Look at Edward Alleyn's legacy to Dulwich College.)

As the Enlightenment started, entertainers became the "help."  Rarely shareholders, actors became wage earners, often not getting much of a wage. Set "free" from the responsibilities of coming up with the money to mount a show, the actors got much less of the money once the show sold tickets.  The per performance pay system came to be the norm.  Much as it is today.

The great leap forward of the early 20th century was Equity and then SAG.  An actor couldn't be held at no pay in rehearsal for months at a time.  An actor couldn't be abandoned somewhere in the middle of nowhere because the tour producer skedaddled.  An actor wouldn't be forced to continue acting into their late years simply to keep from starving.

What can we gather from this?   

One, the Elizabethans had it figured out.  A small rep company of professional actors with one of them being a genius playwright made some money.

Two, frankly, you don't want to get into the arts for the money.  If you want money, sell Amway.  Or insurance. A very few folks get real money from the arts, but mostly not.  A person can make a decent living in the arts, but it's hard work and labor.

The bigger point is that a life in the arts has almost always meant trouble.  More people have lost money in the arts.  Supposedly Sophocles' family took him to court because they wanted to make out that he couldn't be trusted to handle his own affairs.  That's Sophocles – the guy who wrote Oedipus.  Can the rest of us expect better?

A young man sits on a wooden bench 2,500 years ago or in dim light today and sees a king who rips out his own eyes  at the horror of killing his own father and marrying his own mother.  The young man's life is changed.  The power of story.  The power of a group of folks  -- a slight few at the avant-garde work or the thousands in a huge barn of an entertainment palace – coming together to experience a story together; that power is real.   

If you're reading this column, chances are it's because you have some connection to the arts.  Although I tend to write most about theatre, much is also true of music, opera, and dance.  Think of the power you have experienced sitting at a performance.  Think of the times you've felt that power – the power of being moved, of being changed.

That's the power you want to give to your next audience.  That's the power you want to pass on to the next generation of performers and audiences. That's the power that somehow lasts deep in the heart and soul.

Power without wealth is Ghandi or saints.  Not bad company.


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©2012 Nathan Thomas
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives



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July 2012

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