Wednesday, April 18, 2007

a mark, a yen, a buck, or a pound ... or a comp to a showcase?

AEA has this policy that requires any production operating under a showcase agreement (employing AEA members without pay [they are required to give a transportation stipend]) to offer 1 comp ticket at the box office to any current AEA member.

Of course, the same policy does not apply to Broadway productions - any production where significant financial resources are involved and ticket prices are high. It applies exclusively to self-producing scenarios, where everyone is scrambling to find the money and space to present their work in the first place. Is that, therefore, all the more reason for me to put $20 into my friend's pocket (or the pocket of whoever it is that's actually holding the purse strings) if I can or, since it's a labor of love in the first place and no one's expecting to make any sort of profit, it doesn't matter either way?

Under any Bay Area Project Policy agreement, AEA members are entitled to comps - the BAPP is the Bay Area equivalent of the showcase agreement. Since I was non-Equity for the majority of my time in SF, I was never in the situation of turning up at the box office and demanding a comp - comps were either offered to me or they weren't, I had a friend in the box office or I didn't, I ushered or helped out or something; but never did I flash a union card to people I didn't know and say, "I'd like to go in for free." And because I was working there and connected to that community, I never felt ambivalent about accepting comps - it seemed a part of a project we were all in together. Some nights at foolsFURY and Shotgun it seemed like half the house was comped, but the box office sales never had an effect on my stipend and, of course, we tried to sell as many tickets as possible; but, ultimately, the real goal was getting butts in seats by any means...and the real money to make the work, I had the sense, came from grants and donations. And we ALWAYS passed the hat after the show - something I don't think I've EVER seen in NY. Is that because in NY everyone's a "professional" or "aspiring professional" and theater professionals aren't buskers in the subway and so don't pass around hats unless they're soliciting for Broadway Cares? Is it because people love the notion of grass-roots art in SF? Is it because there's less pretending and posturing there about the economic reality of theater? In SF I frequently made use of reciprocal comp agreements between companies as a foolsFURY member or a Berkeley Rep understudy, I got comped at the Magic all the time because I was a lit committee member. Berkeley Rep and Marin Theatre Company participated in them, Cal Shakes and ACT generally don't. And in SF, there's a sort of general community vibe - people pay for tickets when they can, people comp their friends... And, of course, if you're an actor and you've worked at Company X in the recent past, you probably didn't receive very much money for so doing, so Company X is often more than happy to give you a ticket to their next show in return. I can't begin to count the number of shows that were donation-only, suggested admission, no one turned away for lack of funds. Shows that had a "pay what you can" night every week. And these were shows in theaters, shows getting reviewed by papers, "serious" shows, not just things in people's living rooms or what have you. Even ACT and Cal Shakes have student tickets and pay-what-you-can nights. And the student tickets are, you know, half off and you can generally sit anywhere that's available. I wonder how much of that attitude is attributable to a larger difference in perspective and size in the SF and NY markets. Almost no one in SF is operating under the pretense that they will, in fact, make a living doing theater there, so no one bothers, really, to pretend that money has all that much to do with the theater they make. In NY, however, it's a different story - very nearly everyone is trying to succeed in the business of theater and so discussions of comps and so forth, no matter how minute, seem to have greater resonance.

Last month I saw a show featuring someone I'd just met at the Tank at Collective Unconscious. I stood at the box office deliberating over whether to ask for a comp or pay. The director and producer of the event was at the box office and I discussed with her my ambivalence about it and she said, "by all means, have a comp...I mean, we're using Equity actors and not paying them so it all evens out, right?" Incidentally, someone ended up having an extra ticket so he gave it to me - I didn't end up paying for one, but I also didn't take an official "Equity comp".

The thing is, in response to the aforementioned box office-stationed director/producer: at the moment, my relationship to AEA is so phenomenally abstract. I go to the AEA audition lounge, I present my card at various places, sometimes accruing a discount as a result, and I audition. I'm not getting insurance right now, I'm not working on a full contract...I'm just kind of... _sensing_ my union membership as opposed to, I don't know, _actively participating_ in it. All the theater-making I'm doing at the moment is unaffected by my union status.

I've been pondering all this stuff for quite some time and Malachy Walsh's recent musings on theater, class, and entitlement made me want to throw my two genuine, if not especially articulate or conclusive, cents into the discussion.

Not too long ago, J Ed Araiza from the SITI Company asked a bunch of us to come up with aphorisms beginning with "Art is...". I misheard him and thought he'd asked us to create aphorisms for the artist so I came up with, "Flowers you've shit on make a stinky bouquet." And then I tried to generate one beginning with "Art is" and I couldn't, so I just left it at that (which works, even if it is a bit of a cop out). Anyway, someone else in the group said, "Art is something you don't neeed, but that, for some reason, the artist thinks is valuable and you should have it." Or something to that effect.

Someone I met recently, a director who also moved to NY from SF, said to me, "The level of talent in NY is so incredibly high. It's great - I can get unbelievably talent actors who would give their right arm just to be in an unpaid showcase here." I thought, "that's a tragic, not great." We have this huge glut of actors in NY who are, not only hungry for money, but just hungry to make work under any be cast in _something_ because, unless you're a full-time solo artist, you need other people to make theater happen. And along with the system of, hopefully, getting paid, actors are also participating in a system where "success" means getting hired - getting selected out of a group of competitors - by someone else. And I am grateful for my collaborators and community in the Bay Area that encouraged me to be an actor who cultivates creative partnerships to create work under whatever circumstances, not just one who auditions and waits for someone to pick me. Somestimes I think about what might have happened if I'd started here - how much of what I did and didn't do artistically would have been determined by some set of inherited expectations about financial success, professional success, and career rather than the freedom to explore what interested me artistically. And I'm not even talking about the logistical, how-am-I-going-to-feed-myself-and-pay-the-rent questions; but simply the paradigm in which unpaid work is less valuable work, in which artists who don't make a living at their art equal less talented or "unprofessional" artists - how would that have affected me? I'm glad that I started in a market (see how pervasive it all is?) a _place_ where I felt safely distanced from those ideas...where it seemed that I was surrounded by "retired young people" (as the saying goes) and dedicated mainstays who'd chosen NOT to live in NY or LA, who made art because they loved making art, not because they loved making money from their art. Of course, that's why everyone I know in NY makes art too, but it's easy to lose track of that sometimes in such a big, materialistic, money-driven city. And the pressure to "succeed" in the financial, material, I make-my-living-in-theater sense is that much greater here because the dream or the expectation that you actually can is very much alive and the competition is huge and the housing market is insane and...

What do you think?