As the Pandemic came to an end and theatres re-opened, I found myself on the guest list to many a premiere and opening night, along with many of my colleagues from the theatre scene. At first it was glorious, always one reunion after another, but soon enough a lot of the old issues began to emerge: the rivalries, the snobberies, the competitiveness, the drama. I found myself getting caught up in it too, no better than anyone else, but trying to pay attention to how, and why, in hopes that I could do better, if not perfectly. Shortly after an opening night at ACT, which was for a play written by someone I used to be in festivals and black box tier with, I found myself walking home despondent, since my own theater had closed just the past season, and more small theaters were looking to go down as well. Recognizing that many folks had jumped ship long before I had- and to their advantage- I indulged in some contemplation about it all. Since writing this, some good things have happened, and opportunities have certainly come my way, something I try to always be grateful for. But part of this art form is never feeling like you have achieved quite enough, and like, being only as good as your last success, you can never be successful enough to actually be “good.”
It’s hard to be an artist, okay?
And like, I get it, from the outside we could not be a more fragile, self-serving, navel-gazing, circle jerking, socially maladjusted group of social climbers and you would not actually be wrong about any of that but I do believe that most of us are in this because we have something to say and this very real belief that we can help by saying it.
Or at the very least, by distracting you for a while.
It’s hard, being an artist, in America. Like, first it’s hard being an artist anywhere, but in America we tend to make it harder. Sure, by not paying Artists, or paying them very little, but really by pitting them against one another, creating a culture of scarcity where they must not only compete for audiences, but opportunities to get in front of audiences, and then those audiences: progressively less exposed to the arts as children, progressively discouraged by general education to perceive the arts and artists as valuable, as worthy of attention, let alone discussion or reward. So more and more the Artist community must rely on one another for support… while fighting for an ever dwindling pool of resources that comes from an ever expanding lack of interest in what we do.
And even when you get that opening night standing ovation, which maybe any and all artists deserve because getting any work on at all is a miracle and opening nights are really about celebrating that, at the back of your mind, if you have even the remotest idea of how these things are done, you can’t help but wonder if there would be so much standing, if there hadn’t also been so many comps.
When I first came to the Bay Area, I felt very hopeful about the local theater scene. I was from Tucson, but I’d grown up in New York, and both have vibrant scenes that are very different but in their own ways, equitably valuable. I understood and appreciated the glamour of big theater and big shows, while also understanding and appreciating the value of small theater, community theater, and apprentice theater. The last is what I have taken to calling what we used to call “Indie Theater.” Because when you’re putting on a show with your own money and paying people something to be there out of respect for what you all do, and the objective is to have the work seen and taken seriously because the catch-22 of our industry is that virtually nobody with the power to do something about it cares how talented you are, they just care if enough paying patrons ALSO THINK YOU ARE TALENTED, then maybe you aren’t “professional” (a word I despise because in American Art it’s supposed to be just about whether you pay people but, conspicuously, is rarely about how you treat them, and somehow, always, really about whether your work is “worthy”) but you are certainly not an “amateur” either. Not that there is anything wrong with being “amateur”. Progressively, I kind of think amateur art is where it’s at. And you know, progressively that’s where most of us are going to land. You know, most of us who aren’t computers.
Anyway, I came here because I thought San Francisco’s theater scene would be the perfect compromise: a smaller community but with a wide variety of opportunities, and a kind of gritty, bohemian spirit that would be open to a wide variety of content and aesthetics. I knew I’d probably always need to have a day job here, but also thought I’d occasionally get to be part of Something Big, that there would be a fluidity between the various tiers. But as I tried to break in, again and again, I found, like most places, it was actually a series of fifedoms vying for a place in what amounted to a handful of bigger kingdoms that many people seemed to want to be a part of at basically any cost. The refrain I heard again and again was “so I can be paid for my work.” And lest you think I don’t think we should all get paid for our work, may I assure you, I absolutely think we should, which is why I’ve always tried to work places where people get paid SOMETHING. But what folks got paid became such a constant topic of conversation here, I often felt like asking the actor or designer or director or whoever sitting opposite me, “Which one are you chasing: money, or your dream?” knowing full well that it’s hard to have one without the other.
THE COMPANY: America.
When I first arrived here I was like any twenty-three year old with a modest list of accomplishments: arrogant and ambitious, and hopeful and generous, and I have no doubt equal parts charming and alienating. As I began to both take in and break in to the local theater scene I found, as I would have anywhere, that there were people I got along well with, shared vision with, felt support from, and people I just didn’t. Which is all well and good. The world is big enough for us all, correct? And if not the world, then at least San Francisco, right? But as time passed I discovered that most of the folks I was in line with, moved on to greener pastures, while the folks I didn’t work well with, or just didn’t agree with, climbed up to the greener ones here, and the Pyramid I had perceived, already a let down from the Round Table I’d hoped for, was really more of a series of separate planets, with an asteroid field between Theaters Mercury/Venus/Earth/Mars, and Theaters Jupiter/Saturn/Neptune. That the people I clashed with seemed to more often than not populate that asteroid field and/or know how to hop it to The Big Three was absolutely not a given, but it was a trend, and had as much to do with the fact that the art I want to make is often out of sync with the Bay Area’s brand, as it was with my astonishing ability to say the wrong thing at the right parties, usually some version of “I didn’t think the show was FILL IN THE HYPERBOLE” or “yes, but/and FILL IN THE NUANCE/UNCOMFORTABLE PART.” But that’s me. I say what I’m thinking. I answer what you ask me. I just hope I do it reasonably, if not always kindly. But at the end of the day, I am human and so is everyone else. So even when I do my best to speak my best, not everyone’s a good listener. Especially if you’re not saying what they want to hear.
And we are such sensitive aesthetes here. I, for instance, rather infamously wrote a blog spot about being shamed out of a local company’s performance because at intermission I told my seat-mate I didn’t think much of the show, and while that blog was really more about me and my experience of being an artist and an audience in this community, even when it was critical it was nowhere remotely as vehement or vitriolic as what I’ve come to see often passes for “reviews” in the Bay Area. But the problem wasn’t really what I said, so much as that I, not a Bay Area theater elite nor someone who felt a need to hide my opinions around them, said it at all. The controversy quickly eclipsed the content however as that blog spot, which didn’t affect the success of that production one bit (nor was it intended to), provided a brief rallying point for who felt what I still think is true but can perhaps express better now, and certainly with more actual experience, namely that for all its noble speak to the contrary, the Bay Area Theater Scene, like any theater scene built on a scarcity model, is often very insular and very self-congratulatory, and very much the orchestra on the Titanic playing as the ship goes down.
And yet I still wish I felt more a part of it.
And I am very aware that not only am I, but depending on who you ask, I’m one of the ones to be jealous of. Which is why, in the end, as much as it takes virtually NOTHING to make me feel like a total loser, it takes about as much SOMETHING to make me feel the reverse. Which is really more a phenomena of the industry than it is any given geographical realization of it- as tempting as it is to suggest otherwise. That Theater in particular seems to engender deep insecurity (and thus potentially destructive envy) is why, even as I walk into almost any space or event steeling myself to get through a series of short, cheerful, vapid conversations with my colleagues, I try to do so remembering pretty much all of them are also fighting a counter-narrative of Why isn’t this me, especially if the location is, say, Jupiter and the event a rocket launch. Why isn’t this me? What didn’t I do? Who didn’t I know? Who didn’t I like? Who didn’t like me? Was it because I did this or said that? Or apply to that or not apply to this? Was it that review or that conversation or that confession? Is it because I didn’t play The Game or is it really because I’m just not very good at this?
How did you get there from here, Mr. Shephard?
Even if we couldn’t be happier for those of us achieving success, and I think most of us truly are, that narrative is often there because it’s not just the imperatives of money or work but our vision, our thing we need to say, our passion that is asking those questions, simmering beneath the smiles and the hugs and the one hundred percent real desire to be a part of a community. But that desire is constantly at war with the one hundred percent knowledge of how those communities come together and fall apart, usually around the success of individuals, or the perception of it. And the inherent belief that proximity to success, leads to easier routes of access. If you play your cards right. And have cards. Or know how to get them. And thus is even champagne rendered exhausting.
Art is Alive. I really believe that. The world is ending, maybe, but Art is Alive and it is Alive in the Bay Area. It happens all the time. In big places, in little places, in places in between. But like almost every other aspect of America, the middle is vanishing, fragmenting and becoming impossible, even treacherous. I love this community and I always have, but as I find myself on the cusp of returning to it, I look out at waves of familiar faces (those who are left at least) and, with every intention of looking to the future so that there can be one, can’t help but notice that even if there are more familiar faces on Jupiter than in the past, the gap between there and Mars is as wide as the sea between the rowboats and the Carpathia.
At least I’m in one of the boats.