Recently I was explaining the concept of UPTA (and, by extension, the different paths artists take to find work) to a friend of mine who is in the corporate for-profit world of SEO marketing (and it’s worth mentioning, a former painter and print-maker). This man makes three times what I do salary-wise, and after I described the transient nature, the auditioning, the lifestyle, the stipends, he said rather incredulously “…but why would anyone do that?”
I didn’t have an immediate answer. I took a breath, and a long pause, and thought of a story my mother once told me about the Great Depression, and how the homeless would mark the houses with chalk as they traveled, leaving notes in the form of coded symbols: “Easy jail to overnight in,” “Mean dog here,” “Nice farmer; will pay for work with food.”
And I finally exhaled and said, “For so many of us, it’s just because we read the signs from other people: this place is warm. The people are nice. It’s safe here; we can be ourselves.”
For me, at the age of 12, it wasn’t a love of art that brought me to theatre – instead, it was literally the only “safe” room in which to hang out in the Junior High, where people wouldn’t criticize the way I dressed or the big words I used. There was a community, a tiny microcosm happening there, and it wasn’t just because I found a group of people exactly like myself – quite the opposite; I found a motley crew of people from all walks of life who had completely different stories and viewpoints and ideas. I’d been looking for a group of similarly matched people to camouflage me; instead I’d stumbled upon a tribe of mismatched people who all managed to fill in the gaps between themselves and others not in spite of their difference, but through it. I’d been part of a choir, taken piano lessons, had a foray into ballet, jazz, and tap, but nothing made me feel like part of a tribe the way theatre did.
And, for me, it’s still not even about the art so much as it is the people: the staff I work with, the patrons who know me by name and shore up anxious feelings about critical reviews, the artists and designers who are always coming up with another brilliant scheme to communicate what they feel to an audience, the people that come in off the street and ask, “What is this place? You work here?” with a look of wonderment spread across their faces like a candle in a dark space. I can see it, in those moments, a whole parallel life flashing before their eyes, the unanswered question of “What might have happened if I had decided to do something like this instead? Could I still?”
At the next Know staff meeting, I asked everyone because I was curious – “Why do we do what we do, anyway?”
It was met with blank looks for only the briefest of moments, and then everyone’s answer bloomed out of them like a flower. The following are uncut, unedited responses that, even when funny or disjointed, are no less true:
Eric, Producing Artistic Director: “I have some kind of unidentifiable compulsion.”
MJ, Resident Artist: “Theatre is the ultimate celebration of humanity.” She whispers “That’s why I do it.”
Doug, Director of Operations: “For me there are kind of two points. Theatre in general, I think, is just interaction. You don’t get that connection to other people through other mediums… connection with your fellow audience members but also with the actors onstage. As for why I like to do what I do in this organization, I just like to do a lot of different stuff. I like to tinker with things. And that’s what I get to do here, from learning how to fix a toilet to doing projections for a show. I get to learn to do new things”
Alexandra, Marketing & PR Manager: “I like theatre because it makes me feel something that you don’t feel anywhere else. I do what I do because I want other people to feel that and be a part of it.”
Chris, Associate Company Member: “I like theatre because, MJ, you kinda stole my general answer. I’m trying to reword it so it sounds different from yours. Theatre is the best. Period.”
Kristen, Resident Stage Manager: “I don’t know why I started stage managing. My first experience was absolutely horrific. But I guess there’s just something… not magic, because that’s stupid, but special about live theatre. It’s always different and it’s always evolving and it’s always changing, not just through the eras, but also from night to night during the run of the show. But I guess the reason I do what I do is that it’s a great marriage between my creative needs and my desire to organize and run things. I get to be creative, but ultimately I am helping more creative people’s ideas be realized and shared with the community.”
So tell me – why do you attend theatre as audience members? Does how much we love theatre and the reasons we love it translate on stage? Is it that simple? Why as actors and arts administrators do you work in theatre? Why as audience members do you attend? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments!