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LA Theater and the Kool-Aid of Simplicity

Notes from a Stealth Revolution—

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Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to produce close to forty full runs of new theater in Los Angeles, many of which I also participated in as a director and playwright. I have moved several of these productions to stages in New York, Edinburgh, Atlanta, Prague and Berlin, and been thrilled and inspired by the results. A good part of my ability to work in this way has to do with the strong and largely unmediated collaborative relationships that can be forged in Los Angeles with actors and designers, and also with the comparatively low cost of working in an arena that everyone understands to be, quite simple, not a part of the commodity economy. It seems possible, however, that in 2015 all this is over as the result of changes Actors Equity Association (AEA) has made to contracts governing productions in small theaters, against the express wishes of its LA-based membership. On April 16th of this year this membership overwhelmingly rejected a change to the existing arrangement; five days later the union imposed the change anyway by executive fiat. This action capped a decades-long conflict between the LA theater community and AEA with roots in the early 1970s, when a group of LA actors and theater artists marched on the union’s office to demand the right to participate in collaborative theater projects, provided they were performed in small, commercially non-viable theater spaces.

Producing theater in the city is already such a financially challenging activity that relatively modest changes to the basic parameters could have outsized effects, pushing things past a tipping point toward collapse. This would be a shame since, despite many flaws, the existing “Equity Waiver” arrangement (formally codified in the 1990s as the “99-Seat Contract”), created an authentically democratic creative ecology in LA. If you wanted to mount a piece of theater you could do so. You would not recoup your investment, much less turn a profit, but you didn’t need permission from on high in order to present some work. While it is unclear how the current conflict will unfold – various legal actions are pending – the community has been shaken by Equity’s ferocity, which suggests important matters of principle, if not sacred taboos, are at issue in ways not fully understood. It is my belief that, to a chilling degree, what has unfolded in the small cultural ecosystem of LA theater over the past year must be considered in the context of what Wendy Brown calls “neoliberalism’s stealth revolution.” In this case, ironically enough, the enforcer of anarcho-capitalist cultural norms arrived on the scene wearing a union label.

The “stealth” in neoliberalism’s revolution is not to be underestimated. Generating on the one side populist free-market rhetoric, while aggressively subverting democratic processes on the other, contradiction and paradox define neoliberalism at every turn. Even the name, neo-liberalism, in how it falsely suggests a link to progressive values, seems designed to bewilder the inattentive mind. In fact, as Brown emphasizes with great eloquence, liberal democracy cannot survive its encounter with neoliberal government, which “submits every aspect of political and social life to economic calculation” (pg 47). This context makes the travails of the LA theater community an interesting case study linked to issues percolating beneath every sector of American cultural life today, and to modes of thought that represent a dire threat to our what remains of democratic rule.

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At the core of neoliberalism is the cultivation of what Brown calls the “entrepreneurial subject.” This term applies to a person who, in the grip of subtle cultural mechanisms, comes to define him or herself as a business enterprise rather than a living being. As entrepreneurial subjects, we engage with the world in a mode of marketplace rationalism, seeking to increase our market share through relentless competition, branding ourselves to maximize our value as human capital and delegitimizing any exercise of political autonomy or protest. As entrepreneurs, the only meaningful measure of our value is the verdict of the marketplace as expressed in terms of how much money we make. Since the purpose of the marketplace is to lower prices through competition, the entrepreneurial subject’s life is defined by the anxiety of always being worth less and less. In its broadest terms, what the 99-Seat Contract preserved instead was the right of actors and theater-makers to engage vocationally with their creative work, as an adjunct to their entrepreneurial engagement with the culture industry of Hollywood. It is crucial to understand the distinction between vocation and entrepreneurship. Rooted in the idea of a calling, the vocational is what we do because that’s who we are. Our vocation is what we do even when we do not get paid, in other words, because doing so gives expression to our unique and innate being as individuals, and provides the relational ground from which we engage with the social world and with others. Equity’s occasional use of the word “vocation” to transform the creative work of LA actors into another kind of alienated labor, shows only how nostalgia can be incorporated into the neoliberal assault. The minimum wage pay the union wants for theater actors in LA will wipe out the truly vocational engagement of its members in a milieu in which they (as much as anyone) owned the “means of production,” without helping them at all in the competitive (i.e. entrepreneurial) arenas of the entertainment industry.

Most of us, as adults, are prepared to recognize marketplace dynamics as a invaluable in civilization’s ability to make progress against things like malaria, famine and other threats, dangers and inconveniences. We also intuitively recognize that the vocational and the entreprenuerial are separate and distinct modes of relating to the social world. Whether we are advocates/lawyers, healers/doctors, teachers/instructors or artists/entertainment-professionals, we see these two spheres as potentially enriching to each other, and are open to the idea of embracing both rubrics simultaneously. What is intriguing to note is how this both/and mode of engagement is intolerable to neoliberalism, triggering the deployment of social, economic and legal mechanisms like Equity’s dictat to force a complete and total surrender to the way of the entrepreneur. In my view, this vociferousness signals a sensitive spot in neoliberalism’s impressive coat of armor, encouraging a closer look.

Rather than debate in commonsense terms the pros and cons of the entrepreneurial world view, I’d like to keep an eye on where the seductive appeal of this mode of thought truly lies. The quasi-religious fervor of the neoliberal arises from the way this view of the world deftly whisks away a troublesome mystery at the heart of human existence—our inevitable death and dying. Business enterprises, if only because they are not alive to begin with, are, in a way, immortal; by a kind of sidereal inference when I define myself as a business enterprise, I too come to seem immune from the anxiety-provoking mysteries of mortality. Neoliberalism’s emphasis on simplicity and commonsense is allowed to spill over and soothe the ever-present, all-pervasive background anxiety arising from the knowledge of our own mortality. All the little practical problems neoliberalism purports to solve with its brazen smile actually stand in for the ultimate problem-without-solution: the Big D. In a myriad of subtle ways, what neoliberalism affirms is our ability to ignore our own mortality, and in this way the ideology becomes a kind of psychic shield. Behind this shield we often come to despise our own vulnerability—indeed, to hate vulnerability wherever it is found—in the poor, the ill, in animals and fragile living systems generally. When we drink neoliberalism’s sweet, deathless Kool-Aid, paradoxically, what really happens is that death achieves a final dominion over our lives.

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If death is the ultimate entrepreneur, conversely, vocation, precisely because it is relational, is hard to pin down and assess. Unlike the clean lines and quantifiable metrics of the entrepreneurial world view, the vocational is where we engage with others in the full knowledge of our shared vulnerability. The lawyer who defends an innocent person who has no resources does so out of a recognition of our common vulnerability before the law. Operating as a healer despite the loss of pay, a doctor responds to the fragility that defines us all in the face of disease and illness. Rejecting the imperatives of entertainment, an artist might wound her audience in order to challenge some collective vanity, speaking to us from within the heart of our common mortality. This kind of artistic courage is why the work of a painter like Van Gogh steadily accrues value over the decades, despite being an utter and complete failure in entrepreneurial terms while he was alive. We are encouraged by vocational work of this kind to stand up to the flummoxing reality that our mortality is one problem no marketplace can ever solve.

Today, after a forty year run during which it completely revised the cultural and political landscape of the Anglo-American world, neoliberalism is faltering. The lurid spectacle of the bankers who caused the economic collapse of 2008 funneling huge bonuses into offshore accounts while millions lost homes and pensions showed how all the free market blathering since Reagan was designed to hide the old story of anti-market monopoly capitalism privatizing profits and making losses public—great work if you can get it. Climate change and environmental degradation fatally undermine the neoliberal story of a future paradise of problems-solved to compensate for all the short-term austerity. The right’s cognitive dissonant strategies–its dog-whistle racism and shameless corn-pone patriotism– lose traction in the desolate social landscape neoliberalism has delivered: declining living standards, decaying infrastructure, and civic unrest. Recent political markers, such as the strong critique of capitalism in the Pope’s June Encyclical, not to mention the demise of the esteem accorded the Confederate Flag, suggest the rightward swing of American culture that began with Nixon has passed its zenith, and we are now swinging back the other way. But the virus of Ayn-Randian, neoliberal thinking has circulated widely throughout the collective body, and its malignant, spirit-killing tumors are sure to sprout whenever conditions align in certain ways. Around the clock, Roger Ailes’s Fox News has saturated American culture with a denial of the contradiction, mystery and paradox that define our lives down to their roots. Life itself has come to seem impossibly messy and embarrassing, and the obvious solution involves more and more death, which, whatever its problems, is, at the very least, clean and simple. And if we need inspiration in our efforts to reduce ourselves to entrepreneurial subjects, we can always order from Amazon the 2012 bestseller by Fox News celebrity Greg Gutfeld: The Joy of Hate.

Make no mistake: neoliberalism is a form of insanity, and if you find that it makes a lot of sense, know that you are operating under a spell. Your choices about what to do, and what not to do in any given situation are in no way an expression of your own self interest. You may well be helping to dig your own grave, and the sense of urgency that haunts the edges of your dreams is not a symptom of paranoia, because those in control of our world will not hesitate to push you into that grave in very material, non-metaphorical ways. To begin the challenging process of finding another way, simply check in with your own mortality, and watch the spell begin to dissipate.

Photography Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Comments

  1. dov rudnick says:

    I love this piece, powerful and urgent. Most appreciated is the description of that dichotomy most modern artist (and others) find themselves operating within, the famous “calling” vs. profession dilemma, how we negotiate a response to the demands of the market place and our own conscience, or sense of identify. Good work! I had the sense of being comforted with a warm nuzzle while reading your critique of “neo-liberalism”, something I still don’t completely understand but know enough to dislike. A good rule of thumb, something that sounds phony usually is. Bravo!

  2. darrell larson says:

    i agree wholeheartedly with Dov (hey, Dov, howyadoin’?) this is a beautifully written, erudite and insightful piece, and it gives a platform for all ‘struggling’ artists, (struggling, that is, to remain themselves), in pursuit of their vocation, and an authentic inner life, in the only manner that matters–with full cognizance of our mortality. as casteneda/don juan put it: “live every moment as if your death is coming up behind you, over your left shoulder.” without morbidity, but with vitality, with curiousity, rather than rigidity, using the work not to accumulate markers, but to enhance experience. thanks, Guy, for your clarity in comprehending our current planetary dilemma. i feel the ground beneath my feet more firmly.

  3. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Thanks to both of you for these comments. Darrell, I always pay attention to what don juan has to say(!)

  4. Edward Landler says:

    Guy, Now I know why I’ve been receiving TimesQuotidian by e-mail regularly. Both this article and “The Neo-Victorian Era and Two Thin Red Lines” are spot on critiques of two of the central delusions distracting us from seeing humanity’s place in the natural world. Thanks.

  5. john steppling says:

    good piece, Guy. But its not surprising, really, that this is happening. Its the logical next step in killing art . People have deeply internalized the idea of profit, and capital. Long ago one didnt really think about *making a living* from art. That was nice, when it very rarely occured. But I never in forty years made a living from theatre. In fact I always lost money, essentially. But that was fine with me — I was not doing it for the same reasons institutional theatre was doing it. But its the entire system that is destroying the *idea* of art. Take the rental costs of theatre space as an example. Thats the stealth part….but again, artists are complicit in this to some degree. Everyone is who lives in this system. IF a crappy clothes store can pay more rent than a 99 seat theatre, then what does that say>? What does it say that no audiences exist. In LA a city of close to 12 million (more really) most theatres struggle to fill seats. So maybe this is mercy killing. And it has become increasingly hard to find people willing to commit to financial sacrifice for art. I always think if Kanter and his troup….six month rehearsals….nobody had auditions for SCI or Gray’s Anatomy. And they did that for 25 years with each other. Thats not possible today. Why? When actors and writers and directors can answer that, maybe the counter revolution can begin.

  6. Howard Ellis says:

    Essentially what you are saying is: you don’t want to pay the minimum wage, even though I’m sure you think every other business in the country should have to pay it; you support the dictatorship of unions in all businesses except yours; you blame Nixon, Ayn Rand, and Fox News for the fact that your left-wing labor union wants to tell you what to do, even though these “right-wing” entities and persons think labor unions should be illegal conspiracies.

    You justify your wanting to have it both ways, i.e, to support everything left wing unless it applies to you personally, because you have a vocation, which is so much more important than making a living. You cite various marxist ideologues as authorities, even though those marxists think the minimum wage you don’t want to pay should be much higher than it is. You think your little play is valuable in and of itself even if really really want to pay to see it, at least not to pay enough to support the actual cost of putting on the play at the freaking minimum wage.

    I do agree with you that the market has not solved the problem of death. It has, however, postponed death for most people by a good 20 years on average over what life expectancy was before there were markets.

  7. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Howard, you’re certainly entitled to express your opinion in these comments, so long as you remain civil about it. That said I have to tell you your response is completely incoherent. I’ve made it clear in the piece that nobody makes a profit on 99-Seat theater in Los Angeles, which is exactly what the 99 Seat Contract was designed to ensure. It’s not a job. It’s not volunteerism either. It’s artists collaborating to give expression to something they want to express. And also, sure, staying fresh, honing their craft etc. I’m sorry this doesn’t fit within the categories you carry around in your mind, but it’s just the truth. Evidently this triggers deep aversion in you — so be it.

  8. Guy Zimmerman says:

    John, I agree with you almost entirely in that American culture has moved so far to the right and has internalized the neoliberal entrepreneurial mindset almost completely. It is, in fact, neo-Victorian, the culture returning to a blinkered bewilderment similar to what preceded the calamity of World War 1. This is to say that things don’t typically remain so far removed from reality–reality typically provides a corrective and I believe that will be the case once again, sadly enough. It’s really no help to point this out, except to counter the sense that the current status quo represents something “real” — it is fundamentally “unreal” and quite obviously unsustainable. IMHO.

  9. Alec Peters says:

    The union is outmoding itself by making it impossible to do non-union work. With the advent of crowdfunded art, I see more problems ahead. Look what Uber is doing to the cab business. These changes could leave the union high and dry. Artists want to work on their art, not union interests that deny them the chance to express themselves.

  10. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Alec, good to see you posting. I want to clarify here that for me the issue in LA theater is somewhat unique in that the activity hasn’t been a part of the economy in any meaningful way since the 1970s. That doesn’t mean the occasional 1-man show or musical or something hasn’t been able to recoup expenses and make money, or that people haven’t made money as landlords renting to theater companies (that happens all the time) but this a theater production making a process happens so rarely that you’d have to be an idiot to do theater for business reasons. The case with Uber or with the music biz is very different and I just don’t feel qualified to weigh in on the politics of that…except to observe that the internet and info-tech is removing all sorts of things from the commodity economy…music being a prime example. Music still has the value it always had…people like it just as much and want it just as much…it simply can’t be commodified the way it used to be…Same thing to an extent with Uber…hard to argue with it on the level of service…but it’s pretty tough to make a living as an Uber driver. What all this points to for me is — hey, we need, like, a robust safety net where people don’t live in fear of becoming homeless and starving. Socialism, I think we call it. Then technology can run rampant all it wants and we can use it to solve all our environmental woes and off we go to the promised land.

  11. Anthony Forkush says:

    Hello Guy. Anthony Forkush. Thank you for this article. I’ve been away from the theater for well on a decade now. I had no idea that this was going on. I just assumed that actors were putting on plays in sub 99 seat theaters and then simply moving on to their next project. I had no idea that this larger body was attempting to suppress the ability to even do “vocational” theater in Los Angeles. This is a very frightening reality that I’m only now becoming aware of. I’m wondering if the same issue would be present If instead of doing theater, all the theater artists in Los Angeles engaged in making small films and then simply found spaces to actually air those films, to broadcast them anywhere, would the unions that cover Film and Television apply the same pressure for individuals to stop all of it. This is Draconian. there’s no other way to put it. I’m frightened to return to the theater. I think I’ll continue to do monologues from Measure for Masure in my underwear in my living room.

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