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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

After Dark, October 18, 2011

How long are theatre artists going to tolerate an underclass in the underclass
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

My old leftist heart has been beating a little faster, these last weeks, from the joy at seeing that the Occupy Wallstreet movement is holding on. I have learned through other movements (notably the anti-war movement of the 60s and 70s) that it is all about time: the longer it goes, the stronger it grows, with more people rallying to the cause. Yes, right now, that cause seems vague but at its source is this very clear message: there is an underclass which is being crushed by poverty, debt and unemployment and the mega-rich are profiting from this with the utter complicity of governments.
Now let's make this a wee bit more personal.

So there you go: we're poor. Worse, many of us are very poor. 

Most theatre artists in this country are in that underclass. ACTRA has claimed that the average income for Canada's actors is $15,000. Our own government has set the poverty line at about $22,000 for a single person. In passing, the Quebec government has established an average payment of less than $7200 for welfare recipients (the only safety net many theatre people have to fall back on when things are bad).

So there you go: we're poor. Worse, many of us are very poor.

Now I'm going to make this even more personal.

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre is spending a cool million to mount a production of Grumpy Old Men: The Musical. The three stars are all d-list American. It doesn't matter that the show is receiving unpleasant reviews. It only matters that some subsidized companies in the country are spending a million on one show when companies who are presenting work far more adventurous and evolutionary are recieving sweet FA.

WTF is that funding organizations in this country are broken.

But let's go back to my initial point: virtually all theatre people in this country are in the underclass. That includes most who work at the Royal MTC. So WTF? WTF is that funding organizations in this country are broken. Moreover, they are making decisions about who will rule our companies, hire actors (including those three Americans), what plays will be presented and almost all those decisions are based on a monetary system that is at the source of the entire Occupy Wallstreet movement: if you make money you get money and it has nothing to do with art.

Now, please, before we pull out the guillotines and load the bosses of Stratford, the COC or the Royal MTC into the tumbrils, let us remind ourselves that these companies also create magnificent art, generate work for our underclass, and sustain the econmies of their surrounding communities.

Now what do we do?

But let's at least admit that something is quite, quite wrong. Again: the cause is vague, vaguer still because we do not really have a mega-rich artist class here. (I don't consider the Cirque du Soleil art in any which way.)

But there is the beauty of the Occupy Wallstreet movement: let's at least accept - at every level (producer, funders, philantropists, artist) - something is amiss. Now what do we do? I suggest we start by saying - out loud - "our arts funding system is broken."

Let me finish with a quote for all the Occupy Wallstreet nay-sayers. It's from HARDSELL by Rick Miller, (in passing a subsidized artist playing in a subsidized house), "Cynicism is easy. It distracts you from real action." 

1 comment:

  1. Another great column, Gaetan. Smart, funny and passionate.

    When I learn that the heavily-subsidized MTC is putting a million dollars into a musical version of "Grumpy Old Men", how can I not agree with you that our arts funding system is broken?

    But the truth is, I don't agree. Or rather, I would state the proposition very differently: our arts funding system is imperfect. At times laughably so. But its imperfection simply reflects the imperfection of our species. As long as people are silly and self-contradictory and wedded to oddball ideas, arts funding bodies will be the same. And in the end, that's a good thing.

    A million dollars would fund ten major theatrical productions. (Or one questionable megamusical; but let's not dwell on that.) I don't think there's a more knowledgeable or impassioned theatrical spirit in this city than you, Gaetan. But if you wrote down a list of ten worthy plays that deserved major productions, and I did the same, do you think our lists would have even one title in common? You might well look over my list and shake your head in disappointment. You might even make a mental note: never let Arthur Holden program a theatre season.

    Would that prove my list was bad? (Probably a little. But let's set that aside.) Or would it highlight the age-old conundrum and glory of the arts - that people disagree? Admittedly, the disagreements can be discussed with greater or lesser intensities of knowledge and experience. But even among people who have studied, seen and made a great deal of theatre, even among people whose tastes and backgrounds are similar, differences of opinion arise. Somebody at the Canada Council and/or somebody at the Manitoba Arts Council thought "Grumpy Old Men - The Musical" with a few American has-beens was a good idea. We might disagree. But surely that disagreement points to the vigor of Canadian cultural discourse as much as it does to the failings of the funding system.

    Besides, I think too much attention gets paid to the spending of public money. We had two productions of "Equus" in this city in 2011, both ambitious, both exciting, both artistically successful. Both powerfully committed. Only one of them was fuelled by public money. Funnily - no, not funnily, necessarily - I think there was more commitment in the shoestring production.

    And in the end, doesn't it come down to commitment? Look at this website. This is my favorite online destination for arts coverage. Joel Fishbane; Barbara Ford; Johanna Nutter; you, Gaetan, and so many others infuse this site with an intense immediacy that no money-driven operation could match. You don't need the Canada Council. Freestanding Room doesn't need CALQ. You're doing this because it matters to you.

    We all freelance and moonlight and raise our money where we can. And then we do come back to this thing called theatre, because we love it. We see things our fellow artists do, and we're transported, or outraged, or (very rarely) bored. Sometimes there's public money involved. Sometimes not. The money isn't the point.

    Unless, of course, we happen to be getting some of it. I must declare an interest here. My new play, "Ars Poetica", produced by Infinitheatre, opens at the Bain St-Michel on January 17, 2012. Much of its budget will come from public funding sources. I'd have to be the worst kind of ingrate to benefit from your tax dollars and then criticize the arts agencies that provided it.

    My apologies for the windy post. And for the self-promotion. And above all, thank you, Gaetan, for providing a space in which to express our passion for the art form.


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