Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Daisey chain, Part I

You talkin' ta me? 'Cause I'm Mike Daisey, and I'm the only actor here!
[Correction! Let it be noted that Mike Daisey has made it clear that he IS NOT AN ACTOR. He just takes the place of one in regional theatres.]

A few weeks back the blogs were abuzz with the latest from performer/provocateur Mike Daisey (above, looking his usual meek self), who has been working up a bit of career synergy by arguing vociferously that "theatre has failed America" (which also happens, coincidentally enough, to be the title of his one of his one-man shows). Mr. Daisey even took it upon himself to thoroughly fisk some comments I made about his arguments on Art Hennessey's blog here - as is his wont, without notifying me or allowing the possibility of any response. [Correction! Let it be noted that Mike Daisey DID leave a comment on Art Hennessey's blog regarding his post, which should have been good enough for me, and if not, I should subscribe to Google alerts anyway, and btw, why the hell should Daisey allow comments on his blog, the way Art and everybody else does???]

So of course you know - to quote the great Bugs Bunny - this means war.

I've been dragging my feet on my reply, however, because I kept hoping I might be able to figure a way out of the economic problem Daisey has put his finger on. Because while my impression is that Daisey is an insecure lout, I agree with him that actors aren't paid enough, not nearly. (Although critics are paid even less - I do this for free, Mike.) And the fact that his cries for justice simultaneously operate as a means of self-promotion - for a show that, inevitably, takes paying jobs away from other actors - only means that he's a hypocrite, not that he's wrong.

But I didn't really think of a brilliant new solution to this dilemma - which is an old injustice in free enterprise, by the way, and one that so far has only been ameliorated by collective action. In a word, free markets don't reward the "value" of work, they reward leverage - the highest pay goes to the person with the most power over the product at hand. That power might result from one's position in the supply chain (at the top, or near the end of, the product's distribution is the place to be), or it might result from some special knowledge, or ability, or patent, that only a single person can bring to the table. But when it comes to the work that must be done, but that anyone can do - well, that work is not rewarded, however necessary and valuable it may be. It was only by banding together into unions that rank-and-file workers managed to gain some leverage over their employers. Individually, they were all replaceable - but as a block they were not replaceable. So that was one (partial) way around the leverage-vs.-value problem.

But you can see immediately the problem for actors. They're hardly "rank and file" workers - but in most cases they are, in fact, replaceable. Each actor's particular interpretation of a role is of course unique - but so are those of all the other actors, and the quality of a performance is always open to debate. A solitary actor can gain leverage by becoming famous, and so guaranteeing an audience. But that's the only hope for the individual actor. Thus was Actors' Equity born - and operated generally along the established rules of collective action.

The problem here is that theatre isn't really an industry that can easily accommodate collective action. Indeed, in pure capitalistic terms, theatre isn't a going concern at all - long ago, rents and "wage-price sickness" rendered it an economic invalid.

Why is this so? Because of other economic "laws." Rents for space and equipment (i.e., for theatres) rise with the general tide of a society's productivity. Indeed, many early economists predicted that rents would choke off economic growth - but luckily, improving technology has generally kept us one step ahead of the landlord; that is, via electronics and communications and plain old mechanical tools, we can usually produce a bit more economic output than landlords can grab from us.

Or at least most of us can. Actors, however, can't, because they can only play "live" to roughly the same number of people they played to a hundred years ago. This is one example of what is generally known as "wage-price sickness." Most people (at least until recently, due to globalization) benefitted from their increased technological productivity by receiving higher wages. But again, in the case of theatre, little added productivity can be gleaned from new technology, so the cost of theatre to the consumer must rise proportionately with the actors' paychecks. And because the price of theatre was already skyrocketing because of rising rents, this was very problematic - which meant the actor got squeezed.

Thus outside of major tourist destinations (which can rely on an influx of disposable cash from elsewhere), theatre became a charity case, dependent on donations, and wealthy Boards and their largesse. And clearly this undercuts the power of collective action. Because in a word, it's hard to call a strike against people you're begging for cash from. It is, instead, far easier to seduce them into coughing up bucks for assets they can see and touch, and which will reflect back upon their own glory (like theatres, which, btw, also ameliorate that problem of rising rent). The rich have always been this way, and always will be - they're always parting with ridiculous sums to enhance their own material profile, even while they nickel and dime the help.

So how to get around this roadblock on the path to true equity for actors? I'll ponder that problem (among others) in a follow-up post.


  1. I responded here:

  2. An excellent analysis of how theatre functions in a market place constantly being changed by technological innovations.

    For some years, the similar forces have been driving the the tuition costs of higher education up and the wages of university faculty down.