Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Daisey Chain, Part the Second

The non-actor dares another audience member to spill his water.

Well, when last we left the ongoing debate about actors' salaries initiated by the erstwhile Mike Daisey, Mr. Daisey (btw, I came across the photos below on his blog, and felt they might make a refreshing change for those tired of Michael Phelps) was letting it be known in no uncertain terms that HE WAS NOT AN ACTOR (no argument here!) and also that I had admitted that HE WAS RIGHT.

Hmmmm. But did I really do that? I wonder if the ladies pictured below would agree! Let's take a closer look!

What I said in my earlier post was: (warning - images NSFW)

The fact that [Mr. Daisey's] 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.

Now I think most people would read the phrase "not that he's wrong" as a kind of rhetorical device. (I know that sounds awfully sophisticated, but work with me here!) Now, certainly I agree with Mr. Daisey's premise - actors aren't paid enough - but then, who doesn't? Has anyone been arguing that actors are paid enough (much less too much)? If that had been the essence of Daisey's argument, there would have been no reaction to it in the first place.

So can we be honest, and admit that this was not, truly, the thrust of his various diatribes? Which means that, yes, Mr. Daisey could still be wrong? Or at least only partly right, hard as that may be to believe?

Yes, I think we can. So let's continue our consideration of his position. Although any summary does some violence to a thesis, I still think we can roughly-yet-validly summarize Mr. Daisey's true arguments as something like:

1. Actors's salaries are low because of the decisions of theatre administrators.

2. These administrators have chosen to invest in facilities, marketing, and their own salaries rather than in actors.

3. The solution to this problem is to place actors in administrative roles, from which they will be able to remunerate themselves appropriately.

That seems to me to be the gist of his contentions (and trust me, if I've left anything out, I'm sure Daisey will let us know). Of these, #1 is at least partly true, but only in a superficial way, and I've answered part of #2 in a previous post (investing in facilities, particularly in a low-interest-rate environment, was probably a good idea, and perhaps better for the long-term health of an organization than investing in salaries).

But it's the villainy Daisey seems to attribute to theatre administrators regarding their own salaries that has raised the most ire, particularly from Todd Olson, a small theatre director with whom Daisey has tangled in a number of posts. Olson's general point seems to have been that while there was some truth to Daisey's critique of the largest LORT theatres, his arguments fell apart further down the scale. And Olson had some telling points to make against Daisey's claims regarding administrators and their cushy finances - indeed, at his small company, many administrators actually envied the benefits that Equity actors commanded. And he almost amusingly deconstructed the contradictions in Daisey's la-la-land economic pronouncements (Daisey demands on the one hand that salaries be raised, and on the other that ticket prices be cut).

Most daringly, he challenged Daisey to help him more equitably balance his theatre's budget - and even forwarded the previous year's balance sheets. Daisey backed away from that offer, of course (because after all, engaging with Olson would dilute the product he's selling - i.e., disenfranchised outrage), but he did make a new suggestion - that Olson and his ilk should create "lockbox endowments" to fund actors' salaries.

Now on the surface this sounds better than his earlier solution - placing actors in administrative roles - because that idea is probably about as viable as placing administrators in acting roles! In short, "collective" solutions inevitably sacrifice the great productive advantage of specialization - indeed, Daisey seems to implicitly imagine that marketing, fundraising, etc., are not talents in their own right. (He is, in his own way, a hopeless snob.) Now before you say it, I'm sure there are some actors that would be great marketers (and of course there are some great marketers who can also act!) But lived experience whispers to us that these examples of overlap are the exception, not the rule - and the "successful" collectives Daisey tends to cite - garage theatres in which everybody walks home from a performance with $50, for example - do not seem to match his ideal of "stability, salaries and health insurance."

So there remains the tricky problem of raising actors' salaries in something like the current model, which is only fair, but which economic logic seems to preclude. As I've pointed out previously, the union is ham-strung by "wage-price disease" and declining demand. Begging for higher wages from administrators who themselves feel under-compensated (Todd Olson's point) can likewise only go so far. The only remaining option, therefore, is shaping a viable format for donations to an actors' endowment - those "locked boxes" Daisey made reference to. (Wait a minute - isn't that Sean Lamont at left? He wasn't on Mike Daisey's blog! What's going on?)

But how to go about making a case for an, um, actors' endowment in these economic times? Well, how do other performing arts organizations square this circle? Symphonies, of course, tend to endow chairs, once they have the donor base, and this could be a transferable model at some well-established theatres. But the devil, of course, may be in the details. When an orchestra donor pays for a "chair," he or she is generally paying for a chunk of cultural quality and predictability. It's implicitly understood that a good deal of the money is going to go to perpetuating Beethoven or Mozart rather than funding new work - and that's merely human nature. You see, regardless of how often artists (and brokers!) chant about the joys of risk-taking, nobody much likes risk. Especially not donors. (And not theatre-goers either; note subscription rates are down.)

And let's be honest - isn't there something a bit intellectually disreputable about demanding bohemian freedoms while clamoring for bourgeois comforts? For some reason free love and a 401(k), much less "stability, salaries and health insurance," have never gone together - and that's because they contradict each other in social terms. Daisey's comparison between actors and migrant workers is even more irritating - is he really so fatuous that he imagines a migrant farm worker and an actor in an urban setting are facing anything like the same economic predicament? (Shades of Pete Hoekstra! And oh for heaven's sake - is that Frédéric Cermeno on the right? Goodness, what's he doing here?)

In short, it's hard to imagine donors contributing to acting "chairs" without a theatre first committing to a stable acting company, and style, and repertory, and succeeding at that remarkable challenge. The trouble is that not only are these expensive propositions to begin with, they're not artistically fashionable (in the New England area, only Trinity Rep approximates this repertory model) - and what's more, they're probably not the kind of theatre Mike Daisey would prefer to see take over the landscape. One can perhaps imagine endowed chairs in Shakespeare or Shaw, I suppose - but can one expect a wealthy donor to endow a confrontational, bohemian vision like the one most contemporary actors affect? Somehow this seems a stretch; indeed, even Harvard, which seems most committed to the academic variant of this vision, seems leery of actually funding a company to support it.

So perhaps the actor's salary problem is actually tied to the deeper cultural problem of both society's perception of theatre and theatre's perception of itself. Maybe Boards and administrators treat actors like chattel because that is unconsciously the role that actors and society have together conspired to create for them: they are dangerous gypsies, harbingers of revolution, etc., etc. - only now do they tell us they'd also like health insurance! Now don't get me wrong, I want actors to have health insurance (and I'm sure Geoffroy Messina, at left, does too!). But I think it's going to take a rather large cultural transformation to make that happen. A transformation which will require a return to the abandoned standards of repertory, a greater emphasis on arts education in the public schools, and even a shift in actors' own attitudes toward theatrical tradition. If administrators work toward all those goals, livable wages for stage actors may become a reality. But they probably cannot be willed into being any other way.

(Note: This may not be the last link in "The Daisy Chain.")

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