Many young actors back in the NYC of the 1990s spent months at a time on tour, doing classical theatre, or TYA musicals, or message plays focused on social issues. It was a way to add credits to your resume, pay the rent for a few months, and maybe even save up a little money to get through a dry spell until you booked the next show.
I did this for years, touring with Cyrano De Bergerac, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, and a show about substance abuse called Halfway There. That last show went out twice a year, and I went with it for two years, then directed it for the next four.
Touring provided a great opportunity to see the country. Thanks mostly to my years performing in high schools, colleges, and old vaudeville houses across the map, I’ve been to forty-seven of the fifty states. Halfway There took me to Egypt, where we were booked at the American College in Maadi, just outside of Cairo.
I spent an additional four or five years doing Shakespeare at a theatre in New Jersey. We did Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and a collection of stories by Edgar Allan Poe. These plays were also performed for schools, but instead of traveling to them, the students were bused in to us.
These theatre companies survived by benefitting from arts in education programs. They received funding either directly from government grants, or were chosen by the schools, who had to spend the money they were given for that purpose. (Halfway There was often sponsored by DARE or MADD.)
When I was a student, I had the opportunity to see live theatre in this way. I remember sitting in the auditorium watching professional actors up on the stage and wondering about their lives.
Actually, I had the rare experience of being up on that same stage myself one day, while touring locally, and being booked at my old high school. It was more than a little unreal, to be standing in the exact spot where I stood during our senior class show, where I first felt the rush of adrenaline that comes with applause. That first time standing backstage about to go on, that first time making an audience laugh, was thrilling. I remember the exact moment I decided that this is what I wanted to do with my life.
Due to some scheduling issue with the school, we had to cut the question and answer period that followed the performance, which was a real shame. I had wanted to tell those students that I was one of them once, and how lucky I felt to be a working actor now.
In addition to live theatre, our high school had many programs for the arts. We had an extensive music department, for both orchestra and band. We had an advanced placement program with a local college, whereby students could take college level courses in fine art. Pottery, painting, commercial art, fashion illustration, art history. We had mandatory shop classes in metal, carpentry, and printing, as well as elective classes like leather working, and photography.
In short, the arts were considered an important part of our education.
Over the years, I watched as funding for the arts was systematically cut, to the point where arts in education was no longer considered necessary. I wonder how many touring theatre companies are able to survive today?
During this period of staying at home to help fight the spread of a global pandemic, it is undeniably clear to most people that yes, artists play an essential role in society. We are all of us now relying on movies and live-streamed events and music and books. The tellers of stories, the writers of songs, the dancers and poets and actors and filmmakers are now among the people we consider important.
What if it were to stay that way? I find myself wondering how much better this country would be if we treated all artists as valuable. As necessary. Ask any singer how many times they have been told to get a real job, by well meaning relatives. Or friends. Or total strangers, offering their unsolicited advice.
“You’re an actor? Really? What do you do for your real job?”
I’ve heard this for decades. Decades during which I have not had a day job. Nor a temp job. Nor a job of any sort that did not involve some kind of art. I’ve been hired to paint, to perform, to direct, or to write. True, I’ve stretched the definition of performing to include entertaining at parties and corporate events. Even so, that does still involve talent, one that has come in handy over the years, especially when booking commercials. (My time in Los Angeles included booking more than one spot as a mime, and one of the biggest paychecks I’ve ever earned was for playing a juggling reindeer in an Acura ad, directed by Joseph Kosinski.)
During the recent Democratic primary debates, the subject of a basic living wage was introduced into the conversation by Andrew Yang. He did not think this up himself, it has been tested in other countries, and we do have something sort of like it in Alaska, but he deserves credit for bringing so much attention to the idea. Especially now, when we are seeing that idea playing out in real time all around us.
Many of us are receiving assistance from the government to carry us over through the current crisis. For people forced into unemployment, it is simply temporary subsistence pay. For artists like me, it is a salary. For the first time, income from the government is being given on a broad scale to artists, giving them a chance to create, and just create. Without having to worry about paying the bills. Without having to create something that sells. Without having any strings attached at all. Here, your expenses are covered. Now take those photos, write a novel, film a scene, or throw a pot on your wheel. Here you go, now do what you do.
When I was in Paris, going to plays and trying to understand them in French, I met an actor who became a friend and guide. He told me he was studying at an acting school where the lessons were in English, and asked if I would come audit a class he was in, which led to an audition, and I was accepted, and for a brief moment I entertained the fantasy of living in Paris as an acting student. Until it became clear that Americans have to pay their own way. Which was out of the question, naturally.
My friend didn’t understand.
“Doesn’t your country pay for your rent and your tuition?”
It was illogical to him. The idea that being an artist here is not considered a real job. The fact that France does take its artists seriously should not be surprising to anyone. At least not to anyone who has been to Paris. I suppose it must also be true that the fact that we do not, should not surprise anyone, either.
…but just imagine if we did.
Imagine if this temporary subsidy for artists was to be our new normal. What would America look like in a few years, in a generation? If art was considered essential. If the contribution of artists to our culture was unquestionable. A child could dream of pursing a natural talent, without being told to accept reality and to set foolish notions of poetry or ballet aside. Think of all the artists who never had that chance, what have we lost as a result? Think of all the ones who might have it now.