The Ticket Cost: On theater and elitism

Soon after graduating from college with a degree in theater and a lot of uncertainty as to what my next steps should be, I decided that networking might be the way to go. That led to me buying a ticket to a fundraiser at a theater where I had seen several productions while in school. It was a place I hoped to work at one day, but the goal was to meet as many people as possible at the event. I wanted to make local connections as I always planned on staying in Rhode Island, and this was going to be my first attempt at introducing myself to the community.

Admission was not cheap, and I didn’t have a lot of expendable income. I dug a suit out of my closet that I had worn to a wedding, and I drove my beat-up car to the gorgeous venue where the event was being held. I remember sitting in the front seat, engine overheating, music on, talking down my anxiety. I finally managed to push myself out of the car and into a situation I was sure wouldn’t be as bad as I imagined.

In fact, in some ways, it was worse.


Because while your worst nightmare regarding a social engagement might involve tripping on your way in or spilling red wine all over a VIP guest, there was another scenario I had never managed to envision.

Everyone ignored me.

It’s not that I failed to meet anyone. I did have a friend or two at there, and those friends did their best to bring me around and have me say hello to anybody they thought I should get to know, but when those people learned I was just a local grad looking to kick off a career in my field, they showed no exuberance, and most quickly excused themselves so they could move a few feet away and talk to someone more established.

This went on for the entire evening, and when it was all over, I recall questioning whether staying in Rhode Island was such a good idea after all, or if theater, in general, was a good move for me. It was only my conviction that it probably wouldn’t be any easier anywhere else that had me feeling as though I should just press on.

(I’m also Irish, and we live for vengeance, so there’s that.)

Telling that story was always impossible, because of how ashamed I felt. The arts is a fertile breeding ground for imposter syndrome, and that means the slightest suggestion that you actually are an imposter, that you really don’t belong, that you have nothing to offer leads to you beating yourself up for even having the audacity to try. You feel caught. Like a con artist. Like you were trying to get away with convincing people of your own worth.

When I finally did tell the story of that night years later, I received a lot of support from people who had experienced something similar. I was also contacted by people who were there that night and swore that I couldn’t have been, because they don’t remember me being there, and Oh, if I had been, they would have taken me under their wing and showed me so much compassion. What a crime that we didn’t bump into each other, because they definitely would not have behaved in the self-serving way the other people there did.

The truth is I remember every person in attendance that night, and every person who swore they didn’t recall me being there had, in fact, snubbed me. 

If anything, coming back to me years later only to let me know that they doubted my presence simply because they didn’t want to believe they could act that way felt like adding insult to injury. Ultimately, I don’t really harbor that much ill will toward them, because this is how we’re taught to behave as artists who look at our work as a career rather than a passion.

Once you start behaving like someone who moves through the world with strict eye for professional advancement, you quickly find yourself transforming from a creator into a networker, and from there, it’s only a hop, skip and a crudite plate away from being–

An elitist.

Last week, I wrote about my concerns for theater as we move toward reopening, with a focus on keeping promises made in statements and revised guidelines regarding diversity and equity in staffing and storytelling. One of the threads I was too worried to pull at in that article for fear of going off on too large of a tangent was the way in which racial inequity rides alongside classicism in many of the organizations and atmospheres we, as artists, find ourselves in.

In her masterpiece Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson presents an irrefutable case for how the invisible class systems in our lives and histories dictate behavior and prejudice we are subject to and that we subject others to. I could never do that book justice by trying to explain it further, but I highly recommend grabbing a copy. While I was reading it, I saw theater after theater coming out to pledge that they would seek to address their inequities, but I found that I wasn’t hearing anyone talk about class.

In fact, there was a subsequent conversation happening at the time, all about the economics of reopening, and how the industry might need to become even more financially oriented in terms of how it operates. When it comes to business models, that’s understandable, but one would hope that idea would be to create new models that expand accessibility to the arts and lessen the impact of rich donors and people who can afford to spend hundreds of dollars every year on season subscriptions. 

Instead, it was the exact opposite. However many eggs theater leaders were putting in their rich white baskets, they now seemed to be prepared to toss them all in. As to how that would impact their declarations of change from last summer, the idea seemed to be that they would ask Black artists to sit next to the influential wealth mongers at board meetings and brainstorming sessions, thereby giving them a front row seat to how the old order was put together and maintained, with the expectation that the bigwigs from the before times would now willingly sacrifice their input and sway and give someone else a chance to speak.

Needless to say, I find that suggestion to be somewhere between wishful thinking and outright insanity.

For years, I conducted anonymous interviews with theater artists about their frustrations in the field. In each of those interviews, I found elitism coming up time and again, although it was given a different name each time. There seems to be something innate in us, either as artists or humans, that wants to stay away from the topic of class. Perhaps it’s that shame I felt the night I thought I looked too shoddy in my off-beige suit to be worth talking to. We know that even the poorest members of our society will sometimes pair themselves up ideologically with the wealthy, because they believe it to be an aspirational alliance. Maybe if they believe the things rich people believe, they’ll find a billion dollars buried in their backyard.

Theater people seem to have the same misconception, except that there are a great deal of them who are sure that money is not a driving factor in their work or their artistic journey. The trouble is, even when money isn’t the motivation behind their behavior, success almost always is, and when success is predicated on money and resources, you’re chasing currency whether you know it or not.

Nearly every facet of how theater operates tangles up success and exposure using the same rules that all capitalist structures do, which is ironic, considering how often theater tries to set itself apart from those structures so as to criticize and abhor them. In some cases, that faux revolutionary spirit only serves as a facade for what is actually a wild hunt for cash. A Latinx playwright I spoke with recently for a future article was commissioned by a theater to write a new play to be produced post-COVID, but when they submitted their first pass, they found that the artistic staff was put off by the fact that the play didn’t do enough to “properly express a Latinx point of view.” You can imagine this playwright’s surprise at hearing that their point of view, in and of itself, was not sufficiently Latinx. They were told that the commission was the result of a grant the theater had received to produce more work by Latinx artists, and they wanted to make sure whatever wound up onstage was fulfilling what the grant intended. Somewhere in all that wokeness, the theater revealed itself to be more concerned with perception than with the playwright’s experience. The entire situation was brought about by how an arts funding agency and a theater wanted to appear to its neoliberal audience base, and not by any real interest in putting an authentic perspective in front of an audience.

Four months ago, I was asked to be on a hiring committee at a school where I’d been teaching remotely. Unfamiliar with the area, the department felt I’d have an unbiased outlook when it came to selecting someone. While the intention was good, when the time came to discuss our choice for the position, I found I was the only one voting for the person who I felt had the most impressive background. The other members of the committee wanted a local actor who was, according to them, “universally beloved,” and who had worked at a lot of other theaters in the area. In other words, the reason I was brought on also made me the sole outlier in the group.

“He could set these students up with acting jobs, directing jobs, you name it,” crooned one member of the committee. “He has connections everywhere around here.”

I was confused. It seemed to me that while the point of any college program was to prepare you for a profession in the outside world, the education you were meant to receive was what would facilitate that preparation. It shouldn’t be as simple as lessening the distance between a student and the person who signs the contracts, should it? The person the committee wanted to hire did seem very nice, but his resume just wasn’t on par with all the others we received, including one from an actor whose work I was familiar with and who I thought would be an asset to the program.

“I’ve never heard of her,” said that same committee member, as though that automatically disqualified her.

In that way, a sort of reverse snobbery took over. I see it often in New England. Maybe it has something to do with never evolving far beyond a village mentality. The idea that someone can only be deemed impressive by the place where they come from — and nowhere else. Despite the fact that the applicant I voted for should have appealed to anyone looking to turn some heads (she’s the protege of an Academy-Award winning writer) she could not measure up to an actor they could bring their friends and spouses to see at their nearby theater.

While I’ve always scoffed at the term “local celebrity,” as I grow older, I find that some people take a great deal of pride in only being interested in those who they feel they’ve helped create. The flip side of that is a dismissal of anyone’s success they haven’t had a hand in. Often when raving about a local performance I’ve loved, someone will say to me “I saw them in a play 10 years ago, and I didn’t think they were that good.” The implication being that someone has one chance to make an impact, and if they fail, they’ve failed forever.

The frustrating thing about trying to win the battle over elitism is that, at times, it doesn’t seem like it should be that difficult. It does, however, always seem to be expensive. I’ve listened to audience members tell me all about how much they value great acting and writing, but then see their eyes widen when a theater constructs a notably decadent set or puts its actors in especially stunning costumes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when I think of some of my students, and how much I encourage them to produce theater in rec rooms and church basements, assuring them that nothing matters but the quality of their work, I wonder just how much of what I’m saying is true. 

Years ago, a friend told me his parents were cancelling all their local subscriptions save for the one at the area’s biggest theater, because “they really want to feel like they’re going to the theater when they go to the theater.”

If you’re wondering what the hell that means, don’t worry, I was just as confused.

Upon further pressing, it seems what they meant was that they look at going to the theater the same way most people look at seeing a show in Las Vegas. It might be a great show, and if it is, swell, but the show isn’t really why they’re there. It’s just one part of a bigger evening out. That means they care just as much about the kind of cocktails they can get at the bar in the lobby, how close the nearest upscale restaurant is, and whether they’re going to run into any other East Side socialites at intermission. The play is almost beside the point, and that’s troubling, because while you really can create great theater just about anywhere, you have no control over there being a five-star bistro across the street from you. My friend’s parents cutting off support to theaters that don’t help elevate their own skewed perceptions of themselves are sending a clear message to those theaters that they need to invest in amenities and not in the work they do. It’s similar to how colleges are now building Olympic-sized swimming pools to try and attract students instead of investing in the kind of education they can give them.

It’s under these circumstances that we’re meant to believe change will be forthcoming. While I have seen great strides at theaters in terms of hiring and commitment to progressive growth, talking about reshaping how they approach thinking about their work in economic terms continually seems to shut down the conversation. When asked about how their work would address the middle class experience, one artistic director laughed and said-

The middle class? What are we — running for president?

While activists made a compelling case last year that racial injustice is present in all issues, ranging from student loan debt to climate change, artistic leaders have begun to cherry pick which problems they’d like to deal with, and — no surprise here — they’ve decided only problems that can be repaired with optics and no threat to the way they do business are the ones on their list. Anything that requires them to look at the way they’ve failed people who can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars taking classes at their institutions in the hopes of being cast there one day or only producing plays by writers that have been formally trained and produced on Broadway is simply not on the agenda.

We could also dive into the nepotism aspect of all this, but I almost fear where that would take us. Suffice it to say, this all boils down to access, and if you’re a top donor’s niece, access is rarely going to be a problem for you.

After telling a brilliant friend and colleague I was writing this, they told me about an experience they had at a local theater where they worked in the box office for a short time. Upon being hired, they were given a stern warning that in no way should they expect their presence in the building to mean that one day they could grace the sacred stage that was a mere 300 feet from them.

My friend told me they balked at the presumptive notion that somehow their applying for a job at a theater was some sneak attack on trying to get cast there. They’d be working regularly at a theater in Boston, and this job was just a way to make ends meet. They weren’t even all that impressed with the work being done there, but that aside, they hadn’t auditioned — ever. So why would they need to be lectured about advancement boundaries? I laughed, but then confessed to them that I’ve known people who would do something like that, if only because there seem to be so few ways to break in anywhere these days. That only made my friend angrier.

“In that case,” she said, “why go out of your way to tell someone that they could never hope to act or work there just because they’re working somewhere else at the same theater? What are they trying to say? That if you wind up in the box office or the marketing department that you lost some kind of contest and now you have to stay there forever? Geniuses are discovered in strange places all the time. What kind of person working for a theater doesn’t know that?”

They were right. In fact, theaters and colleges often love promoting that some Famous Person Who Struggled passed by them in the night, but the amount of time they spend trying to amplify and elevate the careers of those who might need a hand is frequently minimal at best. It makes you question why we spend so much time in Rhode Island puffing up our chests about how Viola Davis grew up here instead of trying to find the next Viola Davis. It’s wonderful to take pride in your success stories, but what are you doing in the spirit of that person’s success?

Usually when I ask this question, I’m told about scholarships. I’m told about grants. I’m told about people I can meet with and places holding seminars and workshops, and I think to myself–

Don’t you people know that most artists are not artists for a living?

In terms of scholarships, I wonder–

How do you expect a young person who doesn’t come from a family that’s aware of their artistic talent to know how to find a scholarship, let alone apply for one?

The barriers to entry that we have created, even on a local level, have become unconscionable. The number of times I’ve seen people placed in arts community leadership positions who then disappear years later never having stepped foot in most of the theaters I work with is astounding. And when you push back on it, the blame is often put back on you. That you didn’t extend a formal invitation. That they’re so busy. That they wish they could do better and offer more help, but there are only so many hours in the day.

And yet they never seem to miss an opening night at the places that can provide an open bar. They always seem to have time to talk with the movers and the shakers, and every so often, they grab a photo of themselves in an inner city classroom to demonstrate how much they care. And while they profess that their schedules are full and they’re overworked, there never sees to be an acknowledgement that they are able to make time for people who make six figures and not for the painters and poets and dancers and musicians and artists who are not yet established, but trying to be. The people who are so busy making art while paying their bills that they unfortunately run out of energy before they can figure out how to hire a caterer for their next event, even while knowing that might make a difference in getting them more help.

A relatively new artistic director of a small theater in a state down south complained to me on the phone yesterday that when he started his theater, he knew the only way he’d get coverage or respect from his community would be to max out his credit card so he could throw a big opening night party. He knew that he could also borrow money from his production budget to really wow them, and while it might hurt the show, the “influencers” in his area just wanted to be able to tag themselves in front of a backdrop with the theater’s name on it so they could put up the caption “#SupportLocalTheater.”

And he did it.

And it worked.

He started receiving immediate attention from the local paper, even though theaters that had been around far longer than his were having a hard time getting noticed. Before we hung up, he even told me that a renowned local critic had praised him for “being smart enough to throw a good party.”

Apparently the party was the thing, not the play.

Not to mention the full page ad he took out in that paper.

That didn’t hurt either.

When I got back to my car the night of that fundraiser years ago, I was more dejected than I’d ever been in my life. Of all the heartache and disappointment I’ve faced since then, that was still the one that felt the most crushing. It was partially because I felt like I was up against something that was far more insidious than just a “theater problem.” It was a societal problem that was not only present in an industry meant for welcoming outcasts and original thinking, but widely embraced as the right thing to do if you care about getting anywhere in that very same industry.

I’m glad I had the wherewithal to not let it deter me for very long, but I think of all the people who have been in similar rooms and at similar parties being similarly ignored. Truthfully, I’m sure I’ve done the ignoring on many occasions. It’s difficult to learn the rules of the game and then decide not to play it. That isn’t an excuse, but an admission. I’m just as guilty as anyone when it comes to thinking of theater as a race to win instead of an outlet for expression and collaboration. That’s why I eventually found myself thinking I should step back from it. Not because I wasn’t winning the race, but because it didn’t seem like anyone was, and I was watching so many people, especially those who, like me, did not come from wealth, decide that the deck was stacked against them. Though I didn’t grow up rich, I do recognize my innate privilege, and if I felt unwelcome at that party, I can’t imagine what somebody who wasn’t born with that same privilege would have felt.

As we continue to talk about what we want theater to look like on the other side of this historic moment, we need to shine a light on all the ways in which we might come across as inaccessible. How easy is it for someone we don’t know — a new designer arriving in town or a person switching careers late in life or a kid just out of college who is terrified and needs guidance — to receive access to us? How far is the bridge from the top of the chain to the bottom? Should we be radically reconceiving the function and purpose of administrative elements like boards and development?

Who are we to people who can do nothing for us?

Even if we’re kind to someone who doesn’t turn out to be the next Shakespeare or Michelangelo, you have to ask–

What did that kindness actually cost us?

So much of what theater does best is built on the back of generosity. The willingness to let a scene partner have their moment in front of an audience. A chance taken on a new script or an up-and-coming actor. An anonymous donation just because you like the work you’re seeing or you believe in the mission.

If there’s a way forward, a lot of progress will need to be made in the light. There will have to be public follow-through on public promises, and accountability and transparency will be of the utmost importance. In that front-facing way, much of the change we’ve been asked to create lives in the optics, but generosity does not. It rarely ever does. We could probably come back with just what we’re willing to do publicly, but to come back better, we need a radical commitment to generosity.

It’ll require a seismic shift in our own individual values. It’ll live in small interactions and in the conversations we have that nobody else can hear. We’ll need to reconfigure our taste so that what’s shiny isn’t praised above what’s substantial. We’ll have to learn to be the one who looks around a room full of people talking and laughing and make our way to the one person who seems like they don’t know anyone, introduce ourselves, compliment them on a suit that doesn’t quite fit, and try to make them feel welcome.