The past couple days, I’ve had the song “Nothing” from A Chorus Line stuck in my head as I fixed breakfast in the morning. When I was an undergrad, I saw the show in NYC, and wore out the record I bought. What was driving me nuts each morning was that I could remember most of the lyrics except a set near the end. I could have looked them up online, but by the time I finished making breakfast, my mind had gone elsewhere. But this morning, I finally remembered, and I knew what I wanted to write today.
As I suspect you know, this is a song sung by the character Diana Morales which described her experiences with her first acting class at the High School for the Performing Arts, where her teacher, Mr. Karp, has the students spend weeks doing Method improvs that strike Morales as “absurd.” After a few weeks, she’s had enough, and sings:
Went to church, praying, “Santa Maria,
Send me guidance, send me guidance, “
On my knees.
Went to church, praying, “Santa Maria,
Help me feel it, help me feel it.
Pretty please!”And a voice from down at the bottom of my soul
Came up to the top of my head.
And the voice from down at the bottom of my soul,
Here is what it said:
“This man is nothing!
This course is nothing!
If you want something,
Go find another class.
And when you find oneA Chorus Line
You’ll be an actress.”
And I assure you that’s what
Fin’lly came to pass.
You see, Morales tried. She tried to “feel” what it is to ride on a bobsled, to “be” a table, a sports car, and an ice cream cone. She tried to comply, to do what she was told was necessary to “be an actress.” Nothing. Her teacher threatened to have her transferred to another high school, her fellow students ridiculed her. Still nothing.
Finally, that “voice from down in the bottom of my soul” revealed to her that there was another path to being an actress that was right for her, and when she followed that path, that is exactly what happened.
Sometimes you have to blaze a new trail.
I’m reminded of what inventor Buckminster Fuller once said:
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.Buckminster Fuller
My previous posts have described some of the major decisions that created our current theater system in the US, and I hope that you saw that they weren’t inevitable or permanent. Those few, specific historical events have led to a theater today that is controlled by producers and theater managers, in which hiring is centralized in New York, and that regards theater artists as employees desperate for work. In addition, a commitment to classics and revivals (and, frankly, Disney film recreations) limits opportunities for new playwrights to receive a full production.
So now what?
I think there are three responses a theater artist can have:
- Accept and adapt
- Accept and reform
- Reject and leave
- Reject and create a new system
Most “pre-professional” university theater programs tacitly choose Option #1, believing that if they don’t train students for the way things are today that they are doing them a disservice. Students internalize the rules of that system without question.
Some choose Option #2. They work to increase pay for artists, for instance, or to raise awareness of abuses of power, or create alternative technology to make a career easier to manage, and so forth. This is valuable work that can have an important impact on the lives of theater artists, but change comes extremely slowly. When I was writing my Theatre Ideas blog, I was essentially adopting the #2 orientation and trying to shame theater leaders into giving greater attention to non-urban theater. I made some headway, but not much.
Option #3 happens a lot, usually when artists have made it to their early thirties and take stock of their progress within The Business. It’s the point where the stress of economic insecurity and a transient lifestyle start to become tired and tiring. If Morales had left her class and become an Economics major, she’d be following Option #3, and the theater would have been deprived of her talent. The theater justifies this by saying those who leave just don’t “want it” badly enough to stick with it, or alternately, that the “cream rises to the top” and those who leave are not as talented as those who stayed (scum also rises to the top, but never mind). Neither of these attitudes have any evidence to support them, but they are powerful nonetheless.
And then there’s Option #4: the Buckminster Fuller route.
That’s where we’re going from here. I will try to imagine an alternate path, a new model, one that draws on theater history and on ideas in other disciplines that value innovation and disruption. It doesn’t necessarily have to make the old model obsolete, as my friend Buckminster says, it just has to be a viable option for those who otherwise might choose Option #3. Your job, if you choose to continue, is to “turn your crap detector up to 10,” as my friend and mentor Calvin Pritner used to say, and see if anything I write suggests a path you might be interested in following. It isn’t all-or-nothing–you can pick and choose.
So here is my first “inspiration.” It comes from the founder of Houston’s Alley Theatre, Nina Vance, in 1947:
Mrs. Vance had $2.17 in her pocketbook. In those halcyon days penny postcards cost a penny. The lady bought 217 postcards. She and several others addressed them and sent them out.
The postcards were postmarked October 3, 1947, at 11:00 a.m. They read, “It’s a beginning. Do you want a new theater for Houston? Meeting 3617 Main. Bring a friend. Tuesday, October 7, 8:00 p.m. — Nina VanceQuoted in Todd London’s anthology, An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art
Today, you could get a couple hundred postcards for about $35 — or you could send emails free or make a Facebook event! It doesn’t have to take a lot. Just the courage to do it.
Like Morales, Vance had tried it the way it was supposed to be done. She graduated cum laude from undergrad, worked in radio at University of Southern California, and then went to Columbia University and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York to study theater. “While in New York,” she writes laconically, “noticed everybody there had a makeup kit and a violin. Field seemed overcrowded. Returned to Texas.”
The voice from down in the bottom of her soul told her to find a better path. And when she found it, she created a theater that remains vibrant today. For and initial investment of $2.17.
Let’s look for inspiration.
1 thought on “nothing”