Art vs Commerce

create-your-futurecardOne of the warriors of the Pro99 movement recently posted a statement on Facebook that is not only worthy of repeating, but important to understand. William Salyers said, “Those who believe in art as an end unto itself will ultimately prevail for one simple reason: we will not quit. Those who believe in art as a function of commerce will eventually lose interest, because the law of diminishing returns will dictate that they should let it go. We (who live for art) meanwhile, have the rest of our lives to fight this battle.”

This was stated in reference to the current battle between Actor’s Equity Association (AEA), a labor union, and its members (professional actors and stage managers). However, it also reflects upon the very nature of theatre in America today.

For more than a hundred years, Broadway had held sway and defined American Theatre. Great passionate meaningful plays were produced in New York and eventually disseminated out to the rest of the country, first by NY-based tours that went out and performed. This was soon followed by small theatres around the country mounting local productions of the same plays.

But theatre is now more than some image created in the mystic ether of New York. It is a living breathing expression of a community. Every single community (however you define that) has a different need, a different feel and a different response. As local artists discovered their voices, the clarity of their messages began to resonate in wider circles, being felt like the ripples created by a pebble dropped in a pond. As a result, the vision of Broadway as a theatre mecca began to wane.

Regional and local theatres are exploring ways to build sustainable business models and create meaningful theatre. Artists are building networks of people they want to work with locally. While a trip to NY is nice, career futures are envisioned where an artist will actually work with resources that are familiar and fit on their creative palate–messages that resonate at their very core. Often what is now on Broadway is merely a spectacle screaming, “Look we have a show, such as The Lion King.” While it’s entertaining, how well does it speak to our humanity? How long does it live in our psyches?

By the droves, artists have discovered that their aspirations are met by the quality and content of what they produce, and while commercial success would be nice, it is not the driving force for creating art. As with every artist who has come before, the work–the art–is what is important. It is the reason for being. Life sustainability is just what one does so one can produce art.

In a very real sense, that is the battle between AEA and its members. The union has come to regard the model of Broadway as the guide for sustainable theatre throughout the country. But that premise is wrong. The creative drive of actors and writers and all of the other artists that make theatre is what drives the machine that needs a sustainable business model. And by trying to impose a commerce-incited action against actors and stage managers, AEA has fallen on the wrong side of history. America, as a culture, as a society, as a community, needs theatre. It is the resonating soul of our lives, the mirror we use to grade our progress.

That which is produced on Broadway no longer holds the allure for the country. The business model is collapsing, many tours are now sent out without AEA actors, and the demand for reproducing Broadway shows on a local basis is waning. When the majority of what is presented on Broadway is a regurgitation of shows already revived a dozen times, it becomes pap, and is not a replacement for art.

There will always be room for “nice theatre,” “pretty theatre,” Broadway theatre. But the real soul of the art is in those who daily have to create and are willing to accept the work as pay, until we the audience realize that what they produce is worth paying for.

Art is an end unto itself. Commerce is just a way to be able to access more art!

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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  1. So what you propose, as does Mr. Salyers, is community theatre, and amateurism on the part of the actor.

    I’m well-acquainted with that, as I hail from Omaha, which has one of the oldest and most successful community theatre in the country, and that is where I honed my craft, in community theatre.

    Of course, what you propose is that the directors of these community theatres not pay their actors, who should perform out of a love for the craft and as an art form. All well and good, but once an actor joins the union their expectation is to work in the theatre, not hone their craft. The real problem is that if you profess to be a professional, then you should be a professional, not a dilettante.

    Especially when every community theatre I’ve ever worked in was charging a ticket price, paying their designers, directors, and most of their technicians, not to mention that the Artistic Director and his staff were also receiving salaries. Why does this formula sound familiar? Oh, yes, it’s exactly what the 99-Seat theatre in Los Angels have been doing for the past 35 years, often while maintaining budgets in excess of $200,000 and up to more than a million. Not to mention that the writer is receiving a paycheck of some sort, if not a residual for their published works.

    Why is it only the actor who should not be paid for their work? Because we’ve worked for free the last 35 years and that’s the way you want it?

    I’d have little problem with your so-called, new model if everyone was working for free. After all, “art is an end unto itself”.

    Tell me again, why should professional actors not be paid for their work when producers

  2. Indeed, basing theatre in community might make it relevant again. Communal theatre, theatre of public concern, also happens to be the kind I most enjoy doing, whether it pays a salary or not. I am happy to let those who value commerce first and foremost do whatever kind of theatre they think will achieve that for them. Meanwhile, I will fight to do the kind of theatre I love, for the benefits I choose.

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