Thank You, Fear

Many of us are afraid to discuss workplace conditions at work, in private, in public, on social media, but if what we say is true and its intent is to bring a group complaint to management, it’s protected speech. The employer cannot legally retaliate. That doesn’t stop us from fearing that they will.

Professional theatre is a place full of fear. Most of us are constantly within 8 weeks of being totally unemployed, if employed in our industry at all, and scarcity mindset abounds. If we don’t want to put up with poor pay, racist/sexist/ableist casting/directing/writing, dysfunctional audition systems, crazy hours, blurred lines regarding professional behavior, there are thousands of recent grads from musical theatre programs that will happily claim our slot. We don’t complain because it’s a small community, and we’re afraid of getting blacklisted. Especially after seeing it happen to our coworkers. We think that if we can push through the rough gigs, we’ll earn our way to the ones free from those problems. But we’re terrified that we’ll never get there, and sometimes when we do, we learn those gigs have the same issues.

But how can we earnestly perform Les Mis, Matilda, Kinky Boots, Newsies, Wicked, Hairspray, and Urinetown if we don’t try to revolutionize our broken systems. Are we turning a blind eye, singing Hakuna Matata, while the Hyenas lay waste to Pride Rock? Are we, like the cast of Hadestown, willing to keep striving for the world that could be, no matter how many times we fail?

Actor’s Equity seems unwilling to update audition processes, even though they’ve had a year long sabbatical they could have spent innovating. Scott Rudin announced Our Town starring Dustin Hoffman in the wake of BLM protests. Most of us are more invested in the return of the old system, anxious to get paid for the skills we’ve developed, than we are invested in how to use those skills to create new systems. But we need new systems. Not just updates to the old ones.

Tech innovation happens rapidly because a number of companies are competing to deliver new tools and systems for the public. If Microsoft were alone, with a number of smaller regional subsidiaries whose work relied purely on Microsoft, we’d be beholden to Microsoft’s priorities and capabilities. Microsoft wouldn’t be able to steal great ideas from other companies. Same for Apple. But together, and with Samsung, Google, Sony, the whole crowd, they make each other better.

Broadway doesn’t have a rival. Musical theatre is expensive to make, per audience member, under-marketed, and totally built around the Broadway brand. All of that could be resolved by streaming. Here’s my longer argument on that subject. But it’s deeper than the benefits we’d get in financial opportunity, popularity, and accessibility. It would also give our systems rivals to learn from and to compete with.

Creating theatre-streaming systems in Mexico would help us reach 580 million Spanish speakers worldwide, but it would also open the door to innovations our casting, rehearsal, and production processes, absent the strictly codified compromises our unions and producers have made. Those unions talk about concessions and negotiations, small victories and painful losses. It’s no wonder they resemble the dysfunction and snail-paced progress of the US Senate. If the experimenters share the view that great ethics lead to great environments, great products, and great profits, we could create solutions impossible to imagine under the constraints of those bargaining agreements.

Creating those new systems, to free us from the fears of our current system, has its own set of fears. Who’s going to pay for it? Who’s capable of leading it? Will it, despite our best efforts, have the same issues? What if, like in Pippin, we discover the King’s tyranny is the unavoidable, practical response to external realities? What if, like in Urinetown, the system we reject was protecting us from a greater threat, and we didn’t have our plan for addressing it? I think those fears are way more exciting and worthwhile.

The pandemic has taught us that we must be more than our theatre resumes and income. No matter how well we audition, how many relationships we build, how many Broadway credits we have, or how many incidents of harassment we don’t report to avoid getting blacklisted, our current systems cannot offer us external stability.

So we must prioritize internal stability. If we individually prioritize fair pay, fair treatment, fair representation, turning down offers that don’t fully serve us, while creating opportunities that do, our community will also develop external stability, inventing ways to reach audiences that don’t rely solely on one 20 block radius in NYC.

In the end, fear is a valuable piece of information. It tells us we’re about to be called to the stage, to engage with risk, to tell our story. As theatre artists, we’ve had a year to think of art as a practice, a communal joy, an expression, rather than a competition for scarce opportunities. In the absence of “thank you, five,” let’s say, “thank you, fear” and head straight for places. Your heart will tell you where that stage is, and you get to create your role.

All the love to whoever you are,