Post from November, 2018

The Most Thankless Job in Theatre

Sunday, 25. November 2018 22:18

Recently I overheard a couple grousing over the fact that the performance that they had paid several hundred dollars to see would feature not one, but two understudies that evening. They were understandably disappointed, but their rancor was unwarranted; they had no idea of the reason for the substitute performers. One presumes that management did not make the replacements lightly. Moreover, this was a touring company, with no real “stars;” while the performers were skilled, none were terribly well-known. Yet the couple somehow felt cheated at seeing performers they didn’t know replace other performers they didn’t know. All this was before the performance, so the relative quality of the performers was completely unknown (and, of course, would remain so).

Those performers, the understudies, have one of the most thankless jobs in the performance industry. Unless an occasional performance is stipulated by contract, a person who is an understudy has to not only know the role s/he may never perform, but he also has to study his/her principal performer so s/he can take the place of that performer with minimum disturbance to the production; in other words, s/he seeks to replicate the performance of his/her principal. At the same time, the economic exigencies of live production often require that the understudy carry another role to help justify his/her salary.

Unlike in the movies, the understudy does not suddenly become the star who eclipses the sidelined actor, s/he does her job, replacing the principal actor, until such time as that actor returns to the stage. This sort of thing happens in all live performing arts, because the mentality of the performing arts is that the show must go on, whether that show is theatre, dance, musical concert, or circus.

Lyn Gardner questions that mentality in her article, Must the show really always go on? In the article Gardner discusses the burdens that are placed on actors by a profession that not only demands that the show go on, but that the actor, unless s/he is incapacitated, be there to insure that that happens. Of course, when the actor is incapacitated, the show is either cancelled (anathema to producers) or the understudy goes on.

Over the last three years, I have had to promote understudies to principals in at least one show a year. In every case, the understudy took over the role and ran with it. This points to the efficacy of choosing capable understudies. However, in the non-professional theatre, it’s a job nobody wants. The understudy has to do all the work, and the likelihood of actually getting to perform is, under normal circumstances, very small. Done correctly, it’s enormous work with little to no payoff. But it’s a necessary job.

And it’s not only necessary from the producer’s point of view. Most who are involved with live production think this way. Despite Gardner’s admonitions, actors themselves think this way. I have seen actors perform with fevers, flu, colds, sore throats, sprained limbs, and personal emotional upheaval. They did this because they, like almost all of us who work in live performance and our audiences really do believe that, one way or another, the show must go on. And the way that often happens is through the craft and artistry of the understudy.

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Business as Art?

Monday, 12. November 2018 0:33

Writing for the New York Times, Blake Gonik  posits that one of Andy Warhol’s most important contributions to the world of art was a thing called Art Business. Art Business is, according to Warhol, “the step that comes after art” and lumps together everything that the artist does as “publisher, publicist or salesman” into “one boundless art work: part performance art, part conceptual art and part picture of the market world he lived in.” Gonik goes on to establish that other writers and museums share this view.  Further, he brings into the discussion such artists as Jeff Coons, Damien Hirst, and Banksy as examples of artists who followed Warhol’s example.

The notion that the marketing and sale of art, or anything else for that matter, constitutes an art in and of itself is certainly stretching the definition of art. Still, Gonik says that Warhol’s Business Art is as important to the art world as was Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. And he may well be right, although the idea does not seem to have caught on among artists in general, or perhaps, those artists feel that they do not possess the right set of qualities and skills to make their business operations into “artistic” endeavors.

The former choice is, I think, the most representative of the reality of most artists. Many got into the world of art in order to express themselves, to say something that they thought needed to be said. These artists are not necessarily concerned with theories on what does and what does not constitute art; they only know that the things they are making fall under that umbrella. They view the marketing and selling, not as another art, but as an ancillary to art. These artist would consider promotion and sales as art only metaphorically, as in “that marketing effort was a work of art.” They would never consider business operations as art itself. Indeed, some would say that business as art opens the door to “everything as art,” a concept which is ultimately devalues art.

Perhaps these artists just don’t get it. Writer and curator Jack Bankowsky has said that Business Art is the backstory behind “any sophisticated artistic practice.” And it is a sophisticated idea that the promotion and sale of artworks can be “about” something. It is easily understood that Duchamp’s Fountain was a comment on the art business; Banksy’s self-destructing sale may have been a critique of the art market. It seems, however, a far stretch to say that marketing and sales, in addition to being marketing and sales are also art works about some aspect of the promotion and distribution of art. That’s a bit too sophisticated and perhaps self-serving for some people, and again smacks of the everything-is-art-ism.

Personally, I have trouble with everything-is-art-ism. Certainly, any activity can be taken to heights that transcend normal execution. Any activity can be made elegant and well-formed, “art-like” if you will. That doesn’t make it art, at least under any definition that I know of art, the ideas of the critics and curators quoted notwithstanding. It may be that Duchamp’s declaration “that artists alone get to define what is art” is correct, but in my experience, declaring something to be this or that does not make it so. That requires an acceptance from the audience. What is art is, after all, determined by the culture of which it is a part, and that culture is developed and maintained by members of that culture, in other words, the audience. And despite what critics say, today’s general art audience as well as artists do not see business as art.

Please feel free to disagree. If you have thoughts on this subject, I would be very interested in hearing them.

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