The Business of Show Biz: Theatre in a Messed-Up World
Thursday, May 23, 2013
By Velina Brown
Q: What is the role of theatre in our deteriorating world? With global warming, the rapid speed in which our polar ice caps are melting, the increase in droughts, floods, fires, along with a growing population rate, food and water shortages, violence everywhere—why continue to pursue a career in theatre and advocate for the arts when, now more than ever, there is an urgent need to fight for the health of this planet? I feel the stakes cannot get any higher than that.
| Actor and career consultant, Velina Brown.
A: I agree that there are serious issues facing humans as a species. However, I don't believe the only way to address those issues is to leave the arts. It's been said before: If you can be just as happy and fulfilled doing something else, do that. But if you would not be happy or fulfilled doing anything else, then pursue your art with all you've got.
So, where does art fit into a world that seems to be going to hell in a handbasket? It really depends on what sort of work you've been doing as an actor and why. I personally think that art is a very powerful way to address the most pressing issues of our time. But the work needs to be in line with that intention. If you are doing things that feel like, "This is a piece about my pert boobs," then I can see why you might feel a disconnect between how you are spending your time and what matters most to you. Your work can be in line with your life purpose and make a difference. For example, abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, both in novel and later play form, reached millions and was hugely influential in turning public opinion against slavery.
Rhodessa Jones of the Medea Project shared in a February 8 San Francisco Chronicle interview, "I've spent my life working with incarcerated women and marginalized people. I was in jail once and a woman asked me what an artist was. I said an artist is a broker. An artist is a magician. An artist is an alchemist. Everybody asks me, 'Is this art? Is it social work? Is it therapy?' I say all of the above. I'm an artist who is also a social activist. I'm not interested in art for art's sake. I am interested in art that saves lives."
Actor, writer and teacher Ed Hooks has always said that "Actors are shamans." Hooks explains in his December 2012 newsletter, sent out soon after the horrible Adam Lanza school shooting, "The tribe needs its shamans now. The world around us is becoming increasingly crazy-quilt, and we do not know how to make sense of it. We know for sure that we cannot survive if we are unable to detect and deter the future Adam Lanzas. We do ourselves no favor by marginalizing him, which is really just a way of avoiding the problem. What on earth motivated him on December 14? How did he get to be like that? The tribe, to survive, must face these questions. It is time to draw a circle in the dirt. It is time for the shaman to go to work." I agree.
And as Paul Arendt explains in his 2009 Guardian UK piece, "Can Artists Save the World?," "Thanks to organizations such as UK-based charity Tipping Point, which brings artists and eco experts together, there is now a belief within the scientific community that the arts have a major role to play when it comes to saving the planet. 'We're in the middle of a paradigm shift in how we see the world,' says Peter Gingold, who runs Tipping Point. '...One of my dreams is to inspire a work so powerful that it provides the impetus to action—without something horrible having to happen first, and millions of people losing their lives.' There is some precedent for this, the most obvious example being Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth,' which helped transform public understanding of global warming."
So it doesn't matter much whether you decide to stay in the arts, become a firefighter in Australia, a well digger in Africa or an organic farmer in Bolinas. What matters is whether it's something you can do with deep commitment and joy rather than with draining self-flagellation, guilt or grim obligation. You'll likely need stamina to do your chosen work.
If you decide to leave theatre, I hope you leave because you have found something that you are more passionate about and not because you think theatre or the arts in general are somehow lacking in power to address the important issues of our day. In my view there is nothing more powerful if pursued with that intention. All the best to you.
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at email@example.com.