By Bob Shuman
In a 2019 BBC interview on “Free Thinking,” the actress Patti LuPone succinctly noted that the U.S. does not have a National Theatre, nor does it celebrate the work of any dramatic writer, as does Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company. She also feels, having starred on both Broadway and the West End, that producers, and others in Britain, are more interested in the merit of work, rather than huge corporate profit, which affects the caliber of the American scene.
U.S. entertainment unions (SAG-AFTRA, AEA, and others), additionally, can cause confusion for artists—as is happening now with disagreements over streaming media—whereas their counterparts in the U.K. and Canada find workable solutions for artists instead of roadblocking. Theatrical product has become uniform—whether that is in terms of political view, names involved, areas of diversity attached to projects, and types of events and stories produced. American theatremakers, themselves, who may believe they are powerless, also, can side with entertainment fiefdoms, which may make them less individually creative. The phenomenon of gatekeepers in entertainment, and in an industry like publishing, has long become accepted, sabotaging, instead of fostering, the work of practitioners, and subjecting them to rote mechanisms of exclusion.
Others in the professional hierarchy may profit by yoking artists to schemes in which they continue to pay for the hope of market exposure—in an undetermined future. LuPone mentions that, despite the professional labyrinths, “some shows get through,” which is a little like hearing doctors say, “Some patients live.” However, a 3/28/19 article on Bloomberg captures the importance of American artists and their real power: the Arts actually “contribute(d) more than $800 billion a year to U.S. economic output, amounting to more than 4 percent of GDP.” To help demonstrate what this means, “The contribution of the arts to America’s economy is equivalent to nearly half of Canada’s total GDP, and bigger than the economic output of Sweden or Switzerland. Indeed, the arts account for more of U.S. GDP than industries such as construction, transportation, and agriculture.”
Governor Cuomo, fortunately, has expressed his understanding of our arts impact. On 1/12, as reported in The New York Times, he stated, “New York urgently needs to revive its arts and entertainment industry if it is to recover from the coronavirus pandemic,” despite the fact that American artists waited six months longer than their counterparts in other countries for relief (15 million dollars was released for them in December). Of course, the need is not specific to one group: According to the Washington Post, on 1/21, 900,000 people filed for unemployment in the previous week, adding to the 16 million people already receiving benefits. This does not take into account the needs of those who may have worked part-time, in gigs, or other temporary work, or those undetected and invisible, deemed ineligible for government aid, which can include artists.
Solutions, nevertheless, can be found for those left behind. Although the arts, as economic engine, are undervalued in the U.S., other countries see the contributions. In 2019, they added more to the UK economy than agriculture–the Guardian reported that “the sector added £10.8bn to the economy.” Currently, as discussed in The New York Times on 1/13, France and Great Britain offer aid geared to temporary or seasonal working conditions of arts workers. Germany and Austria, with long histories of arts subsidies, implemented bonuses and insurance. Other countries are working with cultural bailouts and long-term loans.
Our legislators, who recognize the economic engine of the arts, must champion delayed abilities and the powers of those who continue to be oppressed in the field–yet, one area, arts-based education programs, has been in decline “for the past couple of decades,” according to Bloomberg. Funding in a public-private partnership with the Mellon Foundation, though, which was also announced by Governor Cuomo, will “distribute grants to put more than 1,000 artists back to work and provide money to community arts groups.”
Better would be if such events were available, throughout the state, for those who need this pandemic year to establish footholds for themselves, not for others whose careers are already validated. Students whose professional aspirations are stalled, beyond inconvenience, and who will now be competing with those younger than themselves and with more current school experience—these are the performers whom New Yorkers should be seeing, congratulating, and paying for. Their time to shine has been curtailed.
Some would consider that the time of COVID might, in fact, be ripe for reevaluation and rethinking, where government, practitioners, and audiences must envision a new theatre for those who participate, based on improved working conditions and fresh ideas.
After almost a year, seeing the difficulties of others, and experiencing them ourselves, we have learned so much—sometimes about things that were being done wrong or couldn’t be heard at all.
We can’t go back.
Photos from top:
NY Times; BBC; Brandeis