Essays, Practice, Opinions


How I loved college when I got there at the ripe old-age of twenty-two! Subjects I would never have dreamed of enjoying came to life—things like political geography. But there was one subject whose merits eluded me. I’d sign up for it over and over and then after one or two classes, despite not being a quitter and somewhat of a trouper, drop the course like a hotcake. Yes, it was economics. Ugh. All those graphs and percentages and numbers were like a heavy cloud descending on my brain. I knew it was important and relevant to my life and that it underlay every aspect of all our lives because everyone tells you this. And I have a fairly high tolerance for boredom. But Economics 101 killed me.

So the fact that I am sitting down to try to write about economics is an irony. I’d rather muse on the aesthetics, social relevance and morality of the theater any day—morality being the field that excites me particularly. It’s the way people treat each other—or mistreat each other—in the theater that I feel most passionately about. I’ve fashioned a piece on just this subject over and over in my mind while running in the park. But, wouldn’t you know, it’s the economics of it all that has come to seem most urgent. Even my beloved morality seems tightly bound up in it—as is aesthetics, social relevance, just about everything. Just as it is in the real world, just like the professors said.

There’ve been any number of discussions on HowlRound drawing attention to the economic reality of a life in the theatre today and its great divide—from the income and existential disparity between theater practitioners and administrators (precariousness versus security—each with its own sort of dependency) to the exploitation inherent in unpaid internships (which are just about the only way to get a foot in the door) and the economic inequality that allows some the luxury (though often a thankless one) to intern while others just can’t swing it. The extreme cost of MFA programs has been described, as has its burden of debt. And some have asked whether it’s worth the cost, while noting that one can hardly expect a career without it. An MFA, many maintain, is a necessary investment—as much for connections as for craft—the former being priceless, while teaching in such programs provides the only real means of income for many theater artists, creating a vicious or at least problematic cycle.

Meanwhile, the cost of entry to the profession is matched only by the prohibitive price of entry to a show—an issue that comes up over and over. And while no one has anything good to say about high ticket prices, the occasional administrator summons the bravado to justify the art’s costly exclusiveness. But no one denies that ticket prices affect the composition of theater audiences as well as the kind of material a theater produces. And while most on the site would demand redistribution of funding to artists and away from buildings in an effort to make theater a viable place for artists to live and work, others ask us to accept that a life in the theater should be no guarantee of a livelihood. Most recently we’ve even been treated to a bold cry for the end of arts funding, altogether, which I take as a rejection of the status quo. But how to muster the energy and time to build this new unencumbered theater without cash? And on it goes.

Not to be pessimistic, but where has all this talk gotten us, really? We decry an entrenched and power-besotted (dubiously) non-profit system which has shown not the slightest will to transform while pricing itself out of the market and taking us down with it. We decry the economic injustice implicit in gaining access to the field. And we try to be honest about our own economic realities, questioning our own and other’s entitlement, admitting to hardship if not outright poverty, despite our culture’s taboo around talk about money. And if at times the discussion has felt gentle to a fault on HowlRound, things have gotten a bit touchy lately, revealing underlying tensions and aggression, which given the economic climate is completely understandable, just as violence is understandable in the society at large. We all end up pitted against each other. And though we know that theater has always been a place of extreme lack of opportunity, with chance and luck as its bizarre operating principles, it now feels more like any other unhealthy and unfair economic practice in which the outcome is fixed and the rules opaque. And it seems to me that we may have reached the endgame in terms of thinking about our issues in isolation from the rest of the world’s issues. Perhaps there is a way forward outside the narrow confines of the stage?

To the culture at large, theater is an oddity that is thought (if it is thought of at all) to hold some exceptional status. How its artists subsist is a bit of a riddle to outsiders who assume it must have something to do with our propensity for suffering. Theater artists don’t hold real jobs or produce necessities and have no influence on the GDP or the nation’s productivity by any measurable standard. We don’t seem to work because we aren’t paid or we are paid peanuts for what we do. Our survival jobs tend to define us to outsiders. This lack of recognition isolates us in the culture, turning us inward for validation. And we know how well that functions. But just in time, it seems, there’s an economic idea floating around out there that might be big enough to take us into account. In fact, it seems custom-made for all artists. And wouldn’t you know, artists are active in its cause (which makes its legitimacy even more remarkable).

Yes, I am talking about a revolution. But ironically, this revolution is being studied and debated seriously in think tanks and journals and even parliaments worldwide and across the political spectrum—including in North America. It’s a proposition for an economic transformation that feels so radical in its simplicity (so simple that even I can understand it) that it comes as a shock to realize that it may actually become a reality somewhere near you soon.

The starting point are Articles 23 and 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which state that everyone has a right to a decent job and a decent standard of living, and the fact that—leaving the unprecedented unequal distribution of ever-greater wealth, aside—there are too many folks who cannot and will never get a job in the new economic reality and thus will not have the income for a decent standard of living. Technological innovation continues to eliminate work. There’s hardly a life-sustaining paid job to be had by a human anymore. More and more people in the prosperous nations are newly hungry and homeless, left feeling helpless and hopeless and useless—and angry and ill. In the meantime, the kind of necessary work that no one pays for does not get done because people are too exhausted trying to eke out survival by serving up over-sized portions of fast food or disgusting over-priced coffees or selling junk—material and mental.

This radical economic idea—the New Deal of our time—which is seen by many as the most practical chance societies have to cope with the crisis brought about by the transformation of work is variously known as Basic Income, Universal Basic Income, Basic Income Guarantee or Guaranteed Unconditional Universal Income. And here is the definition, most perfect in its simplicity:

A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.

In various manifestations, always based on this simple principle, Basic Income is a growing world-wide movement that takes artists seriously—as citizens of value. More generally, the nature of work, itself, is transformed by its precepts. I am talking about work like truly caring for the children, youths, the elderly, making art, building affordable housing, beautifying neighbourhoods, planting trees and sustaining gardens, creating justice in the world, etc, etc.

Such work would be acknowledged and valued and should a Basic Income come to pass, would be performed with new energy and enterprise. Of course any paid work that still exists will be there for the doing. And the desire for the acquisition of wealth, for material things and the luxury of travel will still encourage most to take it on, if they can get it, and to create businesses—now with less fear of risk. But each person’s basic needs will be met without a paid job, eliminating a plethora of special programs and bureaucracies and their bloated costs. The stigma and inhumanity of poverty will be eliminated once and for all as well as the physical and mental burdens associated with stress caused by want. Most interesting to contemplate is the possibility of a new flourishing of creative endeavour.

There is much to read on the web about Basic Income. Here are a few links. If you are hearing about this for the first time, you will have questions and scepticism, including how it would be paid for, so take a look, please.

About Basic Income from BIEN: Basic Income Earth Network.

Could We Afford a Universal Basic Income? from EconoMonitor.

Basic Income from Facebook.

Basic Income, a new human right. Basic Income Europe, Video from Youtube.

Even Rolling Stone is getting into the act! As has the NYTimes.

And if you are in any way affected by the economics of the theater, then I would argue that you might want to join its cause. There is something very liberating in believing that, like everyone else on this planet, theater artists have a right to an existence of dignity in which they can fulfill their life’s work.

Because as much as I appreciate the sacrificial impulse of those who believe a life in the theater should not be a guarantee of survival, I vehemently disagree. Theater is a valid occupation, despite the fact that its value has been generally dismissed and its artists devalued by its own institutions. And I am not declaring here that we should stop challenging these institutions. I’m suggesting that allying our struggle to the wider issue of human rights may have profound affects that we cannot predict. Yes, the Basic Income is an ideal at present, not a reality, but one that might guide, console and inspire us. It is an ideal that might also explode the theatrical imagination (its aesthetics and social relevance) in new, bold directions—mentally freeing us from the powerful hold of a theater culture which, frankly, is not worthy of its artists. Yes, economics underlies it all.


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