Do You Have to be Rich to be an Artist in New York City?

After living in New York City for nearly 13 years as an artist, I have become acutely aware that the city has become a less welcoming place to artists.  Much has been documented over the last few years of neighborhood gentrification, and how the city is losing its multi-cultural identity in favor of social elitism.  The city is noticeably culpable; as it recognizes this fact by trying to create housing in Staten Island and the far reaches of the Bronx to house artists in commune type “projects” in a political effort to not lose those that make New York “vibrant”.  This trend in the economic environment of the city has in turn affected the decline of the greater creative culture and has impaired its ability to foster its artistic capacity to create.  In other words, the city has become less feasible place for artists, particular aspiring ones, to make it here.

Despite witnessing a trickling flow of friends and colleagues leave the city over the years for greener pastures, this realization was recently brought to the forefront of my thoughts while engaging in friendly conversation with a local real estate agent.  He remarked that there is an incredible influx of international money into the city to buy property as investment opportunities.  This has been happening for decades, of course, but even more so now at an increasing rate.  A fascinating point of our conversation to share was that most buyers aren’t looking to inhabit the property they are purchasing.  They may come for an infrequent stay, or a place for their children to use for a short time to attend school (please adopt me!), but mostly they are buying to sell again after it appreciates in value.  No one can dispute this financial planning logic.  However, the fact is that since many of the properties do sit vacant and are used so infrequently it does very little for the local economy.

We lose. You Lose.
We lose. You Lose.

Well, that isn’t entirely true.  What it does is raise the cost of square footage, which affects the mortgage price and rent of its surrounding properties.  A New York Times article from 2013 reports, “The average Manhattan apartment, at $3,973 a month, costs almost $2,800 more than the average rental nationwide.”  No doubt it’s over $4K by now; which is great for property owners, but this increase in value also causes renters to pay more in order to stay next door to theses invisible neighbors, or alternatively to move away to a more affordable area.  In short, this creates a place for only a higher strata of social class to afford to inhabit the area.  Which, in turn, attracts high end commercial businesses to then eventually overtake middle/working class neighborhood establishments.  This has a direct effect not only on social class, but also encumber the great number of  multi-cultural and ethnically diverse artists who dwell in the five boroughs and beyond.  Creating such hardship, does this mean the majority next generation of New York artists will come from an entitled class system?  Will the 1%, and its ilk, become the creative class by default?

The artists' mantra.
NYC artists’ love their city

If artists can’t afford to live here, they can’t create here.  More and more, it has become evident that New York is becoming a presenter of creativity, instead of home for creativity.  Does that matter?  For audiences, it may not.  Presenters of the performing arts, such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and Lincoln Center Festival, among others, have proved that importing art is good business.  But it should, because New York audiences, whether they realize it or not, are the other half of the creative process for local artists.  And what a special thing it is for the audience (and artists alike) to be part of that creative dialogue when witnessing something spiritually divine, moving, and exciting!  After all, everyone want to be part of something that matters.

Yet, it is of the most vital importance to artists.  They need a place to be able to live affordably as they grow in their craft, and with luck, emerge.  It isn’t enough to see what people are creating outside of their local culture.  They need to be able to experience what others are creating around them, and have those around them experience their own work too.  They need other artists and like-minded (as well as contrarian-minded) people to also be able to afford living there as well so they can work with them as collaborators, and mutually be shaped by the sharing of ideas, social and political vocabulary, and, of course, their work.  Fundamentally, their work is grounded and inescapably influenced by their local community.  For them to be able to artistically participate, they need to be able to purchase enough time to do so through their day jobs in order to be able to afford to work on their craft.  In essence, New York City is an artist’s resource in the truest sense.  They pull from it to be able to dwell and work.  It is a cultural and social landscape that needs to allow them to simply exist to be who they are, and do what they do.

If artists can’t afford to live in New York, how can they succeed in creating work here?  Unless, their parents foot the bill and/or the artist is independently wealthy, living and creating in Manhattan has simply become uneconomical to the artist.  And, parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and Westchester, Long Island and New Jersey suburbs are growing to be equally infeasible to inhabit.  It is not uncommon for many to take multiple buses and train to be able to get into “the city.”  This gives new meaning to the lyric in New York, New York: “if I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere.”  Arriving is one thing, making ends meet while being able to make art in New York, New York is entirely something else.  Not to mention that there is little draw or incentive to “make it” somewhere in a place where art is not manufactured, but imported.

Artists' used to live here.
Artists’ used to live here.

Artists are resilient creatures.  I frequently joke that it will be us and the cockroaches that would be the ones that would survive an apocalypse.  Artists will always find a way to survive, and they will find a way to be able to express themselves through their art.  However, how much financial pain are they willing to put up with for emotional gain?  If they have to spend the majority of their time and money working other jobs to pay the bills instead of making art, there isn’t a good reason for them to invest themselves in New York.

As of this moment in time, I feel the New York artist is stuck in a conundrum.  If we stay, where do we go?  If we go, where do we go?  One thing is for certain, where ever we are, we need to afford and be able to be afforded the opportunity to be who we are.

What are your thoughts?

Cellular Heckling: An Unwinnable War

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Many, many years ago, I was playing Marc Antony in a production of Julius Caesar to a lovely audience of about 300 at small professional theater.  This was in addition to the twenty something cast members that made up the citizenry of Rome – which also had to listen to me for 25 minutes about how I had come to bury Caesar, not praise him.  For those not familiar, Antony speaks nearly continuously with sparse scripted interjections throughout the scene from the ensemble.  However, on a particular evening, a new character appeared in the scene.

Unbeknownst to the company, this a new writer/performer shouted interjections and new prose from the audience.  They occurred in the beginning, middle, and end of my speeches, and during the repartee among the Roman citizens – extending their reactions.  These were lines that no one in the history of performing the play, including the cast, had heard before.  Despite the context of it being a “crowd scene” unfortunately, the cast and audience did not like this new adaptation, as it included belligerent and incoherent modern ramblings.  After about five minutes in real time (which translates to roughly five hours on stage for actors) this new character was excised from the play and the space by our modern centurions of security.  We then continued the play, without taking a beat, and the audience went right along with us to the end.

Perhaps less vitriolic, but nevertheless rude and thoughtless, the ringing, texting, and checking of mobile phones during a live performance achieves the same disruptive end.  It is what could be called cellular heckling.   Unfortunately, texting and even talking on the phone during a performance (I’ve seen it a few times, folks) has become ubiquitous to the live theater-going experience.   Just over the past two weeks alone I’ve read of a three instances of cellular interruptions that have provoked actors to address these fourth wall breaking audience members – one even resulting in physical violence.  It seems there is a war escalating between artists and audiences, and the cellular phone is the cause.   But is it a war anyone can win?

What continues to be truly baffling, is that when a phone goes off during a performance, everyone in the theater (except maybe the person with the phone) seems to be annoyed and feels the same righteous indignation from being pulled out of the world of the play.   Given this reaction, if everyone is universally opposed to these mobile interruptions, then why does it keep happening?   Does anyone actually go to the theater thinking, “Gee, someone might call or text me during the final moments in King Lear.  I think I’ll leave my phone on.  Just in case.”  I think not.  And yet, it still happens at almost every performance I attend.

Never, never, never, never, never. LOL.
Never, never, never, never, never. LOL.

The theater is a portal.  It’s a place to go to escape one world and join another.  This choice is dependent on leaving the outside world behind, and giving your full attention and focus to experiencing a new world created for you on stage.  As much as cellular heckling is inconsiderate, it is nowhere as big a disruption as it were for an actor to interrupt the action of the play by addressing the issue from the stage.

I would have loved to have launched a spear at the heckling fool in Julius Caesar and have made it a double funeral.  As stressful as it was to keep the story moving forward, I didn’t want this yokel to cause me to leave the world of the play.  By doing so, I would have taken everyone else out of it, and worse, bring this person even further into it by addressing him.  Call it spite, or pride, but I just wanted to do my job and tell the story, and I knew that the audience did to.  They wanted us to continue, and despite it all, we received a fantastic response from them all the way through the end of the play.  I feel the same way when as part of the audience I discover a mobile screen lighting up in the darkness or a phone going off.  I don’t want the actors to stop the show no matter how much I want the rude person to curtail their action.   As justified as any actor might feel for doing so, it makes a bad situation worse, and for anyone not named Patti LuPone, it may even cost them their job.

Alternatively, as much as I have at times desired an usher, other audience member, or even myself to yank the phone from a cellular heckler and teach them a lesson about etiquette, thoughtfulness (which their parents apparently failed to do), and respect, I feel they, or I,  would be heckling my own experience.  If the performance stops for any reason, it does more harm than good to the storytelling by impeding the give and take between artists and audience.

We go to the theater for the joyous experience of a play, not for a bitter side show.  The sad irony is that these digital disturbers fail to realize that they actually rob themselves of having their own connective experience with the play.  Unfortunately, we all have no control over anticipating it.  Short of jamming the audience’s cellphone signals or taking their phones out with an EMP blast (both illegal), education and thoughtful reminders made at the theater is the only mildly effective alternative.  But even the most educated make mistakes, and those who wish to march to the beat of their own drum will no doubt continue to do so.

Don't be that person.
Don’t be that person.

Still, you can’t let the bastards get you down.  I don’t like it.  But I recognize the fact that people are going to check their phones, and phones will ring loudly at the most quiet and improper moment in the play.  It is going to happen and there is not anything I, or anyone, can do to totally prevent it.  It’s a winless war.  Even though my blood may boil at the sight and sound of cellular heckling, all I can do is choose to keep myself connected to the world of the play and let God (or the house manager) sort them out – literally, from the theater.

Should we make an event of it by even addressing hecklers and cell phone users?  Or are we, as theater makers, being too precious with our craft and should go on with the show?

What are your thoughts?

What if was the staff’s job at not-for-profit theater companies to be present at all performances?

Connect and engage with your community
Connect and engage with your community

Do you ever notice (or not notice in this case) when you go to the theater how rare it is to find someone who works for theater company there?

I’ve been to three theater productions at major New York not-for-profit theaters over the past week, and found no other company personnel there other than the box office attendants and the house manager.  As much as I enjoyed the experience of seeing the plays, the only connection to the company presenting them was in the billing literature and bios in the back of the playbill.  It was oddly conspicuous that there was no one there (other than the audience) excited about the work that the company was about to share.  This seems fundamentally wrong to me for not-for-profit theater organizations.

Administrative staffs at not-for-profit theater companies work very hard and put in long hours during the work day to get a show from the page to the stage.  That fact that most of a company’s programming is in the evening after 7pm, after most of the staff have already put in a full day of work, makes it difficult for them to be at the theater.  I’m not arguing for 15 hour days for the already belabored and under paid theater makers that make up the artistic, educational, marketing, development, production, finance, and management departments.  Still, as an audience member, I could not help to wonder why, at the most communal of activities there is, the theater company maintains an impersonal presence.

As mentioned there is usually house manager present, but this breaks down to at least a one person per hundred(s) ratio.  It is a managerial role who is working and focused on guiding (usually) volunteer ushers, problem solving, and making sure the house is ready by curtain time.  As gregarious as the person might be, It isn’t a position that is a conduit for a personal connection between the art making and the audience.  Similarly, the box office personnel and ticket takers are inundated with a steady flow of will call arrivals for the half hour leading up to closing the house.  They don’t have very much time to talk about the art or the company.  The most insight I’ve ever received from a ticket taker is that there was or was not an intermission for a show.  As much as this information is helpful to share, this is hardly an engaging relationship to build upon between the organization and the audience

What if not-for-profit theater companies staggered their staff hours to overlap with each performance?  How would theater companies respond to 12pm-8pm work day?  What if the last hour of work between 7-8pm was a social hour at the theater where the staff’s “job” was to be present to talk about the play, engage and create authentic relationships with the community who are making up that evening’s audience?  Not only would this make the audience’s experience much more meaningful, it would serve a constant reminder to the entire staff why they do what they do, and who they are doing it for.  The bottom line is that it would connect everyone closer to the work, the company, and each other.

What are your thoughts?

What is appropriate attire at the theater? 

no shirt

“No Shoes. No Shirt. No Problem.”  This popular phrase popped into my head as I was navigating through the gauntlet of eager ticket holders lined up and down the sidewalks of 44th street before entering to enjoy their respective Broadway show.  Ok, full disclosure, they all had shoes and shirts – kind of.  However, among J Crew and Banana Republic modeled masses, t-shirts, tank tops, cut off shorts, hoodies, and flip-flops were as popular as any attire worn by audience members on a pleasant 70 degree summer Tuesday evening in New York – especially among young people.  There were a few dresses and dinner blazers peppered among the crowd, but if it weren’t for the context of awaiting to see a First Class production, one could easily assume the audience was more primed for a day at a Six Flags theme park than a Broadway musical or play.  This cultural cornucopia of fashion caused me to pause and reflect:  is there appropriate attire to attend the theater anymore?

eTFRLIt is unavoidable to recognize that this a conversation about class.  I’m not referring to personal manners or the tactful interactions between people.  I’m referring to social class and points-of-entry to going to see theater.  On the one hand, producers do not want to exclude anyone from buying a ticket by enforcing a dress code.  This would only alienate people by making them feel unwelcome, and uncomfortable attending theater.  Besides, non-discounted commercial ticket prices is a large enough boundary to the common man (and his family) from attending a show.  On the other hand, as mentioned, there is a faction of people appear a little too comfortable attending the theater – literally.  In one particular instance witnessed, there was a person wearing what appeared to be a black bra and pants that were a cross between pajama bottoms and hospital scrubs.  I may not be up on the height of cutting-edge fashion, but it was hard not to recognize that there seemed to be a line being crossed.    Or was there?

dumb-and-dumber-orange-and-blue-tuxedos1On opening nights, people do still get dressed up for the occasion.  Perception plays its role, as it is a chance to be seen as it is to see others.  Still, sighting a man in tux and tails or a lady in a gown at any other performance these days would seem as ridiculously out of place as pajama bottoms, and over done. This is not judgement on anyone’s personal style or taste, but the recurring question is:  what is appropriate for the occasion of going to see theater?  I have a feeling the theater building, itself, serves to dictate and inform our fashion choices.  The choice of jeans and a hoodie at The Met or on Broadway seem to feel as out of place as a suit and tie at New York Theater Workshop.  Yet, wearing either to either should not be used to discourage someone from attending a show and including them in the communal experience of theater-going.

As a theater maker, I want to create access for everyone to be able to enjoy the work we create.  That means eliminating all boundaries possible.  However, there does seem to be a conversation about social etiquette and the theater that does reoccur; either in conversation or by witnessing it first-hand.  Should people dress up to go to First Class Theater?  Should they dress down to go see an Off or Off Off Broadway show?  Should they wear whatever they want as long as they don’t break the law?  Should anyone care because they actively want to see theater, and what a joy it is to have them there!

What are your thoughts?

THEATER OR THEATRE?

images (9) As I went to hit send on an email to colleague, a feeling of dread came over me.   I was not sure if the name of the company they worked for was a Theater company or a Theatre company.  Did I spell it right?  There is a 50/50 chance that I did. I don’t know anyone who likes their name being spelled incorrectly, and I believe the same applies toward their intended name of their place of business being misspelled.  Also, I want to get it right, and I know I can because I can actually look it up.  But then, I thought, what is the right way to spell theater?  Is it theatre?  Did they spell it right?

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Theatre?
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Theater?

This is something that has been a curiosity of mine since I picked up my first script over twenty years ago.  What is the right way to spell…you know.  To many this may seem trivial, but people (particularly in the industry) get worked up about the spelling of…it (whew!).  It is audibly impossible to decipher the difference when hearing the word.   Therefore, without prior knowledge or a visual reference it is commonly bastardized and treated as interchangeable.  Do they mean the same thing?  Should they refer to different things?  Is there one true Theat (e) r (e)?

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The etymological root of the “re” to “er” deviation is uncertain, as it is not given significance or recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Anthony Chase writes that the change from “re” started around the time Noah Webster published his An American Dictionary of the English Language in an attempt to standardize American spellings in 1828.   But despite Mr. Chase’s best intentions, the word has been inconsistently used ever since. As summarized in the Grammarist, “Some Americans do make distinctions—for instance, that a theater is a venue while theatre is an art form, or that a theater is a movie theater while a theatre is a drama venue.”  And, as mentioned earlier, many theater companies today prefer to be known as, well, theatre companies, such as Roundabout Theatre Company, The Pearl Theatre Company, etc.  Some think the “er” is elitist, and a commentary on the social class system.  Others believe it is downright un-patriotic for any signage to not end in an “er.”

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I experienced this last sentiment in my youth, as I once was in an acting class in New York with a director who, after noticing it written on a classmates script, went on a short rant/lecture insisting that since we are in America, and making theater in America, the word should be spelled theater – period.  It seems after the victory at Yorktown in 1781 against King George III, we missed a golden opportunity to add a vocabulary list as a Schedule A to the U.S. Constitution.  But how can the change from theatre really be about oppression?  The English got the word from the French, who by the way, helped us beat the British to achieve our independence.  And let us not even get into the Latin roots.  Geesh, who the heck wants to choose have a life in the Theat (e) r (e) when it is hard enough work deciding how to spell it!

Does it matter if it’s theater or theatre?  As long as no harm or offense is taken by either, they can continue to be both right, and both interchangeably used; aside from referencing a proper place of business.  I just hope no one asks me the right way to spell it.  But think, if it did matter, theater making (and by making I mean actually making the word!) in and outside of America would be so much easier.

What are your thoughts?

Should MFA = AEA?

Is it possible to graduate from amateur to professional in an MFA Acting program?
Should it be possible to graduate from the amateur ranks to being a professional union actor through an MFA Acting program?

Some graduate acting training programs which offer a Masters of Fine Arts in Acting also offer its students the opportunity to join the stage actors union, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), upon graduation to begin their careers as professional actors.  The value in MFA acting programs is that they offer student actors an intensive period of training by teachers and mentors (many who work in the industry) in order to acquire the tools needed to thrive in the professional field.  In addition, certain MFA acting programs offer actors a kind of branding that is respected and recognized by casting directors that may influence their decision to consider an actor for a role; but that is a larger and separate discussion for another time.  However, in this vein, receiving a union card upon graduation instantly makes a student actor more attractive to legit representation.  It grants them greater access to union auditions, and with that, a better possibility of securing union employment and its insurance benefits.  In short, it makes them a professional; potentially putting them on the fast track to getting professional work as a professional union actor.

It is certain that it is of the utmost importance that actors receive the necessary training to acquire the technique, knowledge, skills and experience to thrive in the field.  But can it be certain, or likely, that student actors upon their graduation from an MFA program are likely able to find work and be able to embrace the life of a professional actor?  In essence, does receiving a diploma guarantee the student is ready to be a professional actor?

Obviously, the sure answer can only be found though doing.  But is it not a bit presumptuous to assume that all actors in a university program would collectively be on par in their development to join the professional ranks as professional actors?  Everyone’s journey to becoming a professional actor is as unique as the act of learning, itself.  Some may need more time than others to experiment, understand, and put learning practiced into mastery.  Also, it is hard to comprehend how through an academic system any one in any field becomes a professional until they actually are hired.  Isn’t the mantle of a professional something that is earned, well, by being one?

There is also the undeniable fact that students pay a certain amount of money (upon acceptance to the school after they audition, which they pay to do through their application fee), in order to graduate with their degree and Equity card.  This is not a comment on the great talent or aptitude of the student actor to become a union member.  They merely wish to guarantee the achievement of professional union status within a given amount of time instead of having to take their chances in the field to be 1) signed to a union contract, 2) go through the union’s lengthy candidacy program, or 3) join as a member of a sister union (one of the 4As) to become a union member.  And who is to say that they will be able to find the sufficient amount of training they need by being in the field; not having gone to a training program.  But it is, undeniably, a comment on how academic institutions are able use union membership to add value and be an incentive to drive applicants to their program.

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As a member of Actors’ Equity Association, I absolutely am an advocate for the actors’ journey to be a professional union member in whichever way it may manifest, if it so fits their aspirations.  I also share the belief that becoming a union member might not suit everyone, and there are ways of being a paid professional without being in a union.  I am also aware that only 13.3% of my union brothers and sisters on average are employed every week of the year, as reported in the latest 2013-14 Theatrical Season Report by our union.  Are we diluting the membership pool, or strengthening it?

The truth is that there is not enough work as it is for the membership.  As stated previously, everyone’s journey is different – and should be.  Some students after graduation go on to frequently book work, while others work day jobs for years to pay the bills until they (hopefully) land a gig.   It would be interesting to see a case study on the percentage of graduate student actors who find professional work in their first year after they graduate with their Equity card.  It would also be informative to learn how many weeks they worked, and what they earned from acting.

It is my sincerest hope that they all work – all the time.  They deserve it.  They paid for their education.  They followed their dream to become a professional actor.  But are they ready to enter the marketplace as a professional?  Arguably, anyone is at any time, but a professional career can be difficult to navigate even for the most accomplished union actors.

Also, I can’t help to ponder, as a union, if we are giving student actors false hope that they are going to find work as a professional actor merely by giving them their union card upon graduation.  Or are we giving them the opportunity to become a regular among the 13.3% and earn a living from their work?  Perhaps both.  But if one person out of a class of ten ends up working, is that a measurement of success?  Or if two actors work enough to each get 20 weeks of employment in order to qualify for a year of insurance, how do we define the eight who were not eligible?  Given this information, should an MFA in Acting guarantee membership in AEA?

What are your thoughts?

Assistants taking the Lead: Whose Work is it Anyway?

Assisstant carrying the work loadIn the American Theater system, lead creatives (directors, designers, etc.) on Broadway, far off off Broadway, at the Regional level, and even at universities and colleges are having to consistently work on multiple projects, sometimes in multiple cities, and usually for multiple companies that pay them a fee relative to a contractual union agreement, standard company rate, or relative to a show’s budget. This is the culture in which the professional creative artist must embrace in order to enable them with the opportunity to make a living creating Theater in America.

Because of this necessity to make multiple commitments, creatives hire up-and-coming talent to help them execute their many projects.  However, while this culture has increased the creative’s capacity to take on more work, the by-product for some have caused them to become less “hands-on,” less physically present, and less connected to the process, while (hopefully) their creative team delivers quality work.  The idea has become: the more work, the more they can offer their assistant(s) work; which allows them to take on even more work.  It sounds like a good thing for everyone, right?

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Over the last 12 years working in New York, I have witnessed it has become more and more common for creatives to be less and less actively involved in the actual process of the very work the companies and productions sought them out for.  The dynamic seems to consist of the lead creative taking on a supervisory role – while also working on other projects – and the assistant(s) given the great responsibility of executing, implementing, and trouble-shooting the design.  The creative collects a sizable fee, while the assistant get paid a lesser fraction and but does a sizable amount of work for it.  This is not to be compared with the controversial and unfair labor practices surrounding intern culture.  Nor does it belittle the valuable experience the assistant is receiving through this form of apprenticeship with the lead creative.  But in actuality, it is not truthful to the proper credit for the work, as the assistant taking on more lead responsibilities.  Is this a good trend?

I’ve witnessed Assistant Directors run complete rehearsals, change blocking, make prop and wardrobe decisions, even give script notes to playwrights in lieu of the Director being present.  I’ve also experienced during the process of an Off Broadway play a designer showing up on site for the first time at the first dress.  After once hiring a sound designer for a play, I was informed that a person I never knew existed would be running point on a good portion of the design.  Why don’t I just hire them instead?  On more than one occasion, I have seen a general manager approached by a designer far into the build for a show to request the production hire more assistants for them to help oversee the completion their work.  Which, of course, leaves the general manager with no choice to find a way to make it happen, as the design for the show needs to be complete despite the possibility of going over budget.

The Theater, for the most part, is not a purely result oriented business. The problem is that managers and producers are not looking to hire a sub team to join their team.  They want a creative dream team for each production.  As it is often spoken that casting is 90% of the director’s job, the same importance can be placed on the strategic assembling of the right production team in order to create the world of the play.  Should a manager accept a lead actor’s understudy to rehearse a play only to have the lead actor assume the role for first preview?  Of course not, it’s important the original lead actor be an active part of the process.

A discouraging thought is: how much time will pass until the assistant(s) achieve their goal of becoming lead creatives to then hire their own assistant(s)?  Working smarter, not harder with your time is an adage that is well followed. Yet, the cycle continues as we reap what we sow.

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Is the American Theater system to blame?  As a Theater making culture why do we value production processes that last no longer than 4-8 weeks, thereby creating a factory-like approach to creating?  Do we undervalue the contributions of our creatives?  Do we not compensate our lead creatives enough to be able to focus on less work, and more fully on the project at hand?

What are your thoughts?