If, in the course of a performance, an actor or audience member fell ill, everyone present would know what to do: look for a doctor in the house. What would happen, though, if the house itself was ailing—not the building, but the institution? Who gets the call when a theatre is sick, fostering unhealthy behavior among its staff, or going through a painful transition? What kind of therapy is available for a theatre community in crisis?
In a culture increasingly obsessed with physical and emotional health, it’s more than a little shocking that America’s theatres have no forum or framework for addressing the health of their workers and the psychological consequences of their methods. Nationwide, theatre lags far behind private industry when it comes to dealing with mental health issues. Corporations have started pumping money into treatment of alcoholism, drug addiction, burnout and psychological dysfunction, problems that theatres too often avoid. Moreover, even the largest businesses study and try to improve human dynamics on-the-job; theatres are usually too broke or too busy to do the same.
Only in the relative calm of theatre service organizations has the search for a kind of institutional therapy hesitantly begun. Theatre Bay Area, San Francisco’s service organization for theatre, brought in a clinical psychologist to usher the staff through the terminal illness of one staff member and the imminent departure of the group’s charismatic director. TBA’s Midwest counterpart, Theatre Chicago, runs confidential meetings between theatre managers and medical doctors, psychiatrists and substance abuse professionals at Northwestern Medical Center for the Performing Arts. In New York, New Dramatists has begun experimenting with a theatre-trained therapist who helps the workshop’s member playwrights overcome writing blocks.
The introduction of therapeutic models into theatre art and management is part of an attempt to heal from within an acknowledged invalid: the institutional theatre. Of these models, perhaps the most pertinent describes theatre as an addictive system, diseased and in need of recovery. An addictive system is what it sounds like: a system that fosters addiction and shares symptoms with those addicted to it. In her book When Society Becomes an Addict, Anne Wilson Schaef compares an addictive system to a hologram, where “each piece of the hologram contains the entire structure of the entire hologram.” That is, each piece of the system has the whole system in it, and whole addictive system shares the characteristics of the addict. To treat the system, then, the best bet is to change the way the individual thinks and functions within it. What that means for the addictive system of theatre is clear: We can’t make theatre a healthy part of the culture until we make ourselves—as artists and managers—healthy in the theatre.
It’s no secret that many of us come to the theatre from dysfunctional and troubled families. Any eight-year-old knows that art of any kind, especially this most social of arts, is the great escape, and sometimes the great healer. My own family history is full of alcoholism, debt and gambling, so naturally I take to the model of theatre as an addictive system. The theatre provided for me what my own home couldn’t and so I was drawn to the family-feel of acting ensembles and collectively created work. Time after time, though, like some perverse magic, I reconstructed my own family relations in the theatre: mediating between narcissistic individuals, creating intimate relationships that broke up weeks later, living on the edge of debt in theatres in debt, and feeling most alive conquering 11th-hour crises. Looking—like any other addict—for a “hit,” for the “rush” of opening night, for an easier way to “come down” after rehearsal or performance. The thrill of the theatre “high” was the only cure for feeling misunderstood, victimized, homeless at home.
If there’s a playwright for the theatre of the ’80s, one who understands the addictive home, it’s Chekhov. His portrait of Madame Ranevskaya’s family in The Cherry Orchard captures the spirit of today’s institutional theatre. The family is threatened with losing their beautiful home to pay off growing debts. In an increasingly pragmatic world (like ours), they party too much, spend money they don’t have and can’t get, thrive on crisis and pain, escape into romantic fantasies of the past and future, and run away from their problems by closing their eyes to changes all around them. These characters have an inflated sense of self-importance, assuming themselves to be invulnerable even as they feel victimized and powerless.
The only hope of saving the Ranevskayas’ fortunes is held out by Lopakhin, a nouveau riche neighbor who operates as part investment broker, part real estate developer and part marketing director. He suggests they chop up the family’s useless cherry orchard—whose anachronistic splendor he misses altogether—and sell it off as summer condos. The family, lost in denial and a general narcissistic haze, fails to heed all too obvious warnings and loses its home to this provincial Donald Trump and its culture to the ax of hard economic fact.
In the theatre, we labor under this kind of pragmatism daily: the shrinking of government and corporate support, an aging and dwindling audience and a loss of prestige in an increasingly corporate culture. To stay afloat in the post-Reagan ’80s means being more like Lopakhin: financier, developer, marketing strategist. We have to keep our feet on solid ground, keep our minds moving forward, keep our emotions in check. Even in this most personal of arts, we have to become impersonal, bureaucratic, objective. Theatre people learn and adapt quickly, so we’ve become good Lopakhins. We keep up with the new technology; we dress for success, we run in the red; and we inadvertently cut ourselves off from some of our deepest sympathies while defending our work. Moreover, by so diligently looking out for ourselves, we isolate from a huge and diverse population of others.
While most American theatres were founded on principals separating art from commerce and devoted to building companies or families of like-minded artists, the struggle to survive these times has forced theatres to ensure a future life by increased institutionalization, even at the risk of displacing the artists they exist to serve. The communal energy of 20 years ago, part of a time in which no one aspired to anything so much as a life in the theatre, is behind us. No one in the theatre—least of all recent college graduates—is young anymore.
The ax that’s been swinging at the theatrical Cherry Orchard has done real damage. Probably the greatest loss is a sense of theatre as a home and family for artists. The greatest practical threat to our theatrical future isn’t that the NEA will shrivel up and die; it’s that artists—actors, writers, designers and directors—will leave the profession for good, give it up for dead, go away to television or film or to other lives altogether.
And who can blame them? Few freelance artists can make a living in the theatre. That’s old news. The newer news is that they also can’t make a life. People who aren’t getting financial rewards need human ones. The hours alone are enough to do you in. The traveling beats you down. The creative process has been sucked of sufficient time and flexibility to make it rewarding. We don’t even have the space and time to treat each other as people, instead of as cogs in some perpetual motion collaboration.
The way we make theatre is not only often unfulfilling; it is unhealthy, fostering a lifestyle that encourages isolation, loneliness, crisis, personal debt and psychic pain from, among other things, too many comings and goings.
Everyone I know who has quit the theatre is happier and healthier. An ex-stage manager now trains welfare mothers for work; the New York City government treats her better than theatre ever did. She spends weekends skiing and is in her first serious relationship in years. A founding managing director now teaches the illiterate in Washington, D.C.; after almost a decade of putting her own creative life second to her theatre’s, she sings regularly in new operas and chorales. One former artistic director is finally concentrating on his writing, another on his painting and a third on creating oral histories with Jewish communities. None of them has sold out and none of them is sorry to be out. They have weekends to think and live and read. They have time for families. They have renewed energy for love and a home life and personal growth. They are recovering their health.
Certainly, the problems we face aren’t all internal. The horrors of the ’80s affect us literally and figuratively. AIDS, addiction and homelessness, the decade’s triple threat, are our demons as well. Friends and lovers and colleagues and mentors and people we’ve never met but wish we had are dying in a horrible plague that we have no control over. The theatre community shares this daily pain, this new ritual—that we’re all too young to have—of checking the obituaries first thing every morning. We barely have time to mourn or help each other through personal losses. We are all affected by a society whose life is more and more driven by addictions: to faster drugs, stronger denial and deeper debt. And, in addition to being surrounded by the homeless, we are among them. Our artists and staffs are among the middle class without pension plans and insurance and protection from the kind of catastrophes that put people on the streets. Our theatres, too, are in danger: According to a report by the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, 50 percent of all Off and Off-Off Broadway theatres stand to lose their leases in the next three years.
We can’t expect to tend to any of these problems effectively, however, if we can’t take care of ourselves. If we can’t break through our own denial about death—express and share our grief and outrage —how can we expect to break through the deeper denial of governors and policy makers? How can we demand the kind of living we deserve when we’re addicted to the struggle of debt and thrill in the image of ourselves as starving artists fighting to overcome societal insensitivity.
What would it mean to make the theatre a healthier home? What does it mean to call theatre a home at all? These questions were addressed last year in The Artistic Home, a TCG report based on discussions between 120 or so artistic directors and dozens of independent artists. After writing the report, it occurred to me that this “home” artistic directors longed to create was in fact being created. It was, though, being made the way many of us learned to make homes—dysfunctionally. It was being built in the image of an addictive family whose emphasis is on maintenance and survival at all costs and not on the health of its members. Like alcoholic families, caught up in hiding and defending our secrets from the world, theatre people tend to be isolated, insular and incestuous. We lose ourselves in our own hype. We waste precious trying to cover up our failings. We put the survival theme buildings ahead of the health of artists.
The future of theatre depends on improving the quality of these homes and our lives within them, because the way we make theatre is as important as what we make. The way we treat ourselves as artists and managers is as fundamental to our survival as where the dollars will come from or who will watch us play.
The aim of therapeutic thinking within the theatre is to separate the worker from the workplace, to distinguish between the theatre and the family. Again and again, artistic directors struggle to learn “I am not my theatre.” None of us who work in theatres are our theatre, just as we are not our families. We may be driven by them. We may be unable to change them, but we don’t have to be them. We can change.
Once we’ve stopped acting like for Chekhov’s Ranevskaya family and stopped pretending that this is the only way to live and we’ll never lose the orchard, we can start to recover some of what we’ve lost: that is, the creative, communal and spiritual impulses that are the best of what got us into this in the first place. Certainly, the ax is already at work on the trees, but like addicts or children of addicts or members of any dysfunctional community, we’ve gained a lot of strength navigating the dangerous and often uncaring world, strength we can build on.
What are these strengths? One thing we’ve learned is that we have to rely on ourselves. We’ve even learned to make our isolation work. Performance art, for example, has sprung from the need to be self-sufficient. Performance artists are the runaways of the contemporary theatre, forced to make it solo on the streets, learning survival from fine artists, clowns or whoever can teach them about weathering isolation creatively. Now, after years of looking after themselves when theatres couldn’t afford to shelter them, institutional theatres are finally taking them in and, in some cases, depending on those performers’ success for the theatre’s sustenance.
Second, we’ve learned that on matter how isolated we feel, we are a community made up of many communities, and we can provide enormous support for each other if we open up and talk and share our work and fears and struggles. In rooms across the country, organizations such as TBA, TCG, ART/NY and Theatre Chicago remind members of the profession that we’re not alone, that we have common concerns and tremendous power as a community: economic power, political power, creative power and spiritual power. Dysfunctional family systems isolate the individuals within them; all recovery programs (particularly the 12-step programs based on Alcoholics Anonymous) stress bringing the individual back into the experience of community. The theatre as a community can do a lot to sustain its members even in the worst of times.
We’ve also learned how to change. The theatre has remade itself several times in the past 25 years and it will do so again. We’ve had to be canny to survive, especially the last eight years; we’ve had to be adaptable. The troubled family resists change, just as the healthy family embraces it. Transformation is the basis of theatre. If we want to use what we do to transform the world around us, we have to be prepared to accept changes in ourselves.
Talking about health means thinking forward instead of waiting for crises to hit. Theatres need catastrophic-illness plans and humane policies for supporting sick colleagues. We need to develop child-care programs for new mothers and fathers. We need to take stress and burnout and the term “theatre junkie” seriously. We need to stop defending ourselves and find ways to open our artistic homes to artists and audiences who don’t share our privilege. And we need to shake the guilt that keeps us from asking for and demanding adequate financial support. We aren’t unworthy and we don’t have to apologize for trying to meet our needs.
Theatre people have begun looking ahead and acknowledging that the way we work isn’t working. They’re starting to take concrete steps, big and small, to improve the conditions in the homes we’ve built. The following are ways new artistic and managerial leaders are changing the structures by which we make theatre and looking for healthy ways to re-integrate the individual into the institutional home.
For example, large and mid-sized theatres like the Goodman Theatre of Chicago and California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre are expanding their artistic staffs and weaving associate and resident artists more thoroughly into the fabric of their theatres. In fact, Baltimore’s Center Stage recently received a huge NEA grant to expand a thriving associate artist program that involves designers, directors and playwrights in the theatre’s daily workings. At the same time, the Guthrie of Minneapolis announced a $25 million endowment campaign—the first of its size—aimed at substantially increasing actor salaries.
Theatres are also expanding their visions by opening their planning to artists and managers from a wider range of cultural backgrounds. Oakland Ensemble Theatre in California, Seattle Group Theatre, Los Angeles Theatre Center and Minneapolis’s Mixed Blood Theatre are breaking through the traditional insularity of the theatre community by integrating their staffs and productions at every level.
Long-standing ensembles—California’s San Francisco Mime Troupe, American Conservatory Theatre, Eureka Theatre and Dell’Arte Players, the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble of Pennsylvania, Mabou Mines and The Wooster Group in New York, American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, The Road Company of Tennessee and Roadside Theatre in Kentucky—are still, against all odds, sustaining and celebrating the power of the acting company. At the same time, other ensembles like Steppenwolf in Chicago and New York’s Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and Circle Repertory Company are experimenting with more flexible commitments that give artists the security of a home base, while allowing them the time and space to work elsewhere, including the more lucrative worlds of film and TV. Theatres are likewise exploring the options of sabbaticals, leave-time and mental health days for overworked and over-isolated staff members.
Finally and significantly, service organizations are pioneering health programs to support their members through change. TBA has sponsored coping workshops and seminars, including those for cancer patients. TCG offered sessions on AIDS and catastrophic illness policy at its national theatre conference. Theatre Chicago has developed an extensive “wellness program” in response to illness and addiction in their community. Aimed at prevention, the program disseminates health information and holds stress prevention workshops; they assist managers in planning compassionate policies for employee mental health and catastrophic illness; and they make sure that AIDS is addressed at every league function.
This is a partial list of practical ideas, many of them only ideas. They may not make our personal, theatrical or societal situation seem any less dire, but they prove that the wheels are in motion for change. We’re not stuck and we don’t have to despair.
When the Cherry Orchard is finally sold, the Ranevskaya family finds itself strangely relieved. They’ve lost something beautiful, but they’ve also given up an illusion that was, at its core, paternalistic, decadent and unhealthy. The real struggle—the struggle to deny reality—is over. They can face their various futures with some hope and a greater realism than they’re accustomed to. The theatre community of the late ’80s is better prepared to face a difficult future than Chekhov’s dramatic family. We’re stronger, more self-aware, more creative, more flexible—and less alone.
Portions of this article appeared first in Theatre Times and in a speech delivered at the 1989 annual meeting of Theatre Bay Area in San Francisco.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!