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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tokyo Freakout

posted by on August 14 at 11:53 AM

Here’s a story for the folks who are constantly bitching about the lack of arts funding and think the government should just, like, pay for our theaters:

The Japanese theater world is currently in crisis over the question of to whom public theaters belong, since the decision by the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) to appoint new artistic directors for each of its three divisions.

The Japanese government lavishly finances the NNTT and, as a result, treats it like a government bureaucracy. Which is causing major fuckups:

Tadaaki Otaka, the new artistic director of opera, who is slated to succeed Hiroshi Wakasugi, first learned of his appointment when he read about it in a newspaper. Otaka himself had never officially accepted the job.

More perplexing is the replacement of Hitoshi Uyama, the current artistic director of theater, who was appointed only last autumn. Uyama’s productions of “Yakiniku Dragon” and “A Japanese Named Otto” (which he also directed), were both well received by critics and the public.

Granted: It’d be peachy for American artists to have more no-strings access to government money.

But that just isn’t going to happen.

Even if the American government sponsored theaters, it would try to control them more tightly—and fuck them up more badly—than the Japanese government does.

Why? Because we’re a big, diverse country with a reactionary conservative streak 2,000 miles wide. And nobody, elected or appointed, wants to risk his or her cushy government job on a visionary artistic director. Or playwright. Or director. Or anything.

So we’re stuck with foundations and individual patrons, whose donations will dry up as the economy gets worse.

Which leaves us with old-fashioned capitalism, of the DIY rock ‘n’ roll variety, where you just cobble it together and make it work.

All this “actors deserve get a living wage” rhetoric thrown around by actors’ unions and regional theaters—and, famously, Mike Daisey, in this essay for The Stranger—is, I’m sorry to say, totally unrealistic.

Sure, actors deserve living wages (everybody deserves living wages) but they ain’t gonna get them any more than most rock ‘n’ rollers will get living wages. The analogy isn’t as specious as you might think: regional theaters (as we know them) are going down, just like record labels (as we know them) are going down.


And when the theaters crumble, they’re taking the unions (especially Actor’s Equity) with them.

Then the only people left will be the cockroaches—the people with true grit who want to make theater because they want to make theater.

Theater, again, will become a deep calling with no promise of financial reward. (Which, I’m sorry to say, might even improve the form as a whole.)

We’ll never be like Europe. We’ll never be like Japan.

So all you theater artists are going to have to do it for yourselves: Produce burlesque shows to subsidize your experimental dramas; live in warehouses (like these guys); learn a goddamned trade (like this guy); seek out your own private Medicis—I know, that’s a tall order the West Coast, where the nouveau riche haven’t figured out how to be art patrons yet. But somebody’s got to teach them. Might as well be you.

(And please do not rack up debt by going to a grad school that will only teach you to navigate Hollywood and the doomed regional theaters. Unless you’re planning on being an LA star, it’s a waste of precious time and money. Just get out there and make work.)

You can mewl about “living wages” and “not enough arts funding” while your theaters burn, but that won’t put out the fire.

Nothing will.

RSS icon Comments


Does this mean that "I Love You! You're Perfect! Now Change!" won't be coming to Seattle?

Posted by Ziggity | August 14, 2008 11:56 AM

Who wrote this article? Ron Paul?

Posted by P to the J | August 14, 2008 12:02 PM

cue COMTE to come in here and say that if actors don't take really shitty acting jobs for peanuts they will starve instead of possibly trying to find work in a different field.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | August 14, 2008 12:04 PM

No money in art, huh? You don't say.

Posted by flamingbanjo | August 14, 2008 12:31 PM

We need to find the actor that pissed in Breadan's cornflakes this morning...

Posted by natopotato | August 14, 2008 12:40 PM

I like the idea of burlesque and sex shows bringing in patrons to be exposed to less-profitable, more-artistic theater, but theater definitely doesn't have to be either stuck in the margins or whistle-clean. There are plenty of ways to direct federal funding into the arts without federal control. We don't have many institutions left in this country that have (relatively) consistent federal funding with (relatively) little federal interference but there are still a few. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Science Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institute come to mind. They're certainly not the BBC in terms of independence and finances but it's a start.

Posted by ragold | August 14, 2008 12:46 PM

Theater fails in general because let's face it, it's generally crap.

I love art. But the last couple of things we've been to have been terrible.

The Paramount could make events there better by having more comfortable seating. I'm willing to pay $75 bucks to see something, but not if my ass feels like it's on fire after 2+ hours. And my ass is padded.

Posted by Dave Coffman | August 14, 2008 1:06 PM

The WPA theater program did pretty well, at least until the conservatives inevitably killed it.

Posted by keshmeshi | August 14, 2008 1:26 PM


If actors do in fact take nothing but "really shitty acting jobs for peanuts", then inevitably they WILL starve, just like anyone who works a really shitty job for wages that would make "substandard" look like heaven.

And if they're forced out of acting in order to "find work in a different field", then they're not "actors" anymore - in the sense of having that be their vocation, as opposed to their avocation - get it?

Posted by COMTE | August 14, 2008 2:24 PM

i get it; most people that are professional actors don't make peanuts because most people that makes peanuts are only actors part time and subsidize their passion for artistic acting expression by waiting my goddamn table and being my goddamn servant.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | August 14, 2008 2:53 PM

and through all this people choose to pursue the career of acting, and they make a series of choices that either lead to success or failure as they define it. People choose to pursue careers and vocations and they only have themselves to blame if it isn't everything they make it out to be.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | August 14, 2008 2:57 PM

#10: You forgot the part where they spit in it.

Posted by flamingbanjo | August 14, 2008 3:03 PM

i can handle a little spit in food that they wouldnt be able to afford themselves.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | August 14, 2008 3:09 PM

Theatre's problem, and what will keep it on the fringe of culture for the foreseeable future, is that it stopped truly evolving as an art form after the 1960s, and many of the people who run theatre today are philosophical nostalgists who idealize the increasingly distant past.

Posted by Gomez | August 14, 2008 3:39 PM

@14 So what does the next radical epic look like?

Posted by ragold | August 14, 2008 3:53 PM

Good God, Brendan, you're a reporter? And you've never heard of the National Endowment for the Arts? Here is a list of NEA grants made to theaters in 2006 (the most recent annual report available on their web site).

Posted by kk | August 14, 2008 4:36 PM

Public, anonymous, giving in Japan is almost unheard of, especially in the arts. But it also also boasts a higher percentage of corporate giving to specific individuals and groups than the U.S. Traditions of on and giri (obligation and duty, respectively) come into play. As do concepts of the "group" and "family." A corporation is expected not only to fulfill the earning needs of owners and shareholders, but to additionally return--give--something back. As it was explained to me, when company "A" takes ore from the earth--a shared resource of the group--and manufactures a profitable widget out of it, there is an added indebtedness created to the group and a duty to return something back to the same--besides a profitable widget. (The Mitsui Corporation in part fulfills this charge by funding a massive bi-annual arts festival, on top of supporting individual "Living Treasures" within the Noh tradition.) This helps to engender the Confucian value of jin (humaneness.)

As Mary Evelyn Tucker writes in "Philanthropy in the World's Traditions--A View of Philanthropy in Japan: Confucian Ethics and Education"

For Confucius, the practice of humaneness has the effect of ripples in a pond, extending first to one's family, and then to teachers, friends, and acquaintances, and finally, to all within the larger region and state where one lives. Humaneness is thus particularized; it must have priorities along with expansiveness.

No, we will never be like Europe, but neither do we have to relegate theatre practitioners solely to the young or wealthy youthful elite. (Nor should we. To do so would be wasteful and foolish.) Nor can we look to blinkered government for financial aid. We need only take care of our family through a greater sense of humaneness. American capitalists, unlike their Japanese brethren, could use a little jin, on, and giri.

Posted by Laurence Ballard | August 14, 2008 7:13 PM

@17: Plus, giri-choco at work!

And for #6: Are you kidding? The National Science Foundation is most certainly NOT providing "little federal interference." The NSF doesn't so much groom grant applications as take a rasp to them. Only the ones that polish up real nicely get funding.

Posted by Greg | August 14, 2008 9:54 PM

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