Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Being Broke Is Not All Bad

As a young kid I hated buying milk; I was ashamed but I was also resourceful, when my mom would call out to me, I would hide in the bathroom or say, “too much homework mom”. We did not run out of milk every day but we ran out enough for it to be one of the things I remember most about growing up in Watts. See, my mom was a single parent with three kids and a six-grade education, and we were on food stamps. In those days technology was not as advanced as it is now, no fancy EBT cards no direct deposit nothing like that. If you were on welfare and got food stamps you literally got “Stamps” and you had to tear them out of a little booklet in front of the cashier at the store, “to cut down on fraud,” we were told.  So what does this have to do with theater?

Well, a few weeks ago I was sitting at the Actor’s Gang with fifty people or so, in solidarity with the California Arts Advocates. We were there to absorb a State Advocacy Legislative Briefing delivered by Kathy Lynch, a real life California State lobbyist. I was impressed with the whole event.  It’s not every day you run into a California lobbyist (outside of Sacramento). The event itself was well thought out and complete with handouts, cupcakes and coffee. During the briefing Ms. Lynch spoke amicably of budgets and of deficits in the billions and it made me think of when I was a kid and I was growing up poor.

Like most things in life, poverty’s road is bifurcated. In one direction the path can make you proud of how tough you are, of how not many people could deal with the things you have to deal with, how the richest person in the world could not survive if they were put in your place, but in the other direction the path is one of shame, shame at not being smart enough to get yourself out of poverty, shame that you do not know the secret to being successful or are to lazy to find it. Sometimes people go back and forth from one path to the other and sometime they can’t or choose not to. And so I sat and listened to how hard things were and how much harder they would get, but I was not afraid, and I don’t think anyone in the theater was either.  They were more motivated and some even inspired to run out and start the “To Do” list Ms. Lynch gave us. The one thing that made me feel safe was that the question was not, “whether or not the arts will be cut?” but “when and by how much?” There is something ironically liberating about embracing the inevitable. We can now start planning instead of just hoping, and more than that we can start to work together to collaborate to co-produce. Ms Lynch says the old days of sitting back writing grants and waiting for the cash to roll in are gone, the model is broken and we better embrace this reality or move to Canada.

But back to my lactose intolerance, one of the good things about not having as much as you are used to having is that you use what little you have more efficiently. People learn to drink less milk or get over their shame. I am unabashedly excited for the next few years; I believe they will bring us the best theater we have seen in some time. The theatre to come will be leaner, hungrier more relevant, in a word: Better... just like the people who will have the compulsion to keep creating it. Less will be more or it wont be at all. Today my days of food stamps are far behind me but I still keep a one-dollar food stamp in a gold leaf frame in my office to remind me. 

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