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Michael Gene Sullivan

Michael Gene Sullivan

Posted: October 8, 2008 06:33 PM

My Speech to the Membership: 700 Billion What?


The following is my speech to the Theater Bay Area Annual Conference in San Francisco, Oct 6, 2008:

700 billion dollars. 700 billion dollars... billion.... There are fewer than 7 billion people on Earth. So 700 billion means more than $100 for every man, woman and child on the planet.

Let's see... 12 billion - that's one month in the War in Iraq...

144 million - the annual budget for the NEA - that's about 8 hours of the War in Iraq...

And the NEA theater budget... that's like a coffee break in Basra...

But 700 billion. Why not a Gajillion? How about that? I mean for those of us who struggle to make ends meet, to pay rent, get food, who actually work for a living - you know, most of us - a billion has no meaning. So why not just make up a word? Something Americans can understand... a Big Mac-illion? That sounds like a lot. How about a Godzillion? How about this: what's Latin for " Even your grandchildren will be paying for this one, suckas!"

700 billion... It is almost impossible to comprehend that amount while we're busy scraping together 20 bucks to pay some mensch to write a $100 grant so we can afford toner to copy scripts.

While we're scratching for seeds 700 Big Mac-Godzillion dollars is how much our elected employees are throwing at those ravenous Capitalist zombies to keep their reeking corpses upright for a few more months, pumping our blood into their veins so they can stay semi-alive just a little longer, just until they can suck the last bit of our future away. These Wizards of Wall Street - who's genius was not in buying low and selling high, but in keeping the rest of us so hypnotized with hype, so distracted with glitter, so backed into a terrifying corner with their economic shock and awe that Americans failed to do the obvious - which was hunt them down, beat in their doors, drag them naked, screaming, and crying into the streets, and redistribute their wealth and internal organs all across this great country of ours.

And who wouldn't want to do a play about that? Doesn't that sound better than remounting Wind in the Willows... again? Who wouldn't want to do a play about the people of this country actually waking up, grabbing these pencil-necked free market pirates by their pitiful comb-overs and... a play that demands the wealth of America actually be spent on those who created it - We, the people? You know, a fantasy play. But wouldn't that be great?

Well if you want to produce that revolutionary assault on The Man you better do it soon, because financially times are about to get tough, and 700 billion dollars later, there is going to be a lot of pressure on our elected spine donors to cut spending on everything... except the Military. Money for the Arts? We'll be lucky if we can afford lunch in Baghdad. That'll be enough save the symphony, the ballet, but they are not going to give much money to theater, where we might point out how messed up things really are.

And isn't that what we all want to be doing? Don't you want to dive in and expose the ongoing economic farce masterminded by these mental minnows? Don't you wonder "What would Moliere do?" Skewer the greedy weasels on a comically hot spit, then slowly roast them over a fire of their own lies! Think of the costumes!

Speaking truth to power - that's why you are still doing this! It sure isn't for the money! And respect? Did you know there was a time in Ireland when somebody could collect a bounty if they turned in the head of a snake, a wolf, or an actor? So forget respect.

You do this to challenge yourselves, your audience, our society. If theater doesn't do that, if it doesn''t challenge us to be our better selves, our braver selves, teach us about each other - if we as artists and audience don't leave a show smarter, better, more human people than before, then what we saw not theater.

It was television.

The glowing big screen box in the corner, re-enforcing stereotypes while selling sugarcoated, low down payment, microwavable male enhancement.

But Theater, without the pressure to deliver consumer's eyes to commercials, has the power and dangerous freedom to tell the truth, and do everything from tweaking Pantalone's scabby nose to inciting riots to overthrow our Proto-Fascistic Corporate Overlords. Because no matter how ripped-from-the-headlines it is, "Law and Order" is never going to actually get people off their couches and out into the street protesting real life injustice. That is not it's job. That is our job.

So, unencumbered with corporate commissars, and supported with our taxes, our public money, we are free to enrage and inspire. But... where are we going to go for dough when the government funding dries up?

If this were a film, this would be the point when all the lights would mysteriously go down, as if illumination itself was forced out of the room by the sheer weight of impending evil. Because as we stand on at the edge of this gulf of funding, all of us will be pushed to moderate our message, defang our bite, and dismantle the barricades so that we can get more money from... Corporations! Moo hoo ha ha!

I've heard grant administrators insist that in these desperate times the first responsibility of a theater is survival, that when funding and grants are scarce theater must take whatever it can get. Any mission statement, philosophy, or hippy dippy mumbo jumbo that your theater was founded on must be jettisoned, buried, forgotten if it gets in the way. Whatever self-invalidating butt kissery you have to deal out to keep the bottom line black is worth it. Better for a theater to live on it's knees than die on it's feet.

I humbly disagree, and believe anyone who tells you that is an agent of oppression, and should be thrown into a deep pool of warm vomit.

Who among us, you may ask, would ever agree that any theater should give up it's soul for cash? Who would dare to suggest that we, the artists, sacrifice our power and passion just to get coinage from some bloodworm looking for a tax break?

Who?

At this point I'd like to speak directly to any Board Members in the room.

Hiya. Howzit goin'? First of all let me thank you for all the years of service you've given your respective theaters. I'm sure they appreciate your support almost as much as they fear that you'll withdraw it if they ever cross you. And I'm sure none of you require your theaters to read your scripts, cast your relatives, jump through fiery hoops, and you wouldn't dangle a fat donation check in front of an Artistic Director while forcing them to sit through a lecture of how you think a show should be staged based on your 7th grade experience in the St. Clovis School for Boys all white production of "Ain't Misbehavin'." I'm sure that none of you want to be seen as the steaming sack of benevolence the theater must endure. You are all on the Board of Directors of your particular theater because you want to help that theater accomplish it's special mission with no strings attached, and we applaud you for that. Let's all give them a round of applause!

We also know it would never occur to any of you to ask any of us to cut the scene with the bastard banker so we can get that B of A grant, or soften up the image of the businessman in Christmas Carol so we don't offend the suits downtown. You wouldn't do that, because that would destroy our trust of you, and destroy the very reason you fell in love with us - our wacky, iconoclastic rebelliousness, our tousled, windswept mania for meaning, our deep, smoldering love of costumes. No, no... you wouldn't do that.

Because you know, like we know, what theater can do.

A couple of months ago a reporter in the Midwest asked me: " Could I name a play that really made, you know, a real difference." It was a gotcha question ... his editors wanted to show the irrelevance of theater. So what was my answer? Uncle Tom's Cabin. When Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe he said "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!" And the book did kick abolition into high gear. But the fact is in a country where a bunch of folks still didn't read, 10 times as many people saw the play as read the book. Before the War the play showed people the horrors of slavery, the play was the condemnation that thundered across the nation. It was the play that lit the fire of Emancipation. That is our legacy as American Theater Artists. We can inspire people to fight for Freedom. If we have the funding.

So back to my question: What are we going to do if government money drops off?

Where are we going to go?

Moo hoo ha ha! Ha ha Mwah ha - NO! We cannot allow ourselves to become corporate theater! And make no mistake, that is what will happen. Corporations are known for one thing - if you set aside rampant criminality - and that is making a profit. They specialize in finding projects and concepts which financially or psychologically contribute to their bottom line. And as theaters feel forced to turn to these oligarchs to underwrite our culture - if you don't think they are going to expect a little more consideration than a logo on your program, if you think they are going to let slip through their fingers any opportunity for some Free Market propaganda, if you think that... I've got a 700 billion dollar bailout to sell you.

Again, I'd like to say a special howdy to all the Board members out there, and thanks for not being like that. In fact, if anyone is near a Board Member, why dontcha lean over, right now, and give them a little thank you. Thank them for not blackmailing you into being a Mouthpiece for the Apocalypse. Doesn't even have to be a member of your Board. Also, give them a little nod for also not trying to reduce us to being mere distractions from daily life - you know - entertainment for the sake of entertainment.

Because that's the other danger - if you're not going to shill for Big Brother, could you at least be sparklingly innocuous? A fanciful escape, where people can shut off their brains and forget their impending homelessness? Can't you, please, say... nothing? Well, that is not our job, either. Entertainment for the sake of entertainment is the job of, and this time it's not television...

I'd like to talk for a moment about Internet Porn.

(The following is in a Wasalia, Alaska accent.)

Have you heard of this stuff, the Porn? Oh, it's all the rage, apparently. Oh, yeah. Very popular with the kids. And members of Congress, dontcha know. And the internet Porn... oh, boy! Couple of clicks with that there mouse, next thing ya know yer face down in a big, fresh bowl of whoa momma! Talk about shootin' a moose!

I have no idea what that means.

Internet Porn is not out to change the world, it's not looking to show the injustice, racism, or sexism inherent in our society. It is not a demand for equal rights, or even a mild reminder that things could be better. It's sole purpose is to entertain it's audience - normally one at a time, and probably in a cubicle. Porn, like commercial TV, is not meant to be cutting edge or politically challenging. It is the perfect example of entertainment for the sake of entertainment.

And you know what you never hear about with internet porn? A lack of funding. You never hear about porn producers struggling over a grant application. No silent auctions to raise money to make Porn. And 700 billion tax dollars thrown down a hole does not mean the porn industry has to cut back on fluffers. Because despite the howls of outrage and damnation, unless that girl on girl love scene involves a revolutionary dissection of Capitalist inequality, or the hunky pizza delivery guy shows up with an expose of police brutality along with his extra sausage - and I'm not putting down Porn - I couldn't do it - I have a hard time eating a sandwich on camera - but as long as Porn remains entertainment for entertainment's sake it will be allowed by the outraged - and titillated - powers that be.

And that is exactly what we cannot allow theater to become. We cannot allow ourselves, in our quest for funding, to become entertainment for the sake of entertainment. There to amuse but never challenge. And we wouldn't even get fluffers!

So what is the answer? How do we navigate the looming Great Depression, find funding to produce the work we feel is vital to help people understand themselves and their circumstances, rouse the masses to not only demand a better world, but to make a better world over the objections of those who profit on the messed up way things are now? How do we support ourselves without sacrificing our mission?

I have no idea.

But I do know that we are the inheritors of a great tradition. Ever since Thespis first stepped out of the chorus and said "These guys are lying - let me tell you what really happened!" theater has been there to tell the unofficial version, the popular analysis of the Zeitgeist, from traveling troupes to brick and mortar theaters the reason we struggle for funding is the same reason there was a bounty on our heads all those years ago. Because we are uncontrollable truthtellers. We are dangerous, dangerous people. Each of us has the power and talent to undermine institutional stupidity and crime. We will not only say the Emperor is wearing no clothes, but also that his testicles look a little funny.

Speaking of testicles... I remember the first time a play really affected me. I was about ten, and my parents took me to the Orpheum Theater to see the Broadway tour of the musical "Hair." I don't remember much about it - yes, they were all naked at the end, but I hadn't hit puberty yet, so things were still theoretical for me. But what I remember - the actors were on the stage, singing about sex and drugs and how the War in Vietnam was wrong, when suddenly the doors of the theater are kicked open, and all these riot cops come running down the aisles! They have billy clubs, and those reflective face shields on their helmets, and they're screaming, and they're just like the cops that chased us through the streets at every antiwar protest or civil rights march my parents took me to. They chased the actors away, beating them, then they line up in front of the empty stage, clubs in hand, facing us, silent, daring us to do something, to speak up. And then... intermission!

And that feeling of immediacy, of danger, of theater being not a refuge from the real world, but a starker version of my experience of the hope and engagement in a time of injustice - that's what I want to create, and that is what all of us can give our audience. Hope.

And who will give us money to do that? Our audiences! Sometimes we get so caught up in grant applications and new seats and berber aisle rugs and bringing actors up from Hollywood that we forget that all the audience wants is a moving story told well. They support us not based on how many Baywatch veterans we stuff into the Malibu Macbeth - they support us based on how well we touch their hearts and minds, how well we examine, understand, and show their experience and circumstances, or circumstances they want to know more about. They want to be challenged. If they didn't want to learn something true about themselves and the world they'd stay home and watch the news.

I think we have to turn to our actual supporters - our audiences - the ones who actually like us without getting a write-off - this is the community we have to look to. We have to show them that we are also part of their community. We have to remind them of that, and not just with a thank you card stapled to the next donation request.

If we want them to increase their support of us, and for them to demand that their tax dollars continue to help us tell their stories, then we have to be an important part of their lives, and of their home towns.

If we want to reclaim our position as the dramatic town square then we have to claim our home towns as more than dramatic backwaters. San Francisco used to be a theatrical Mecca. People came from all over the world to work here, to create here. This wasn't simply a place for a show to go before or after it went to New York - San Francisco was the destination. Now too many of our best artists only get recognized and validated as talented when they leave, when they've worked somewhere else. Too many inside and outside the theater community have come to see this city as a bumpkin suburb of the real city of - Broadwayville! Flash, sparkle, sparkle! So - local writers can't get a hearing of a script until it's done in New York, wonderful actors are overlooked in favor of whoever is unemployed in the Big Apple, and oooh! We got a designer from out of town, who is by definition so much better than any of the local yokels!

In the end some Boards and Artistic Directors look like they have a bad case of "Localitis," with a touch of "I can't wait to get a job in New York, where the real talented people are!" Now I'm not saying that any of you think this, but when you give your audience the impression that all the real cool stuff is not from their home town, how are they ever going to see you as a part of their larger community?

And for those of you who don't have the dough for some American Idol runner up play Medea, don't think you're missing out on the "not from here" bonanza. Did anybody else here see Lorraine Hansberry's production of "The Bluest Eye" last year? That was one of the best theater productions I've ever seen, including New York. And that cast was local. And what about all the directors that have a good reputation here, but get passed over for anyone with a 212 area code.

I'm not saying some of those people from back East aren't good, but we all have to work to cultivate the first rate talent of our home town, San Fransicso, one of the most energetic, creative cities in the world. We have to show the people here that this is where our roots go deep, rather than looking like we depend on a transcontinental life support system. If all of us sprinkle our seasons with more local writers telling local stories it will inspire our audiences to feel a sense of ownership of us that we all benefit from. Why do a play about some rich people from the Upper West Side struggling with the snobs in the condo association when we have wonderful plays developed by Campo Santo about gentrification in the Mission? When A.C.T. did "After the War", a play about San Francisco history, with a mainly local cast, directed by someone who's been here seventeen years, and written by a playwright with deep local roots it sent a message to the community - that our talent and our history matter. I don't know if their donations went up, but if I'd had any money I certainly would have considered thinking about maybe saying I would give them some. Because it was an important investment in my home town. And "Yellowjackets" at Berkeley Rep? Local story, local writer, local director. We need more of these shows, more clear signs that we see, and value, and are part of life here!

Whether it goes to Broadway or not.

Until Americans demand the Arts be treated as an essential part of their lives, until they, until we demand that our tax dollars support the creative and not just destructive spirit of this country, until more money is spent on script development than weapons development - we will have to use some of our creativity figuring out how to not starve to death.

Like I said, money will be scarce as all of America struggles to get out of the 7 hundred-ity Maca-ba-zila-jillion dollar deep grave these public wealth sucking Nosferatu are dragging us into. But if we theater artists want to avoid becoming either underpaid cabana boys of corporate fat cats, or the bauw-chika-buaw-bauw porn stars of pure entertainment , we have to stop thinking of ourselves as the "theater community." We have to train ourselves and others to think of us as a beloved and necessary part of the larger community - a part that is vital to telling their stories, vital to helping us all understand ourselves better, vital to ennuciating and being a part of the fight to make this life fairer, more equitable and just ... If they see us as their fearless truthtellers. That will inspire them to make sure we survive to tell their stories.

That is what will save us.

That, and some fluffers.

Thank you.