Jill Dolan’s “Unhappy Thespians”

I highly enjoyed Jill Dolan’s paper/manifesto that she presented at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference in Denver on August 1st entitled Unhappy Thespians: A Manifesto on Training Theatre Students.

There is SO much good stuff there and if you are applying for theater programs it is a MUST read. It is a true and clear depiction of the mindset a student has to deal with within a theater program. The best thing is that it comes not from a student, but from a professor! In the below description of the students at University of Texas, it sounds exactly like Rutgers (and I am sure most of the other theater programs).

But despite what might seem these successes, the students in our undergrad and graduate acting programs never seemed very happy. Many undergrads left, and many grad students complained about the narrowness of what they learned. The grad students suffered a schedule that prevented them from taking advantage of the department’s other curricula, including our flourishing graduate program in Performance as Public Practice, which aimed to expand applications for theatre and performance studies outside professional, mainstream theatre into community-based and socially active settings. With pre-professional programs intent on feeding the US regional theatres, if not Broadway, the majority of our students weren’t encouraged to imagine other ways of plying their trades, or of using their studies creatively and with more agency than mainstream theatre employment practices for actors often allow.

Most discouraging to me was watching graduate students who’d been through three years of rigorous training in acting, voice, and movement arrive at the showcase moment of their MFA program tenure. Thanks to Fran Dorn’s professional connections, the students traveled to New York and Los Angeles to present work for casting agents, directors, and other people in the business. But when they returned, many of the students reported that the feedback they received concerned their looks more than their talent. More than one went on a crash diet; the first three-year class started nearly in unison a version of The Zone diet that reduced all of them to wan and wasted stick figures in a few weeks’ time. Men and women alike were told by showcase spectators that they needed to lose weight, fix their noses, their teeth, their skin, their facial bone structures, all in the service of hewing closely to the “type” in which they’d inevitably be cast.

What I liked most of all (and gave me the “Why did I not think of that before” moment) was when Dolan mentions Paul Bonin-Rodriguez’s undergraduate senior seminar on the entrepreneurial creative artist. YES!! A thousand times yes. That is thinking outside the box.

Artists need to be read things like Entrepreneur Magazine and books like The 4-hour Workweek. Not to find a get rich quick scam, but to become independent so that they are able to create art on their own terms without having to be “chosen” by the current theatrical structure. Artists need to grab something that is common knowledge over in the business department. The idea of automated income. Finding a niche market where one can sell merchandise that can be done on an automated system. This brings income without a 40 hour work week (and yes it will take more than 4 hours a week). One of the biggest struggles with artists is how difficult it is to create art while still holding down a 40 hour a week job. Yes, this automated income will take many hours to create and one might have to put the art on hold until the system is created, but the long term benefits far outweigh the 60-80 hour weeks artists are trying survive in now.

This is a twist on the Tribal Theater idea from Scott Walters, but one that can be part of the overall vision. I would argue that once this automated income is found the artists not pour their money and “extra” time back into a dysfunctional system, but to use their resources to create an ensemble tribal theater. Help the ensemble theater (and its members) to also acquire as much automated income as possible.

I am not a business major and do not have a lot of real world experience with these concepts. There a lot of pros and cons about this automated income theme. So I throw it out to the theaterospehere. Have you personally tried to create an automated income stream through some product that you created for a niche market? Most small business fail, so what did you do right? What did you do wrong? For all who are wrestling with the tribal theater idea, how does this idea fit into your thinking? I found an excerpt of Kathryn Cornelius’s thesis entitled “Creative Entrepreneurship: The Business Art and Art Business of Contemporary Artist Collectives” to help get the entrepreneurial mind thinking.

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    2 thoughts on “Jill Dolan’s “Unhappy Thespians”

    1. Scott Walters

      While I think this is a great idea, I have no experience with such a thing at all. I have tended to think in terms of small business run by the members of the tribe, however, but usually more in the service area (say, consulting) than products. However, if an automated income stream could be created for and by the tribe, that would be great!

      And thanks for the link to the thesis — I will give it a read!

    2. dennisbaker

      Something Tim Ferriss brings up in The 4-Hour Workweek is that consulting and other freelance service jobs may get you out of the office, but still can become a 40 hour work week. The goal is to make as much money as possible with as little hours as possible. He used his “extra” time to take mini-retirements and learn martial arts, dancing, etc. For an artist that time can be devoted to the ensemble theater. I see it as the next level of freelancing.

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