Published July 2020
I know you’ve got your own things to deal with right now. I know you’re under a lot of stress and bandwidth is scarce. I’ve been grinding my teeth at night and clenching my jaw during the day. Sometimes advocacy can be rewarding but my experience is that it’s always a lot of work. We joined this industry to work with our hands, not to play politician.
But you have to admit that what we want for the future is dependent on doing the work now.
At the end of April, I spent three hours over two beautiful days sitting inside over zoom, listening to a bunch of people tell support-organizations and funders why their arts organization or they (as an artist) deserve money and how it can be better distributed. A hundred artists-workers in a room, each speaking their unique experience – each a unique story and some of them hard to listen to. But not a single one of them presenting the perspective of a performing arts designer or technician.
Near the end of the Artist Town Hall, through gritted teeth, I felt the obligation to speak up. Looking around the room, I was the only one who could speak to my experience. I made 2 points. First, that nearly every designer and technician that I know is out of work and if zoom-performances are our future, the designers and technicians (lighting, scenery, etc) have no place in that future. Most will be forced to leave the industry and that collective loss will have a significant impact. Secondly, we need theaters and music venues at all levels to survive. Many gigging arts-workers must work across tiers in order to make a living wage. Our local industry is robust because we have all of these tiers and we share between them.
I didn’t come with a speech prepared, and I’m not a great public speaker, but I’m glad that I was in the room to step up when necessary. A bunch of commentors thanked me and reinforced my ideas, “That’s my fear. That artists will leave their fields because they can’t sustain themselves” and “If we don’t have our tech people – we won’t be able to do quality performances… it’s that simple.”
I felt heard. I felt supported. And it is my hope that we felt heard.
We complain all the time about how the tax laws, worker classification, insurance, equity, and other benefits don’t fit well with what we, as the original gig-workers, do. Could that be because we have failed at our responsibility to speak up when the lawmakers and elite start shaping the policies that will affect us? We have a unique and valuable perspective that too often goes un- or under- filled. Just like you, I didn’t want to be in a zoom meeting, on a gorgeous day, talking about a foreboding future.
I fool myself, pretending that I showed up so that you didn’t have to – knowing that if we had all showed up with a collective voice, we would have won the pie and had time left over to celebrate.
Having attended both the Organizational and Artists Town Halls, I’m disappointed that the individual artists attended in much smaller numbers, despite being the vast majority of the industry. Why do we think that money is just going to appear for us? Why do we think organizations are responsible for doing all the work? Or even that they can do all the work without the collective voice?
I am infinitely grateful for all the organizations that hosted the town hall – the Minnesota Theater Alliance, MRAC, Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, Springboard for the Arts, and others – for giving artists the opportunity to have a voice even if we rarely show up to conversations like these. It’s a shitty game; it’s a broken system; and for most of us who have never even written a grant before, it feels foreign and outside of us. Even IATSE Local 13, representing some 2,000 workers and 350 members, pretty much has only one person who seems to care about political advocacy from the stagehand perspective (Hint: it’s not me).
We must start showing up and showing up for each other.
That means showing up for me as I am showing up for you. Do not trust me to speak or show up on your behalf. I don’t have the same experiences or goals that you have. We keep fighting over the same pieces of pie but the pie could be bigger if we could just show up in great numbers to the political system that determines it.
Advocacy petitions (like this Federal Aid petition) take so little time and you get about as much as you invest. Or you could reach out to your representatives with a form. You could get involved with policy at the local level, like helping to write city/state ordinances (like the Freelance Workers Protection Ordinance). Maybe you would rather be the tech-voice in new organizations (like the Center for Performing Arts in Minneapolis), help with renovations to existing theaters (like the Capri Theater), or join/form an Inclusion-Diversity-Equity-Accessibility committee or solidarity meeting group (like TALC or Creating New Futures). You could also reach out to groups with shared interests: Technicians for Change, Freelancer’s Union, IATSE International, Guild of Scenic Artists, Americans for the Arts/Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, or the Live Events Coalition. What if we stopped hiding in the dark and started to voice our lived experience?
Our experience and our expertise matters.
These same themes resonate with the Black Lives Matter movement and all the other groups fighting systemic racism, discrimination, injustice, classism, and white supremacy. Technicians for Change are doing (/have been doing) some of the work to dismantle these things but not enough – with not enough contributors, collaborators, or resources. Theater organizations are reeling from We See You, White American Theatre but I don’t see individuals owning their complaisance to the same degree. Additionally, an unfortunate number of the for-profit entertainment or live events technicians, those who work for organizations with corporate funding or otherwise hefty pocketbooks, are too consumed with industry-collapse to even acknowledge they have a diversity problem.