Theatre and Money

Monday, August 9, 2010 Leave a Comment

I am not an economist, and this post will not approach the rugged grandeur of Ian David Moss' musings on the subject of economic value. Rather, it is an open question about an uneasiness I've been having with how theatres talk about money.

I have religious friends who practice a strict personal morality that does not extend to judgments of others; they believe that God will sorts things out in the after life. It is a position of appealing humility; on the mortal plane we simply don't have all the information we need to truly judge something as complex as a human being's moral worth; so we will leave such decisions to a higher power, God.

In our democracy, money plays that role in the here and now. Money is our objective moral arbiter in the secular present. Money takes the hard decisions of value from our hands and crowd sources them across a billion decisions made by a billion consumers. The Invisible Hand of the free market is the Holy Spirit of American Democracy.

Of course, money has no real value; it is a symbol of value that allows us to measure the comparative worth of things. One week of my labor is worth this iPad because money deems it so. In most cases, this symbolic shorthand of money allows for a fair and efficient exchange of things.

But this efficiency allows for the real value, and the real cost, of some things to be obscured; the externalized environmental costs of so much of our stuff, so well dramatized by Annie Leonard, is hidden by this symbolic shorthand.

But more dangerously, this efficiency allows us to avoid difficult and necessary discussions of real value. A baseball player can make millions of dollars for playing a televised game as schools close on Fridays to cut budgets. A CEO can make 250 times more a year than an average worker. A third world laborer can make a dollar a day so that we can buy a t-shirt for $5.99.

Money allows us to avoid asking if these things represent true value. A baseball player deserves to make that much, and a laborer to make that little, because money says so; and money is our trusted objective moral arbiter.

And yet, we recognize that some kinds of value fall outside money's reach. Sex, one of the most sought after human experiences, can be purchased; but doing so might cost you your role as Governor. We might worship the Invisible Hand of the market as democracy's God; but it is a crime to directly purchase change in our democracy's laws.

Is theatre one of those experiences whose value cannot be sounded by money; or is it simply an obsolete economic model where you can make a killing but not a living? Depending on the day of the week, increasingly the answer is both.

On Monday we claim a civic value beyond money's reach; on Tuesday we cite the free market as the necessity for theatre leader salaries in six figures. On Wednesday, we say our plays are for the community; but if the community likes the play, on Thursday we raise the ticket prices. On Friday, we build a beautiful new lobby; and on Saturday, weep that we can't pay our artists more. And on Sunday, we wonder why people don't see the civic value of the arts.

American theatre's foundational myth remains Broadway, in spite of the regional theatre movement. For most Americans, it remains theatre's conceptual Olympus. And so because our foundational myth is theatre as show business, our culture remains deeply wary of theatre's claim to a more communal, civic, church-like value. But though church and sex and democracies can be (and have been) profit-driven; it doesn't mean they must be and it may not mean they should be. The shorthand of money may obscure their real value; or at the very least, allow us to avoid the hard discussion of value we need to have.

Theatre is a small part of this larger discussion of value we need to have as a culture; but it is an important part; and these mixed messages of our value, while perhaps necessary for our short-term survival, may be damaging our long term hopes.


  • Aaron Andersen said:  

    Great post. Because we are humans, I guess, we are internally conflicted when we tell ourselves one thing about our own value, and somebody else (i.e. the "invisible hand" of the market) tells us another.

    I think there are ways to reconcile this conflict, however. The classic one is philanthropy. Philanthropy operates in a market, just like ticket sales. We tell people who want to give us more money that we have a greater value than the market for theater tickets indicates. If they believe us, and if they can help, they make a donation. We've sold them something in the market; it's just something intangible. And then we use some of that money to expand community access to our work.

    In economic terms, this is the ultimate in price discrimination. Those who think our product is worth the most, and those who are willing to pay the most, do, through donations. And if we get enough, we can still include people who are only capable of paying the least. It is kind of like church that way. :)

  • August Schulenburg said:  


    Thanks! I agree that the philanthropic model makes a lot of sense; it has, after all, been around since Athens. My concern is that some theatres act like engines of civic good only on the ask, and not on the act; as a result, the argument that our true value cannot be sounded by the market carry increasingly less weight; and theatre ends up being seen as a luxury product rather than a civic process.

    This problem is compounded, I think, by the larger conversation our country isn't having about value and money. And it's a difficult conversation to have, because the idea of a free market as a fair and trusted arbiter of value is sewn deep into the seams of our national fabric. Which is good - I want free markets! I just also want them fair, transparent, and inclusive; and I don't want their function to obscure our responsibility to talk about the real value of things.