The Potential of Space
by Reed Pike
In June of 2018, my older brother, my mom, and I were sitting down for breakfast in Talkeetna, Alaska, a beautiful inland town near Denali with a population of less than a thousand. After a short time we were joined at our large family style table by two middle aged couples, loud as they were entitled, and ripe to ask for any sort of manager available. Soon after they were seated we became entangled in conversation. We found out they were all lawyers from Detroit here on a group vacation, and Kevin, a carbon copy of every uncle ever, was their leader. The topic easily shifted to my brother-a recent college graduate with a degree in finance, and me-an incoming junior studying Drama in New York City-and our plans for the future. After they established that my brother was to become a valuable member of society in their eyes, their eyes met mine and asked what every college student gets asked, “What are you studying?”. I hesitated like I hesitated every time a stranger would ask me that.
In high school I worked at a golf club. It was private, all-male, and populated by some of the most successful businessmen, lawyers, and doctors in the Denver area. When I told many of them my plans for college included studying theater, many expressed their concern for the unstable nature of the field and suggested I spend my time pursuing the studies they had. So, seated at breakfast, was I going to tell the truth and have to spend my breakfast justifying my career choice to the same type of people at the golf club, or do I say I’m a business major and satiate their fetishism for young people joining corporate America? Before I even had the chance to respond my brother answered for me, telling them the truth. Like clockwork, Kevin asked, “well what are you gonna do for money?” Cue the raucous laughter from his cohort of baby boomers. I knew it was fruitless to try to defend my choice of education to them, because no matter how much film and TV they watched, how much theater they attended, or how much music they listened to, it still wasn’t valuable in their eyes for a young person to spend their time in college studying the arts. I was furious as I was every time someone asked me that. I was two years into a top BFA program in the country, who were they to ask what I was planning on doing to make money? I was going to use my degree in Drama from New York University Tisch School of Arts to do what I wanted to most, get paid to act.
That was June of 2018. Two years later, it’s now the summer of 2020, I’m a recent college grad, and that same BFA is now a tangible realization that hangs on my bedroom wall to symbolize the hard work put in over the last 4 years. I like to look at it every time I leave my apartment to go be paid minimum wage to work a shift at a restaurant.
Touche, Kevin… Touche…
Beginning school, I had believed that after four years of training at a BFA program, I would emerge a fully realized artist, who had a clear vision in mind of how and why their art would matter in the world. Over the course of my education, instances of working with unexciting material led me to question the legitimacy of the time I spent on it. If I were in an environment where it would not be concurrent of a grade, I wouldn’t over eagerly chase the opportunity to engage with some of the material. The response of most of my professors to this attitude was that while you don’t want to have to sacrifice your own artistry, the bills still have to be paid, and jobs have to be taken. I took the advice, and the right advice it was, and tried to prepare myself to enter the profession, both as someone with goals and desires for how my career looks, and as a commercial actor who recognizes the scarcity of well paying jobs and says yes to any opportunity presented. I headed into my final semesters ready to take on what, in my mind, was the industry. Then, that same industry disappeared right when I was about to cross the threshold into the professional world. Fantastic timing, if I may say.
Nothing about today could have been predicted back in the summer of 2018, not by me, not by Kevin, and not by any of my professors that had been preparing us for the profession with their wells of knowledge and advice and experience. Covid-19, quarantine, and social distancing went rapidly from something to be speculated or laughed about in early spring, when there were still no confirmed cases in the US, to the new reality that we’ve been living in for over 7 months now. We saw millions lose their jobs, industries shut down, and businesses being informed by the government whether or not they were essential. Theater had to succumb to one of the most unfortunate realities of the pandemic; large crowds of people is the quickest way that viruses spread, and the physical theaters of all sizes across the world had to shut their doors in the means of safety. This incorrectly labels theater as “inessential”. History is the only source needed to prove that theater at its core is essential. People have always relied on the ability to come together for a cathartic experience, but with social distancing our best weapon against the spread of the pandemic, all gatherings of the such had to be placed on hold. Only 2 months out from completing the journey to our BFAs, the rest of the class of 2020 and myself had to sit idly by while we watched the very industry we sought to join shut down temporarily for a few weeks, then a few months. Broadway and theaters of all sizes across New York have announced their plans to be closed through the end of the year, and in person productions around the country are few and far between.
I felt presented with a brick wall. Nearly all of my classmates and friends quickly returned home. Most who had jobs were furloughed, and most people had much better reasons to return to their families than to stay in the city. I stayed because I was fortunate enough to have kept the job I had at a restaurant through the delivery only phase, and as New York emerged as the epicenter, the idea of returning home to immune-compromised family members shied me away. So I decided to stay by myself, finish the few credits of remote learning I had left, and remain “essential” in the eyes of the government. I walked to work along streets that felt deserted in a city that’s supposed to feel vibrant and alive. I figured the only option was to wait. I thought that if I just used this time to get by, maybe save some money, that in a year we’d be back to normal. We’d all be clamoring to get our spot in a line twice around the block at the open call for the non-eq tour of Hairspray.
Then I realized how much I would rather have each of my toes chopped clean off than wait in a line twice around the block at the open call for the non-eq tour of Hairspray.
All of a sudden my frame of reference was jolted into a new perspective. There was that norm of cattle call auditions that would return, but for the first time I realized that they didn’t have to be an integral part in the formation of my career. Before I graduated and before the pandemic hit, I saw the industry and my forthcoming career in it as somewhat of a color by number painting. If I followed the right steps, went to the right auditions, met the right people, then I would be able to fit myself into the industry, and help complete the picture that was already envisioned before I even became a part of the equation. As the pandemic hit, the lines and the rules started to fade away, and naturally I became incredibly anxious. It was only after time and deliberate thinking that I finally realized the opportunity that I actually had.
The lines and rules that governed the color by number system were gone, and what was left was a blank canvass. The kind of blank canvass George talks about both physically and metaphorically in Sunday in the Park. A blank canvass is potential, possibility, freedom, and equality. We as the next generation of artists have the opportunity to decide how and where we want our bodies and our talent to be used.
When thinking about the future I become nostalgic for a time that I never experienced in person, the birth of the off-off-broadway scene of the early 1960s. To me, the leaders of that emergence recognized that last thing that an actor wanted was a number and 90 seconds with a producer. Or, how for a writer, it wasn’t enough to be granted the opportunity to pitch an idea to the people who would handle the money. These icons knew that by simply having space and bodies that wanted to be there was enough to achieve what is arguably the most core and crucial element of theatre: collaboration.
Ellen Stewart realized that new emerging playwrights had raw, meaningful material, so she started using the basement of her boutique shop to stage their stories, creating the still culturally vital La Mama.
Pastors Bernard Scott and Al Carmines of Judson Memorial Church wanted to make a difference in their community and recognized the need for open space, and how simply having somewhere to create, free from a fear of censorship or a need to conform to mainstream standards could be that difference, and so emerged Judson Poets Theatre and Judson Dance Theatre. Some of the great artists of the time were able to cultivate work there, such as Maria Irene Fornes, whose initial production of Promenade , written with Carmine, would go on to move off-broadway and win the OBIE for best musical.
Without the space she was provided by Judson, hers and the works of countless others may never have had the opportunity to even begin to be explored. Joe Cino cultivated a space in his cafe that was open to sharing of art, poetry, music. Caffe Cino, along with Judson and La Mama, round out what is considered the birthplaces of the off-off-broadway scene, but what helped immensely was the vibrancy and underlying artistic pulse of Greenwich Village, where all three spaces were located.
The downtown audience craved what the downtown creatives wanted to produce, which to them was the antithesis to the commercial theater that was being produced uptown on Broadway, and slowly invading the Off-Broadway scene. When creatives began congregating there in the west village, they started to create and perform their own theater, theater that never would have been created if it weren’t for people recognizing the unlimited artistic potential of a group who is eager to collaborate, a space that facilitates that connection, and a community eager to explore new forms of expression.
Nothing happens in a void, however. It’s foolish to say that we want to emulate these great idols and icons of collaboration without understanding what drove them to do so. In this examination, however, we see the parallels that connect these two times, and see that we are ripe for a rebirth of the true spirit of collaboration. Artists then were influenced by the civil rights movement of the time and were driven to create spaces that reflected their vision of America. Today, we are disappointingly fighting many of the same battles our generation’s parents and grandparents fought in their youth.
Black Lives Matter, both as a movement and a statement, is an acknowledgment that many things haven’t changed, and that we the people are still fighting for the same vision of equality they fought for in the 60's. Simultaneously, we as theater artists presented with a completely closed industry must decide how we will respond when it is time to start staging again. Are we going to let ourselves step back into the cattle call lines, leaving our livelihood and our well beings to the will of a few producers? Do we as the new generation of theater creators want to fit ourselves into the boxes and the rooms that have been created for us? I think we have the chance to tear down the walls and rewrite the rules, creating rooms that represent us and our truly collaborative nature.
I’m excited most by what I see as a rebirth in the collaborative spirit that inspired the leaders and their fellow artists of the time. Now, more than ever, we’re desperate for true collaboration. True collaboration in turn leads to diversity in rooms, in creative teams, and in developmental ensembles. True collaboration isn’t concerned with adding more BIPOC voices into a room just to fill quotas, or to say there is a larger percentage of non-white people in this room than there were last year. True collaboration, a phenomenon I’m proud to see taking place in my generation, recognizes that rooms are literally incomplete without a myriad of people from all walks of life. It is to hear from and consult the people whose identities will be represented on stage, and to normalize asking for that consultation. One person can write a great play, but when it comes to realizing that vision on stage, only through the lens of varying perspectives will it end up fleshed out, and universal. Only through as many facets of collaboration as possible will any piece of work end up the best version of itself it can be.
So no, Kevin, much to your elation I am not making money with my BFA at the moment, but I have the opportunity ahead of me to, along with my peers and fellow artists, create an environment where the arts and theater are a place of innovation, acceptance, and a fierce drive to drag society into the future with us. We are the future of the American theater, and we will no longer trim and reshape our own selves and artistry to fit into the room you have made for us. We are making our own room. We are the artists standing in front of our own blank canvases.