Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why work in theater in the United States?

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Contributed by Gabriella Barnstone


Here is a common phrase uttered by New York dancers and choreographers: "I'm moving to Europe where I can make money as a dancer/choreographer." Or, "I'm moving to Europe when I'm older where I can still survive as an artist." This must make perfect sense for them, and I am happy for them. However, for me personally, there lies a deep importance to staying in the US and blazing your own trail in art making; particularly sustaining yourself as an artist, and finding a way to make art when you are "older." I write this on the upcoming dawn of my 40th birthday.

I have been living in New York for somewhere around 15 years (after 12 years I stopped counting). Some of this time has been spent making dance theater, and much of this time has been spent figuring out how to pay the bills, and still make dance theater. This is hard. And yet I have stayed here, without the pull of dropping everything and going to Europe where there seems to be more funding, or at least more support, or something. The truth is that we U.S. artists don't really know if life for a person making theater in Europe is better.

For a time I lived in Italy, befriended many theater artists there and noticed that they did not seem so tortured. This, I think, has more to do with the culture than anything else. I also witnessed my Italian choreographer friend say once when visiting me here, "New York is so inspiring everywhere you turn. I am a choreographer, so to be inspired by a city is the best thing for me." I was jealous of her lifestyle at the time, so to hear her say that surprised me, and made me feel proud. And I knew what she meant. We've all heard people who don't live in New York say, "How can you do it?" My Italian friend's statement lends the answer.

I have also heard theater makers in Europe say that with the support from the government, there is a loss of creative control. William Forsythe started his own company, all with private funding, for this very reason. Jon Stewart said a similar thing on his show when asked why he does not move from Comedy Central to the Tonight Show. Do not mistake me. This entire blog is not meant to be in favor of artists making no money; quite the contrary. I believe it is important to make theater in a country that does not value it so much, precisely so that we can show people how to value it. In producing my own work, I have started very small-- from taking money out of credit cards (I don't recommend this) to currently having the good fortune to have received a commission for my most recent work. Along the way, I have always tried to run my shows as professionally as possibly, no matter how much money we were all getting. This, so that we as theater artists can set a standard, and hope that people outside our circle will learn by example. If we raise the bar by demonstrating our standards of living as theater artists, hopefully people in our community will recognize this, and in turn this recognition may spread to other industries that can find ways to help us meet these standards in practical ways. I don't expect this to happen over night. I expect it to take some time. Let's get the ball rolling.

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Gabriella Barnstone is the founder of El Gato Teatro. In New York City she created and performed Heistman (The Ohio Theater’s Ice Factory Festival ‘08 and Dixon Place), Scenes from a Wedding (University Settlement and The Chocolate Factory), The Dinner Party (NYU and Williamsburg Art Nexus), Laredo (Dixon Place and The Kitchen), Somewhere in Between (NYC subway and Galapagos), Priere (Collective Unconscious), The Ferris wheel (Cunningham Studio), and Looking for r.m. (Hudson Guild Theater). Her most recent work, Nuevox Laredo, will premier in April of 2011 as part of Dixon Place’s Mondo Cane! Commissioning Program. For more information about El Gato Teatro, please visit www.elgatoteatro.com.

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