Theatre has been called a "dying art" (especially in THIS country) for a looong time. All my life, certainly. And yet, impractical and facilful as it was, I was still pulled to it. I kept trying to deny this pull until it was so strong, I just surrendered, once and for all. That was over twenty years ago, and while I've been plugging along steadily in my own way, via not only auditions, but also connections, as well as writing and producing my own stuff, I've only really started to feel somewhat "successful" in the past two years or so, at least in terms of seeing any substantial capital arise from my creative efforts.
Last night, I read the sad announcement that Book-It Repertory here in Seattle, whose final season I acted in (In The Time of the Butterflies back in fall 2022) is closing. Yet another hard blow to the local theatre community in a sequential series of them, beginning prior to the pandemic. And of course, the pandemic definitely didn't help. Because money. Because in this country, we have a devastating culture of valuing only what brings in capital.
So, what's a dedicated theatre artist to do?
It occurs to me there's a HUUUUUGE financial disparity between screen and stage. Both mediums are essentially doing the same thing: telling stories. Film, TV and Video Games are able to do this in a slicker way with more bells and whistles, but essentially, the goals, at least at the outset, are the same: to tell a good story to an audience to craves it. And make no mistake: the public craves these stories. But sure, it's much easier to turn on the tv than make the effort to get dressed, drive or bus to a local theatre, sit through a production which might suck, you might be too cold or too hot, or have to go through the bathroom, or get sleepy, you have to sit amongst other audience members who might be annoying in some way (loud candy wrappers??? talking during the performance??? etc), and then after the show, you have to commute back home. If you just turn on the tv, all you have to do is turn it off if it's bad, or change the channel. Go pee during the commercial, or pause your content.
Thus, as a whole, our culture values television, and by extension, film and video games, far more highly than theatre - these things are PRIORITIES to most Americans (I mean, what did we do during the pandemic, after all?) whereas attending the theatre is NOT.
But did you happen to realize they are both vital parts of the same ecosystem? You don't really have the others without theatre. Imagine, if you will, a country where all the theatres go belly up, except for high school and college productions. Fewer theatres mean fewer young artists will bother to learn the craft of acting, so these high school and college programs will diminish and eventually disappear. Theatre is a DIRECT PIPELINE to screen, oftentimes. Without the training born and bred in these programs, without the fertile ground of being raised into the artistic community through these fringe and regional theatres, the quality of artists stepping into film will diminish as well. Sure, the training might pivot and programs might begin to cater towards film acting/writing/directing instead, but we will lose a great deal of the richness in these artists who come up in their high school, college and fringe breeding grounds. By eliminating theatre, we're eliminating an entire food group of spiritual and emotional nutrition. We're already bordering on cultural anemia in this country, do we really want to remove more nutrients?
I sure hope not. As a multi-hyphenate artist, I will do everything in my power to continue - continue the conversation, continue the action, continue the work and continue to bend and shape my creativity to find the best and most unusual solutions to pull my greatest joy and exhilaration back from the brink and at least help bring it into remission, because an artless society is a dead society, and we are slowly careening towards the cliff.
I'd venture a guess there are THOUSANDS of screen artists in Hollywood/Vancouver/Atlanta right now who came up through the theatre. I'll bet a good chunk of those artists enjoy returning to the theatre now and again. I've heard many actors wax poetic about the stage, and how their screen work enables them to return to the stage and still keep a roof over their head. I've heard them say there's nothing like live performance, nothing like acting in the moment on a live stage with a reactive audience. I know this feeling well myself after returning after nearly two years of Zoom theatre during the pandemic. I appeased myself with steady, live-streamed performances, but the moment I returned to a real stage in October 2021??? FUGEDDABOUTIT. I haven't looked back.
As an actor (or playwright, for that matter), I've never been that interested in pursuing a film career, other than as a means to an end: do film to make money to finance more theatre. I've done both. In terms of being able to sustain an emotional moment, theatre is HARDER. If you get to a certain point as a stage actor, shifting over to film is merely a matter of being able to memorize quickly and find your mark. Being able to offer different emotional moments over different takes is a breeze to do from one moment to the next, compared to sustaining the same thing over a period of rehearsals and performances, so if you can do it on a stage, your emotional agility is already so finely-honed that taking on a film set is an emotional cake walk.
I'm not the only actor who knows this.
Well, folks in screenland, now is the time for you to PAY IT FORWARD. All you artists who are now multimillionaires who started in theatre - it's time for you to infuse these theatres with donations, and I'm talking about not just the big, for-profit things that are grinding out musicals adapted from previous movies, but I'm talking about the little regional houses like Book-It, like The Empty Space (RIP), like the Group Theatre (RIP) the tiny, experimental fringe companies doing the weird stuff that run on the energy of their courageous artists, or the tiny ethnic theatres consistently employing scores of diverse minorities. These theatres and their (often voluntary) staff/artists are BURSTING with creativity - all they need are the dollars. So why not put a nice chunk of your dollars back into the institution you came through? Pave the way for the generations who follow you. There are plenty of folks out in the world who are going to give money to health and social causes - as an artist, it's your duty to put your money into the continued existence of the thing that gave you your start.
Artists are shamans and healers of the spirit. These stories we're telling, via screen, canvas, paperback, song and stage are important. They matter. THEATRE MATTERS.
Periodically, I'll google myself, curious to see what's made it out into the internet stratosphere for public consumption, and I was doing that one day last month and discovered a spoken word poem of mine had won first prize in a contest I submitted it to back in March or something like that - SURPRISE! Only bragging rights, of course, but still pretty cool something of mine in a form I don't often put out in the world received recognition in any way. If you're curious, you can see the award here. And the poem, without further adieu:
©2013 by Carolynne Wilcox
(spoken word poetry)
My Dearest Babes,
It is with joy and sorrow I speak these words...
You always knew your mother carried within her
A mysterious secret
Something which caused her to be a little distant at times,
Something she longed for, but her love for all of you
Kept her from:
The thing of it is, it used to be part of me
And I part of it.
The sea. THE SEA.
Endless, inviting, enveloping
It was my home, my name, my family
It sang to me, and I sang back
Beautiful wordless melodies
Of sand, of surf
Of depth and mystery
And one day, I pulled him out – your father –
I heard him, from miles away, struggling to keep afloat
He was drowning, you see
And I couldn’t let death claim him in my home.
Once on land, he sang to me, charmed me, took me home
And slowly, languidly
That sunkissed afternoon
The haunting musk of sweat and seaweed lingering heavy in the air
I let him strip my skins and hide them away…
And I stayed. Stayed!
I made his home, bore his little ones, and you know,
We had a good life in our little green cottage by the bay.
I longed for it. Pined for it.
My home beneath the waves
Communion with sand, salt and skin
It would call to me and I strained to hear its wordless music
But my heart held you all dearly –
We had such a happy home by my beloved waters –
Duty and love pulled me back...
And anyway, I couldn’t find my skins,
And the years wore on.
One stormy day, awaiting his return,
Awaiting clothes to dry by the fire,
I gazed out the window and –
The seas turned black for a moment...
I knew he was drowned,
Taken in forever by the febrile ocean
And life was suddenly sucked of color,
Rendered dull and meaningless,
All the little ones gone away...
And I looked out at my
Once-home waters with fear and dread,
And the years wore on,
And I began to grow old and bent.
One day, cleaning dusty, forgotten cabinets of his
I found them. Almost mistook them for
Old celluloid negatives
threw them away!
I drew them out, soaked them in my laundry bucket,
They began to revive.
Spotted and thick, almost glistening by the firelight,
I wondered if
They’d even fit me anymore!
But they are part of me and re-adheared like new.
And now, my dear ones, I look out to the swirling waters before me
With a strange mixture of fear, yearning and some long-buried sense of freedom and love
I’d forgotten I ever knew!
It pains me to say goodbye to you, my sweet babies!
But you’ve grown so strong, and mother couldn’t be prouder.
I raised you to be yielding but fierce,
Like the tides from whence I came.
I must go!
But you’re half me as much as you’re half him,
And if you need me,
You need only go to the water’s edge and call.
Wait for me, and I will come.
I walk towards the salty waves
Prepared to sink or swim underneath them forever.
...I wrote it during the Spoken Word class I took years ago (2013) with Daemond Arrindell, and performed it for the end-of-class showcase performance. Recently, I've dusted it off both as a performance poem, and have also adapted it as a monologue.
Day to day thoughts, rants and mental detritus.