Downward Mobility (or Pride and Privilege)

Part One – The Part Where Doing Art Makes Me Feel Like A Badass Warrior of Change

I went for a run this morning along an old canal path in Georgetown – a weird and wonderful slice of hyper-urban national parkland. As I ran, I tried to distract myself from the horrible feelings screaming at me at me from my crushed-by-endless-tech-body the  way I always do – by looking at everything around me.

Georgetown is nice. Niiiiice. Or, as my fellow Philadelphians say, noice.

I can’t afford to live in a place like historic Georgetown – I was there because that’s where my housing was. I’ll never have a beautifully maintained 19th Century brick townhouse overlooking a landmark canal, but I sure can appreciate their beauty. Some of these houses even have docks on the Potomic, where they keep little motorboats. As I ran, I imagined tooling up the river with a picnic and no agenda at all on this thing people call a “weekend.” Then maybe a little shopping at the upscale retailers on M Street, cooking a Whole Foods dinner, and catching an opera across the river. I imagined it so hard that I almost managed to forget that pinching pain in my lower back.

We all want the things that having money brings. The luxuries, freedoms, self- indulgences, and pleasures. There’s not a person on earth who doesn’t. And don’t let faux philosophers fool you – true socialism and communism aren’t about penury, they’re about everyone having the same thing. Any real communist wants everyone have a townhouse, not a shack – it’s not a philosophy of poverty, but of equality. I’m pretty sure we all crawled down from the trees in pursuit of a better spot to sleep, a steadier fire, and a change in our menu, from tree-bug to mastadon.

It’s just that I’ve chosen a life that doesn’t come with medium rare mastadon. Because the arts are not valued by our society the way other professions are.

And, while that value system pisses me off, I often feel like it’s wrong for me to complain, because I’m here by choice. I had the privilege of a two-income, middle class home in suburbia as a kid. Two cars, a cat and a dog. Not luxurious (no boat launches or ponies) but solidly middle class – we may have worn hand-me downs, but that allowed us to afford sleepaway camp. Our pantry was always full even if eating out was a rare treat. We had a little shelf by the door where my dad would leave the bills, paid, in their envelopes. He’d write the date to mail them in the spot where the stamp goes, so our money stayed with us for as long as possible – but there was never a month where those bills weren’t up there, ready to go, reassuring me that everything was in order, and would be all right.

Last year, when the family I’ve co-created was applying for our annual dose of ObamaCare, we were told we qualified for Medicaid.  Most months, the question is not “Have we paid the bills?” but “Which bill should we leave until next month?” and, even with my son’s scholarship, we wouldn’t be able to afford the school we put him into if all of our parents weren’t chipping in.

Downward mobility is an odd movement. In fiction, it only happens through fate or romance – the landed gentry losing their land, or the noble daughter falling for a peasant. In reality, it happens all the time. Dot-com and Housing Bubbles burst. A partner dies, or leaves. A job dries up, or gets shipped overseas. For us, it happened by choice.

In my case, it even comes with unbelievable perks. A suite in Georgetown while I teach a masterclass. The text I got yesterday afternoon – “Want to come to Korea in October to do our show?” I even get escorted past velvet ropes (when I’m in the right company). A lot of open doors come with a successful career in the entertainment industry.

But it also comes with a lot of “no” – no, my son, we can’t buy you a new gaming system – that Wii we got off of Craigslist three years ago still works. No, my wife, we can’t afford for you to fly out to join your sister as she celebrates her 40th birthday. No, we can’t join that gym, eat at that restaurant, take an actual family vacation. We don’t have the money, or the time. My son already understands it when I say, “We can’t do that this month, even if we did last month.” When things break in our house, they stay broken until one of us can fix them. That’s just the way it is.

This is not to say that we don’t have a sustainable lifestyle – just that we chose one that has fewer options than the one from which we came. Our parents made more money than their parents. We make less.

And I often ask myself these days, now that we have a child, a septet of aging parents, and an growing awareness that maybe we can’t both work 80 hours a week for the next 20 years – is the cost of this choice more than we can afford?

Then I put on David Bowie’s Black Star, Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown or Fela Kuti’s Coffin For Head of State.  I go to see, or get to help create shows like An Octaroon, The Nether or Red Eye to Havre de Grace.  I spend a week at the Kennedy Center with nine outstanding young designers whose very passion and hope remind me of the way that we, as artists, can transform a dark room into a magical place, and change the very lives of our audiences. And I reaffirm my choices. I tell myself that spending the money-earning hours of my life doing something that helps to lead people from the shadows on Plato’s wall into the light of the sun is absolutely worthwhile. I come to terms with the lifestyle we’ve chosen, because I believe in the life to which it is connected. And I feel good about myself. I feel like I’m a Badass Artist, and that, shy of being a rock star or Neil deGrasse Tyson, that’s about as cool a job as a grownup can have.

Part Two – the Ugly Truth About the Privilege Behind My Choice

There was recently an article in the Philly Inquirer that really stuck in my craw. Two quotes:

“A new racial gap has emerged on college campuses: Too few African American students are enrolling in majors that lead to high-paying jobs. Instead of pursuing science, business, and engineering, the students are studying education and social work…” (Jonathan Lai, article author)

“While African Americans are going to college in greater and greater numbers, they’re in the wrong fields, from an economic point of view.” (Anthony P. Carnevale, study author)  (http://articles.philly.com/2016-02-16/news/70645117_1_college-majors-carnevale-students)

What killed me about this is the thesis that education and social work are the “wrong fields” – not that there’s something wrong with a society that values pharmacy, mechanical engineering, and computer science over helping people grow, learn, and survive trauma.  And I cheered for the African Americans choosing careers that matter to them, and making the world a better place to inhabit.  I started storming around, ready to go off  on American Society, and capitalism, and bullshit value sets, and, and, and…

And then I had to ask myself: what if I hadn’t had the choice that I had? What if I had been my parents, with parents who were a factory worker, secretary, garment worker, housewife? What if I was raised by a single parent with no help from a partner or parents of her own? What if my parents hadn’t known how to work the system to get me a crack at scholarships and grants to fancy private schools? What if I hadn’t known, at the core of my being, that if the shit had truly hit the fan when I finished college, I could’ve reached out for help? The fact that I didn’t have to – the fact that I managed to live in NYC on the $18,000 a year I earned doesn’t invalidate the unconscious safety net I always had. My parents said to me “GO – be what you want to be. Become whoever it is you want to become. Believe in you.” And I did. I could. Because I could be fearless. Because I wasn’t worried – I wasn’t worried about taking care of anyone but me, and knew that, worst come to worst, someone else would do that, too.

And that, my friends, is a fundamental privilege – we talk a lot about race and gender privilege, but this is financial privilege. It’s the privilege of which I am most often ashamed. It’s the leg up I got, at the very beginning of my life, that put me just far enough ahead of the game to grant me the freedom to become a maker of things.

And I believe that this, more than anything else, is why so much art comes from a middle or upper class background. Because its makers have a safety net.

You cannot make great art in fear. There’s a million clichés about it: “Leap and the net will appear.” “Risk, fail, risk again.” “Better a glorious failure than a mediocre success.”

People often think of artistic talent as genetic. But what if it’s not? What if it’s just more accessible to people who can take the risks? Being risk-averse is not necessarily a sign of a conservative nature – it’s just the reality for those who have just enough to fear losing what little they have.  Every 4-year old is an artist.  Some of us just grow up believing that it’s ok to try and make a life out of it.

We in the arts spend a lot of time talking about our lack of diversity, and we often focus our conversations on gender and race. But really, the way we’re least diverse is in our economic backgrounds.  And, in the United States at least, that then translates to race and gender – according to a Pew study from 2014, median Caucasian household net worth is 13x that of African American households, and 10x that of Hispanic households.  (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/12/racial-wealth-gaps-great-recession/)  And we all know that women make 79% of what men make.

And so I suddenly feel less like a rebellious badass, and more like a kid who was born lucky.  And I’ve begun to think that even if every living artist tries to break down this lack of diversity through outreach, planning, conversations and committees, until and unless it becomes possible to choose a life of art without risking everything, the only people making it will be the ones with nothing to worry about and the ones with nothing to lose.

4 thoughts on “Downward Mobility (or Pride and Privilege)”

  1. 1. I applaud your choice to be happy and fulfilled over the pursuit of money- and you should feel like a badass!
    2. As someone whose background has made her almost phobic about instability -to the point that a risk like #1 is impossible- I also applaud your realization that there is a safety net in the resources of your family. Folks like me can find a way to be fulfilled and use our talents while still keeping ourselves secure so there is no need for guilt with the realization you have had. I can tell you though that listening to the children of wealth go on about their struggles as an artist (not you here but at parties or what have you) is super annoying. I don’t know that you can change much about the economic reality of the US but maybe you can help them to cop onto themselves!

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  2. It’s an excellent essay. Though I think that one last issue here is that diversity and economics are not the only driver. “Class” is something most American’s are loath to admit exists, but it’s a real and distinct issue. There is a big difference between having grown up in a family that saw tough times, and having grown up in a community that is economically disadvantaged. There are cultural ramifications there that just do not blend well in theater, particularly the fields that are dominated by people who typically come from the higher classes, such as design and directing.

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    1. This is a great additional aspect to consider – not just personal economics, but the question of the relevance of theater, and career potential of design/direction, in a whole community struggling for survival. Thank you for this broadening thought.

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