Wednesday, September 15, 2010

That’s Show Business

If you’ve been paying any attention to the primaries and the campaigns for the mid-term elections, you’ve undoubtedly heard a lot of people — especially the folks from the Tea Party — say how they’re tired of “politics as usual” and how they’re going to go to Washington to “shake things up.” That always gets a lot of cheering and yip-yahs from the crowd, but after all the shouting and all the media coverage, these neophytes who promise to do all the shaking up seem kind of hard-pressed to tell you exactly how they plan to do it. They’re very good with the ten-word answer — the platitudes that have been tested and tried out on focus groups or fed to them by pundits — but they can’t come up with the next ten words, or the ten words after that. Perhaps “politics as usual” became that way because that’s the natural state of how people in a democracy get things done. It’s messy and not very lofty, especially when you’re doing it in a marble cathedral dedicated to the sainted memory of the men who built this country two hundred years ago, but chances are that there were people complaining about Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison and their “politics as usual” in 1810.

It reminds me of when I taught high school theatre. I had a number of kids who were all gung-ho to be the next Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake: “I want to be a star!” I daresay I probably had those dreams when I was a kid, too, but the first thing I learned is that while there may be a lot of celebrities and stars out there on the cover of People magazine or hanging out at the hot spots on SoBe, to actually make it as an actor requires a lot of hard work, a lot of hours in rehearsal, and if you’re going to be taken seriously as an artist, a lot of homework: acting classes, history, and learning about the countless numbers of things that go into making something as deceptively complex as a production of Our Town ready for the audience. And the audience expects big things. They don’t come to the theatre to bask in the magnificence of the star’s personality; they come there to see something insightful and enduring. So I used to tell my students, “You can be a star, sure. Or you can be an actor and work like a mule to learn everything there is to know about what you’re doing and do the grunt work of showing up at rehearsal and working until you’re stoned with fatigue from the effort to get it right, knowing how to light a stage and build the scenery and run the show, and learning everything there is to know about your art and your craft because you love it and do it because in the end it will be for the audience and the message of the playwright, not all about you. Sure, you can be a star and perhaps even make a brief career as a celebrity. But you won’t know anything about what you’re doing — and you don’t even care — and some day it’s all going to go away and you’ll be lucky to be doing summer stock theatre in Manistee.”


They say politics is show business for ugly people, and the parallels are striking. We now have a lot of celebrity politicians who are all about shaking things up, but are they really ready to do the hard work of actually governing if by some fluke they actually win? Are they ready to sit through the butt-numbing hours of work that it takes to write a bill that will reduce taxes or whatever was the slogan that got them elected in the first place? Do they actually understand how things work? I don’t think so, especially when I hear some neophyte running for governor — in Florida, say — “I want to cut red tape and bureaucracy and make the government accountable.” Well, sure, but I don’t think he gets the basic concept that it’s the red tape and multiple layers of bureaucracy that makes the government accountable for the things they do. Without them, there would be a lack of accountability and a lot of opportunities for fraud and abuse, something a certain candidate for governor in Florida knows all too well. You can have blinding speed with no controls or you can have accountability. It’s really hard to find the exact balance, trust me, and so far I have yet to hear of anyone in or outside the business who has done it.

I’m all in favor of bringing in new people to any business, be it the next rising star on Broadway or the newest Senator with new ideas. But they had better be aware of exactly how hard the business is. This is Broadway, not some 4-H skit; it’s not just Mom and Dad out there with the Instamatic; it’s a paying audience and a tough crowd who didn’t come to see you be just you. They came to see you work and earn their trust and do what they expect you to do, which is more than just wave to the crowd and impress Sean Hannity with your one-liners. And if you don’t, they have a funny way of finding someone who will, which means you can start looking for cheap rentals in Manistee.