Saturday, December 21, 2013

Incarnation and Imperfection

My Fellow Artists,

Back in 1988 I was a young man - but getting past that "Oh, you're still young" stage.

And I was desperate.

All I wanted to do was find a form or a mold in which to pour my passions and my talents.  I badly wanted my own theater troupe, so that I could do the work that my heart was burning to do.  St. Paul says, "Woe unto me if I do not preach the Gospel!" (1 Cor. 9:16)  Well, all I could say was, "Woe unto me if I do not do theater!"

But I had no money.  I was counting pennies.  I was going to bars that had all-you-can-eat appetizers for happy hour - not to drink, but so that I could eat for free.  For a few months there, I had no regular source of income, apart from delivering flyers door to door.

And I had a vocation.  I was called to act, to write, to direct.  And I couldn't do it!  I had had several good gigs - my singing telegram business, my tour to army bases overseas, my stint as a magician, as an MC, as a stand-up comic - but lately the gigs had dried up.  And I was desperate.

I mean, sure I was teaching children's theater classes at a local community theater, but what was that compared with what I wanted and longed for?

I mean, I could have the kids suggest story ideas that interested them.  I could write these stories into plays that were tailored to the cast and their talents.  I could have the kids learn these plays and I could direct them during the course of our sessions.  I could build sets, run the lights and sound and find costumes for the show.  I could design and print programs.  I could have my girlfriend Karen run the box office and take tickets.  I could ... I could ...

Hey, wait! I thought.  I already do have my own theater troupe!

It wasn't what I was expecting.  It was just a bunch of kids and a rickety old proscenium stage and stupid me trying to make the best of the hand I'd been dealt - but it was what I was longing for.  Right there.  Within my grasp.

That realization was a major turning point in my life.  I ran that children's theater program for three years.  I learned a lot about writing and directing and all aspects of producing.  It was a great joy, and the first time I understood what the incarnation meant - although I was still an atheist and I didn't call it that.

Chesterton says

There is something in all good things that is beyond all speech or figure of speech. But it is also true that there is in all good things a perpetual desire for expression and concrete embodiment; and though the attempt to embody it is always inadequate, the attempt is always made. If the idea does not seek to be the word, the chances are that it is an evil idea. If the word is not made flesh it is a bad word. 

And ever since those days, I've been much more humble when it comes to the opportunities offered me.

Ever since those days I've understood what making the word flesh means - and the inadequate final product that always results.

The Jews thought the Messiah would be a grand political leader - someone with the power and machismo of the Roman emperor.  When he turned out to be a poor kid from Nazareth who was born in a stable and nailed to a cross ... well, this wasn't what they had in mind.

And then there's my wife.

All those years I was dating Karen - 8 1/2 years, to be exact - I kept waiting for someone better to come along. I mean, she loved me more than anyone I'd ever met.  She was honest, funny, perceptive.  She and I could talk about anything.  She was always there for me.  I could tell her anything.  I could trust her with my whole being.  She was ... she was ... hey! it eventually occurred to me.  I don't need to keep looking for the woman I'm going to marry!  She's been right here all along.  Right there.  Within my grasp.  All along.

She wasn't perfect.  The Children's Theater troupe wasn't perfect.  But it was there.  It was real.  It was what God gave me.  And it was a great blessing - once I realized that incarnation always involves imperfection - in this life, anyway.

And imperfection is a form of suffering.


Now, Fellow Artists, I'm writing this to you because we're in an era of new technology that has a lot of us excited and a lot of us flummoxed.

But first, here's a chart I've come up with to help me make my point.

AmateurPoor to MediocreNoneLong Rehearsals
Semi-proMediocre to ExcellentSome, but usually very little; not enough to make a living.Less preparation time than amateurs, more than professionals.
ProfessionalExcellentSupports a familyAbility to produce in short periods under great stress

Here's how the above chart works when it comes to actors.

  • Amateur Actors do Community Theater shows.  Many community theater actors have some talent; most have very little.  They do this for fun, and they all have day jobs, since there's no money involved at all.  Some community theater shows rehearse five days a week for six to eight weeks - a lot of work, and the actors need it.  Family and friends come to see the shows.
  • Semi-pro Actors do shows that draw small houses, composed of both family and friends and the general public.  Most semi-pro actors have the talent and experience that enables them to get occasional paid gigs on commercials and in industrial work, but the "semi pro" plays they do pay them perhaps $20 to $60 for a six to nine show run - token money.  They all have day jobs, or they are living with someone who supports them and enables them to indulge their love for the craft.  They are good enough at what they do that they can put up a show on perhaps half the rehearsal time a community troupe needs.
  • Professional Actors make a living at their craft - though they may have to fill in with odd jobs here and there between gigs.  They can work under any and all conditions.  Many professional companies might rehearse daily for two weeks to mount a full-length show.  We rehearse our Theater of the Word one-acts maybe three to five times before mounting a new production.  We can't afford to spend more time than that on show prep, since we're so busy touring and performing other shows.

And from what I gather, the chart also applies to musicians - with one big difference.  Semi-pro musicians can have at least as much talent as professional musicians, but the industry is so brutal that they can't afford to give up their day jobs and tour and so they'll settle for playing great music in small clubs for $100 or less per night per player.


Now, throughout my entire adult life - with the exception of early 1988 when I was delivering flyers and for a year or so in the 1990's, I have made my living by acting, writing, producing and directing.  For almost 40 years I've been making money at this, and for 33 years I've been supporting myself and my family by being in show business.

So I know what I'm talking about.  And when it comes to the New Media, here's what I've got to say.


We're all semi-pros at the internet.

We've produced a lot of videos for Grunky, my internet video network. Most of them are "garage videos", or cheaply produced but interesting things that draw between 1,000 and 60,000 views each - mostly on the lower end.  These are not well-produced videos by any means.  But the funny ones are funny and the serious ones are well enough made to work on YouTube.

Kaiser Johnson has produced a great trailer for Father Dangerous - Bionic Priest, but to produce a web series that matches the caliber of the trailer would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  

Timothy Quigley II wrote, produced, directed and starred in four brilliant episodes of Ordinary - an internet comedy series about a Catholic Priest.  He tried to raise $30,000 on Kickstarter to produce a second season, but fell short.

We have the option of producing some of our Theater of the Word plays as videos - but to do them well would cost about $20,000 each on the cheap end.  

All projects on the New Media cost money to produce, and almost none of them will make money in return.  Maybe someday.  Maybe somehow.  But it's a long shot.


So here's where we stand when it comes to the New Media, Fellow Artists.

A generation ago, it would cost over a million dollars to make the kind of movies people can make digitally and edit on computers these days for a few thousand per project.  A generation ago, even if you had a great final product on video, getting it distributed - to cinemas or to one of the major networks - would be almost impossible.  Now, you can upload it to YouTube and almost anyone on the planet can see it.

But we mope and we moan.

"Oh, if only we could have our own production company!  If only we could produce a well-made movie or TV series!  If only we could get people to see it!"

If only - hey, wait!  We've all got that.  When it comes to information technology, Distributism is here.  Right here.  Within our grasp.

Only, it won't (easily) make money, and because of that we can't afford to spend much time or money on it - unless we've got someone supporting us, like a wife or generous parents.  We are, in effect, and per force, semi-pros at the new technology.  Even someone who has made his living all of his life in show business - like me - is a semi-pro at the internet.  

We are semi-pro in how we are still struggling (as is everyone) to learn the new medium and to do works that are suited to it.  We are semi-pro in how our talent level will not be commensurate with the money we make (if any).  We are semi-pro in our need to subsidize what we're doing or to find ways of doing it in our spare time.

And this is the way it is.  This is frustrating, but this is the way the Incarnation works.  

Welcome to the smelly stable.  Pull up a manger and make yourself at home.


o said...

you have a beautiful wife.

My 13 yr old son often brings up your Stanford Nutting characters as he explains things or people he's encountered or thought about. You may not have that seed money because the 100,000 dollar value is in my son's head and I thank you all deeply for it. If I could spare a tithe of that, when I can, I will send it your way. You are worth the investment, my Gospel-spreading friend. There are two Chesterton groups in our general area, newly formed - maybe we could talk about getting your troupe out to help kids experience more.

Joey Higgins said...

Great post and actually helps me articulate some issues that I have with groups in the past:

Everyone wants to practice like the pros, but are really only amateurs. Also, I think that the pros put a lot more overall time than the semi or amateurs to get to the pro level - your experience may be different. With music, if I practice X hours on something and get the technique down, I can pick up new music much faster - I assume that's the same with acting. So, essentially you don't need to relearn what you learned the first time, hence practicing much less.

Where amateurs need to learn how to sing/dance/act/play and the material, which is much harder.