- Lynde Rosario
I am a dramaturg. I believe art is why I am alive. I labor at it daily as a literary artist who works with text in all its forms. I begin by reading the work, usually a play, perceiving the intentions of its writer, and then I develop strategies to execute those intentions. I am a professional collaborator, supporting the director, actors, and designers in a shared vision that morphs as it is shaped by each artist’s input. My practice, and the lens through which I see the world, is dramaturgy. This often means that I interpret art made by others. Although my initial experience is textual, rather than performative, I consider myself a new play’s first audience member. Though my process may begin with language—the articulation of an idea—ultimately the interpretation and embodiment of that idea determines the worth of my labor. The value of such labor is obvious to me. But it is by no means apparent to everyone.
Every artist’s definition of value or worth will be as subjective as their work. Every artist’s practice will be as individual as they are; and yet, all artists hold shared experiences. Whether painter or player, building a life’s work takes a great deal of physical, mental, and emotional labor. When the monetary value of such labor goes unrecognized, it becomes more and more difficult for artists to accurately judge their own worth and demand fair compensation for it. Vital questions emerge when we start taking a deeper look at this issue: What is the labor of creation, and how is it measured? How is art defined, and how is it valued? What is born of our labors, and what must be sacrificed to fulfill them?
You’ll notice I ask more questions than I answer, a signature trait of dramaturgical inquiry. We can, in fact, read this essay as a dramaturg might approach a new work: digesting the text and then enacting the solutions discussed. Whether trying to achieve that elusive “work-life balance,” understanding how artists can be monetarily compensated, or simply recognizing non-monetary definitions of worth, examining the language we use to talk about the value of our labor reveals how we can actively build more equitable practices around professional artmaking.
A Life’s Work
I once worked for an artistic director who would say, “There is no work, there is no rehearsal, there is only life.” She was paraphrasing the Russian clown Vyacheslav Ivanovich “Slava” Polunin. I quickly adopted her phrasing as my mantra. The words always feel appropriate when explaining my own ideas of “work-life balance.” Are not all moments spent working also moments spent living? How can an artist separate life and work and art when all are synonymous?
But living your craft is a double-edged sword. Those who do not wish to fairly compensate artists for their labor often argue, “If you love art, wouldn’t you be making it anyway?” Yes, I would, but then the work would be for me, not you. When you pay me, it becomes yours. I make art for the love of it, but I also do it to make a life. When your labor is your life’s love, when what you make is a reflection of who you are, and how you make it is who you are, must it then, once made, be sold or used for profit?
Even without monetary profit, love’s labors are not lost because they come from that place of love. Still, it is important to recognize when it’s time to be practical. Therein lies the individuality of experiences that can help you determine your value, whether monetary or not. How were you prepared or trained in your craft? What is your level of expertise? What experiences inform your art and become the tools of your labor? Answering these questions can help you identify fair compensation for your work, and this work looks and feels different for each artist.
Art As Service
Even if artists determine the fair value of their labor, whether monetary, emotional, or social, gatekeepers will still determine what can be called “art” and who gets to make a living from it. These gatekeepers vary depending largely on a society’s economic structure. Capitalism teaches us that profiting off our art is necessary if we wish to demonstrate its worth, and thus our own worth, to others. How much does what you create make for you? Are we the things we produce? Socialist countries whose governments subsidize art may offer more opportunities for artists, but those artists are often subject to censorship not found in the free market. Financial autonomy can lead to freedom of expression. But how much is lost in a culture when art is determined worthy of distribution, access, or visibility by only a select few?
Economically speaking, artists provide an essential service. As an example of this type of “commodity,” I again look to “Slava” Polunin who, in describing his profession’s worth, said, “A clown is trying to protect what is essential for the soul of humanity.” In Russian culture, clowns have long been considered particularly moving and necessary artists. Whether in literature or performance, the clown makes us laugh at our own misery and shows us the follies of our world, but always with a smile. He offers laughter and hope. What is the going rate for providing such a service? According to Forbes, “Slava” Polunin was Russia’s fourth highest-paid celebrity, earning 4.2 million dollars in 2005. I dream that one day all artists will be rewarded for their work so adequately, but as we all know, this is not currently the case. Can we rethink our scarcity mentality and find a more equitable way to compensate artists for their contributions? Everyone’s needs and desires are as individual as they are; therefore, their labors will be equally as distinct. Can bottom-line pay rates and budgets reflect that? What do the ratios of art making to money making tell us? Who will ultimately decide what is equitable? If we replace the current gatekeepers, who will be in charge?
Language For Labor
Typically the theatre–like most systems–establishes a clear, linear hierarchy with a sole arbiter. Ensembles, in contrast, give each member, regardless of role, an equal creative voice, and therefore exemplify labor sharing and power sharing in the theatre. In such a model, artists serve the work first, and to do that, they must understand, appreciate, and advocate for one another’s contributions. The structure of the hierarchy is democratized: a circle rather than a pyramid.
As a dramaturg, I wonder if we can similarly democratize our language. Hierarchical power structures are embedded in the very words we use to describe ourselves in relation to others. Before any system can change, we must first change how we speak. Rather than submitting work to a superior, which reinforces a disadvantaged position, can we not share work with a colleague? Even simple changes in terminology, such as these, model inclusive behavior.
Evaluating how your own definitions of “value” and “worth” do or do not align with those of your society is the next step to remedying misconceptions around these terms. An age-old trope advises, “Know your audience.” When speaking of your art, your craft, and your ideas, you want your audience to value them as highly as you do. Is the language you use supportive or self-deprecating? It is our shared responsibility to lift up the value of art for the sake of ourselves and for society as a whole.
What is the power you have and hold over each moment of your life, each creation, each ideation, each collaboration? Must that power be shared with those who pay you? What can you do with the skills that you have? How can you wield the power of your art and labor? These answers will be unique to you as you define your life and your practice. But we can all strive to create an environment that fosters communication and makes everyone feel comfortable enough to participate in the conversation. When a thought is freely expressed, it can contribute to a cumulative culture, allowing for abundance. How do you quantify your art and its worth? You have the power to determine how that value is measured. How will you define it?