First let me say that I firmly believe great theatre and great art comes out of the worst circumstances. Langston Hughes at one point had a female patron who paid for his bills and the like, but he eventually turned away from her because he felt that the comfortable life, the life where his art wasn’t the difference between him eating or going hungry, left him unable to focus on his poetry with the same passion and ferocity. Likewise, Horace said in “The Art of Poetry” that money is the bane of good art, echoed by later critics, who all agreed that pursuit of money leads to extravagance, and extravagance is the bane of the sublimity that art seeks to find. So in a world that focuses on the material alone, what’s the best way to free ourselves from the desperation for money and fame that surrounds us? I think that, for me, being poor for a while when I was younger taught me how valueless money really is, particularly in the arts.
When I was in fourth grade, my mom got a job teaching at a private school in Portsmouth, NH. We tried to move up to NH from Massachusetts, but our house fell through several times. We moved into a mobile home, which is just a nice word for a trailer put on cement blocks. I fondly remember jumping over the hole in the floor in the bathroom to get from the sink to the toilet and our ‘living room’ consisting of a side-of-the-street couch and a 13” tv with built-in VCR, no cable access, and only one VHS (we watched Lord of the Rings a LOT). We were just grateful for the roof over our heads.
Then we got evicted. We saw a pretty pink paper taped to the door, and wondered what it meant, but we figured it out: we had to leave.
We moved into the house of an old couple my mom used to work with where us kids slept in sleeping bags on the floor of the living room. We stayed there for 3 months. It was a hard year, but we made it.
This isn’t a sob story; my parents figured it out and we kept the house in Massachusetts. I don’t resent that time whatsoever. I firmly believe that the lessons I learned while having nothing shaped my idea of art and what our duty as artists is.
First thing you learn when you don’t have money is to use your imagination, because it’s a helluva lot cheaper than the new toy. My brother and I would hike through the woods playing games and performing skits: I’d be Legolas and he’d be Aragorn, we’d take turns pretending to be Gollum, and then my older sister would force us to play “Little House on the Prairie” with her. The point is, imagination is often a function of necessity, and creative problem solving, a crucial part of theatre, is taught best when the easier but more expensive option isn’t an option at all.
Creative problem solving is something my parents became very good at. The thing I’m always amazed at during that time is that we never knew we were poor. Everything became a game, jumping over the hole in the bathroom was fun. My parents facilitated that, and I think as dramatists one of our hardest but most important jobs is to know how to use the least possible material/budget and still make something extraordinary. If we’re doing our jobs right, it shouldn’t require millions of dollars per production. Look up the Gold Dust Orphans, a company here in Boston, for examples of how to make theatre, and a vibrant, hilarious theatre at that, come alive with the smallest of budgets.
Lastly, we as artists need to be comfortable with the idea that we will have to work hard, insanely hard, just to make it by. We’ll have to work a few jobs at once to get by, we’ll be poor, it will not be an easy life. If we wanted easy, we’d have studied statistics and started playing the stock market, but we didn’t. My parents each worked two or three jobs each, and still do, but they love what they do. Being in that mobile home, and later on in that sleeping bag in the living room, I learned that working hard isn’t a decision, but survival. It’s necessary. We as artists need to learn from Langston Hughes, as I learned from my parents, that if you’re hungry, if you NEED this play to work so that you can have a roof over your head, you infuse your art with the ferocity of the human survival instinct. Your need becomes your art, and it becomes more powerful than you can ever imagine.