This is the second in a series of reflections about David Mamet's controversial yet influential book, ten years after its initial publication. For those of you wishing to brush up on the first installment of this series (written almost two months ago! yikes!), you can get caught up here.
My kid brother just graduated from high school last weekend. I know I'm biased, but I really do think he's an amazingly talented actor. He's doing some "Shakespeare in the Park" this summer - his first professional gig - where he gets to play one of the soldiers in King Lear. After that, it's on to Buckeye Nation, where he will be one of many many undeclared freshmen that have yet to decide on a major. I think that, deep down, he really wants to major in Theatre, but he's seen from my experience how challenging a career in the performing arts can be. So he's hesitant and, I think, rightfully so. As much as I love Theatre, I honestly don't know if I could recommend it as a major.
I am probably not the poster boy for Mamet's supposed "Generation That Would Like to Stay in School," but I might make a pretty good thumbnail image. I guess early on I knew that majoring in theatre would not be the best use of my college tuition money. Everybody I talked to said "Don't major in theatre," so I listened to them. Sorta. I went to film school, under the assumption that if I gained a diversity of technical skills I would be more employable in this very competitive but very rewarding profession. And now, having finally bitten the bullet and gone back to grad school, it turns out my Master's degree won't be in Theatre, nor Film, but Geography. Geography. Life takes funny turns, no?
It's interesting now that I'm back in school, and I get to rub shoulders with people that don't really have anything to do with the arts other than the fact that they are occassional patrons. I've come to the conclusion that Bachelor's degrees, in general, aren't really worth a whole lot anymore. So whether you major in Theatre or Sociology or Business Administration, you're not really likely to find a job in your field when you get out of school. This is where the charming acronym BASICS comes from (Bachelor of Arts, Still In Customer Service). I know a lot of BASICS; they work part-time at the restaurant with me. I think they'd agree that our expensive little B.A. degrees don't amount to jack in the labor market. It's only worth something as a stepping stone toward an advanced or professional degree, which requires even more time and money.
So given this level playing field, why not major in Theatre? I mean, you might as well, given that any other major you choose will result in a degree that has just as little value in the job market. (Note that here I am really only considering the value of a college education in terms of its ability to increase one's potential to earn a higher salary. Some may consider this short-sighted, and I fully acknowledge that applying one's self to scholarship and learning for the sake of knowledge are indeed noble and worthwhile pursuits in their own right. But, to borrow a line from Keith Richards, "Try payin' the fucking rent with it.") I believe this requires us not only to ask, "Why major in Theatre?" but also, "Why go to college at all?" If you're being a wise investor, this is a perfectly fair question.
Such a big question, however, is beyond our purview, and this entry has, so far, been noticeably lacking in Mamet. What does he have to say on this matter? He begins the "Generation" chapter by taking a swipe at casting directors, arts administrators, and presumably all other talented people who "sold out" for the security of a steady paycheck. Mamet celebrates those actors who choose the insecure path, those with the resources and "courage" to remain footloose enough to pursue the difficult and virtuous path required of the artist. I find this attitude infuriating and offensive, as it reduces everyone with a priority in life other than making art to that of a sell-out, a coward, a weakling. I remember during college, if you were to ask many of my friends what their biggest fear was, it would be "fear of failure." Mine was "fear of selling out" and I think it's largely because I was deeply influenced by the rush of "independent" art that made its way into the mainstream during the early 90's. Kevin Smith movies, Image Comics, and Nirvana all conspired to make me deeply suspicious of the Art and Culture Establishment. Now that I'm back in college, abandoning, to some extent, a career in the arts, I sometimes fear that I really have sold out, that I've rushed back to the safety and security of academia just as Mamet predicted I would.
Sometimes I just want to say, "Fuck you, Dave. You want to talk about feelings of guilt, self-consciousness, and superstition? How about telling a whole generation of young theatre artists that its not okay to take a job in Audience Development at ATC after you moved to New York against your parents' wishes singing 'La Vie Boheme' all the way to your hipster flat on the Lower East Side, but now you're broke and hungry, only you can't get work because nobody told you there's a million other actors who look just like you auditioning for the same roles all over town." Sour grapes? Yeah, maybe. But there's only so many "pure" artists an economy can bear. There just isn't room for everybody in Mamet's elite circle of buskers and mountebanks, and it's shameful that he would look down on someone who opts out of such a perilous career path.
Heh. I just told Mamet to fuck off. Well, I'm sure I'm not the first.
Click here for part three of the series.