Tonight I was engaged in a conversation I find myself having more and more. It’s as infuriating as it is baffling.
I was once again trying to dispell the Myth of Artistic Competition.
I’m lucky enough to have two careers in the arts, as an actor and an author. In each, I am a part of a rich and generous community of fellow travelers. I treasure and value my colleagues, and greet their successes with real joy.
Yes, it’s hard sometimes not to measure my own place on the ladder in comparison. It’s only natural to feel a twinge when someone else gets that movie deal, that perfect review. But, as Dogberry says, “Comparisons are odorous.” It doesn’t stop me from feeling joy for my friends, who are working just as hard as I am in fields that are notoriously capricious. I am lucky, not just to be living the life, but to count these talented people as my friends.
Yet in both careers there are certain subsets who take joy in the failure of others. As if someone else falling down makes you taller.
It does not. It means there is less height in our world, and therefore fewer of us are seen.
I’m most aware of this in theatre — though less so in Chicago, where so many theatres are interconnected and there is so much work that if you want to be working, you can be. Or, if not, you create your own work and you’ll find it supported. The theatre family here is truly a community (witness the communal outpouring of grief at our many recent losses). I imagine it’s much the same in New York — there’s so much work, your success does not equal my failure. It just means you’re successful, and I’m happy for you. The more success you have, the more likely I’ll have success too.
But elsewhere, in communities where the work is not as prevelant and the funding not as ready, it’s different. Because everyone is vying for dollars — from donors, from foundations, and from the state (if the state gives anything at all) — there is this false sense of competition. Of having to beat the other guys. Of having to win.
Nothing could be more disastrous.
Here’s the thing — if a theatre-goer loves your show on a Friday night, that makes them more likely to see my show on Saturday, or next Friday, or whenever they have the night off again. Good theatre begets more theatre. It’s not like they have a choice of only one theatre to support and if you win, I lose. If they go to see your show and have a good time, we’ve both won. Because they’re all the more likely to come back for more.
It’s the same in books. I’m friends with some very successful authors (whose names I’ll refrain from dropping). Their success doesn’t equal my failure. If people are buying their books, that’s great, because it means they’re more likely to pick up mine down the road. It takes most of us around a year to crank out a book, and a reader only a few weeks (or days) to read them. By the laws of supply and demand, readers read more than one author. So if they read a bestselling book by a famous author today, they’ll want to find another writer to give them the same thrill while they wait for that author’s next book. It’s a rising tide, it lifts all boats.
As an author, I appreciate all readers, regardless if they read me or no. As an actor, I appreciate all theatre-goers, whether they see the show I’m in or not. That they exist gives me license to do what I do. And if they are happy with what they read and what they see, they’re all the more likely to come back for more.
Since it bears repeating, let me say it again — artists are not in competition with each other. We’re a community. We depend upon each other to increase the appreciation of our art.
Which brings me to the other side of the coin, the sinister side, which I’ll illustrate with a story: One of my friends is a very successful playwright. Awhile back he was being hassled by a fellow playwright who was not being produced nearly as much. Finally my friend looked him in the eye and said, “You should focus less on why I’m being produced, and more on why you’re not.”
He’s exactly right. Our focus shouldn’t be wasted on envy or grousing about a non-existent horse-race. Our focus should be on the quality of our own work. The worst thing that can happen is for us to produce bad art. Because, just as your theatre doing great work turns an audience on, a bad play can spoil an audience for life.
Earlier today another friend posted a pithy remark he’d heard: that the greatest threat to live theatre was Netflix. “Not so,” replied my friend. “The greatest threat to live theatre is live theatre.” His point was that there’s so much that’s being done badly and is then excused because of the effort that went into it. “Boy, they were acting their hearts out.”
But if I shelled out $35 a ticket and the show was terrible, I wouldn’t care if they were acting their hearts out. I’d feel like I wasted my money, and therefore I’d be less likely to shell out for another such experience.
Same with books. If I fork over $24.95 for a book that’s so terrible I put it down halfway through (and it’s happened, several times), it makes me less likely to buy books. And I’m a devoted reader!
It’s not competing with good art that hurts us all. It’s competing with bad art.
Where does bad art come from? Sometimes it’s a passionate failure. Those are fine. Those are even great, because passion is never wasted. But far more often bad art comes from a combination of vanity, half-assed laziness, and chasing profit — all the wrong reasons to be in the Arts. The worst thing we can do is teach our audience to appreciate bad art.
But even when art is good, it’s hard to measure. So we often boil it down to the simplest metric. In a world where we track box office scores and television ratings as indication of artistic success, it’s easy to get bogged down in number games — “He got my part”, “They got a $25,000 grant”, “She sold 50,000 books”. But in doing so we take our eyes off the ball. Their prosperity isn’t stealing ours. If anything, their good fortune makes ours more likely.
Ultimately the goal isn’t to emulate someone else’s success. It’s to find our own.
Neil Gaiman says, “Make good art.”
Shakespeare says, “To thine own self be true.”
I say put them together — Make good art by being true to yourself.
The Arts are not a competiton. They are a community. So long as we make good art and support each other, we are our own rising tide. We lift ourselves.
Oh, and working artists should be able to make a living wage. But that’s a conversation for another day.