Now that the presidential elections seems, at last (knock wood), to be settled, I’ve naively assumed that we’re reaching the end of our long period of doomscrolling – that we’ll no longer be addicted to our social media feeds attempting to keep up with the berserk soap opera in which we find ourselves trapped. Obviously, that’s not the case – we’re still in the midst of a raging pandemic, the economy’s falling apart, somebody’s putting up monoliths all around the globe as a viral marketing campaign of some sort. The list goes on and on. But even so, I’ve dared to hope that the madness wouldn’t engulf my particular industry more than it already has. There can’t be insane theater stories if the theaters are all shut down, right?
Nope. Wrong on that count as well.
I can’t pretend to know all the details of what’s been going on over at the Flea Theater, a staple of the downtown scene for many decades now; for a summary, you can check out the recent Playbill article about it here. To briefly summarize, the Flea was one of many theatres to make a public reckoning of its practices back in June, in a moment of industry-wide soul-searching triggered by the killing of George Floyd and its aftermath. In addition to promising to do more to cultivate artistic voices of more diverse races and background, the company pledged to update its business model; after decades of relying on its resident non-union theater company, the Bats, for unpaid labor in all aspects of theater operation, they promised they would start paying their artists. These promises were made back in June; something clearly changed between then and this past week. On Wednesday, the company wound up going in a different direction – announcing in an open letter that, due to the difficult circumstances we’re all facing, it was terminating all of its resident artists groups.
Within 24 hours, the Flea Theater was effectively over. I’ve never seen a theater company attacked so swiftly, so mercilessly, so viciously, on social media. And the attacks weren’t limited to the announcement of the termination. Every piece of dirty laundry, every bit of bad behavior experienced by just about anybody who’d worked with them was announced on blogs and twitter feeds all over the internet. A new one every few minutes – just hit refresh for a new horror story. Plenty of theater companies have endured scandals, and fallen from grace, but I don’t think any have fallen quite so swiftly.
I do not expect this to be the last one to do so.
I never worked at the Flea, but I have a number of friends who have, both as members of The Bats and in other capacities. Their horror stories have popped up on my feed along with everybody else’s. And while they’re bad – yes, as bad as everybody says – they’re also strangely familiar. We’ve all got horror stories. Nightmare auditions, abusive teachers, exploitive companies. The reason we don’t tell them is because we don’t want to get viewed as a troublemaker, or somebody who’s somehow too precious, too self-important, to share the same unpleasantness as the rest of us. It sounds like fear, but it’s something else – a kind of social contract. Be patient, become known as somebody who’ll keep their head down and focus on the work, and you’ll be rewarded for it someday.
There is no longer a someday.
Despite a few companies’ bumbling efforts to the contrary, theatrical production isn’t coming back in the near future. That doesn’t mean it’s gone – the stuff we’re all doing in zoom rooms at the moment is eventually going to make it to the stage. But the companies that have gotten things to the stage, that have controlled the stage up until now, are no longer in a position to do so. And we all know this. And we’ve all collectively reached the conclusion that there’s no longer any point in protecting them. Nothing to gain any more by staying quiet about their secrets.
The Flea is just the start; in the next few months, a whole lot of companies, small and large, are going to burn to the ground. There’s no way to avoid it.
But we can look forward to what grows from the ashes.