Monday, April 12, 2010

Responding to Unreasonable Hopes

So, Tom over at TACT looks at a young student with a seemingly unreasonable and unshakable faith that one day, he will be famous. He says:

He is a victim of what I have come to call the “fame factor” in theatre education. It exists not only in theatre, of course, but across the culture. Created almost entirely by the pervasiveness of mass media, young people no longer pursue success; they pursue fame as well. The writer of this email simply believes he will be famous someday and win the Academy Award, and he needs nothing but the simple fact of his belief in that idea to make it come true for him (except maybe a little more help from me with his acting, as if I could make such a difference – another illusion).

(...)

The sad truth is that, for all their dreaming of fame, the statistics say that most of our students will not achieve their dreams. Perhaps for 15 minutes, maybe. If we want to be honest educators, we need to start telling students the truth, and build better options for them for their theatrical futures. It can be done if we have the will, and perhaps if we are willing to re-think our own dreams of fame.
99 Seats disagrees strongly, saying:
Let's think about it this way. A student in a history seminar takes a liking to the course work, even though she's not a major and writes the professor a message saying, "I know my last paper's haven't been great, but I'm really excited by this material and the coursework and I want to be the best student I can be. And, who knows, maybe I'll wind up as President and can invite you to the inauguration! I hope so!" Do you think the professor should respond with, "Well, since no women and only 43 people have ever been President of the US, it's not a very realistic or conceivable goal. You should think about your other options right now!"? Is that going to further this student's career? Their growth? Honestly, we wouldn't even expect a teacher to say that. And way more folks have won Academy Awards in acting (nearly 300) than have won the presidency.
When I first read the exchange, I was very solidly on the side of "Let-them-have-their-dreams." After all, we're living in the "Yes We Can" era when hope turns out to be a strategy, in some regards. And if you don't aim high, you won't have anything to lose out on. Either you settle now, or you settle later -- or, if you're one of the lucky few, you look out on Oscar night and say "And thank you to Professor Tom Loughlin for always believing in me."

But then I read a little further down my blogroll, and I saw Ian Moss' response to the Internship conversation:

Here are my thoughts, in brief. I think there are two separate issues going on here. First, we should make a distinction between internships and “working for free.” There is a name for working for free; it’s called volunteering. Volunteering is done with the understanding that the volunteer is doing it for the good of the cause; the volunteer’s reward is the good he or she is doing for the community or the world through his or her work. An internship, on the other hand, is explicitly supposed to be an educational experience. In this context, whether or not the internship is paid is of secondary importance; what really matters is the nature of the internship, and whether it really is educational or is just an excuse for the hiring organization to unload some undesirable tasks on an unwitting subject. ... As such, the real issue is truth in advertising...
Emphasis mine. But I think that concept of truth in advertising is the bridge between the internships and the advice conversations.

There's two possibilities of the mindset of the young student coming to Professor Loughlin for some words of advice:
  1. The student who looks ahead and sees a wasteland of terrible, strenuous years up until his hard work and talent pays off and he wins an Academy Award.
  2. The student who thinks that he's talented, will find an agent who appreciates him and opens the right doors, and will win an Academy Award.
In other words, does the student know what he's getting into? If he knows what he's getting into, then who cares if he dreams big? He's going to need a big dream to make long hours at poor pay worth it. He's going to need to have something real at the end of whatever bullshit internships and volunteer gigs and summer-stock in Atlanta in a bear suit sweating bullets or whatever other horror stories are waiting for him.

If the student knows what's coming in the near future, then I say yes -- full speed ahead, batten down the hatches, and we're all behind you. But if the student has no clue how hard the real world is, then as a Professor (or really a human being) you are honor bound to let him know. This is not an easy thing you are going to do.

Throughout all of my training, I have been read the riot act ten ways come Sunday about how hard this is. Long before Outrageous Fortune, I knew I was going into a shit field with shit pay and shit conditions. My father always counselled me to take a second major in something that it will be easier to support myself on an entry level job, and I followed his advice (sort-of) without ever giving up my personally megalomaniacal dreams.

In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama talks about the state of race in America, and he says:
To think clearly about race, then, requires us to see the world on a split screen to maintain in our sights the kind of America that we want while looking squarely at America as it is, to acknowledge the sons of our past and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism or despair.
Our mentors, teachers, and professors should be preparing us to enter this field with this split-screen vision: to see the world where we want it to be, and to know the world as it is.

I am here because I dream big.

My dream is that, like Bertold Brecht, I can offer new ways of tackling the theater, new tools for expanding its influence. So that people will use my writing to clarify their thinking and have some measure of debt to me in their own. Part of this dream is that when I write things, it will be published -- and not only that, but that I'll be on The Daily Show making the things I like relatable to the 17-35 market. I dream that I'll have my own little theater where I can make what I want and that it will find the audience that it resonates with, that I'll be considered part of the conversation, and that I'll while away my years in happiness.

But I also know that for the next few years I'm going to have to split my time between doing well at a job that isn't related to my personal life dreams, and working hard in evenings for little-to-no reward and likely at personal cost. Maybe I've accepted too much of the toil, and I should be holding out for better conditions, but the size of my dreams has not (hopefully) divorced me from reality. I hope I have the energy and the day job to be able to grind away at this however many years it takes to hit even a fraction of that dream.

This is not the only dream I've ever had.

When I was a child, I wanted to be President so very badly. Unfortunately, I can't:
No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President...
So instead, I dreamed about the Supreme Court. My hero is Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (although I'm jealous of Taft for being both President and Supreme Court Chief Justice), whose utterances became central pillars of judicial precedent. He could write a phrase like "clear and present danger" and not only would it be a central legal tenet, it would also be the catchy title of a best-seller.

Why didn't I go and pursue Constitutional Law? Why did I give up on a dream and a life-path that will, let's face it, probably be more likely to pay off in the end than some pipe dream about experimental theater?

Because I realized, watching my aunt struggle through positions as a law clerk, that I realized I wasn't so enthralled about everything that leads up to being a chief justice. I didn't like all of the small things that lawyers do; all of the paperwork drafting and the contract reading and everything. Sure, some bit of it appeals to me, but long before I'd get to face up to judicial philosophy I would probably burn out on the tiny things that I'd be forced to do.

And that's why theater is the only place I can really truly belong -- because (like in a relationship), I love it so heartily at its worst. And I know what its worst looks like.

So to sum up: if that students knows the worst, and is committed to the worst, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for all the days of his life -- then let him dream. But only if he knows the worst.

And only if he's read that stuff about internships. Seriously, they blow.

4 comments:

Scott Walters said...

To me, the issue isn't about honesty vs dishonesty, or dashing a young person's dreams. The issue -- and I think this is the issue that Tom was addressing -- is the equating of "ambition" with "fame," the idea that "success" equals "being known by everyone in the nation (or world)." To me, that isn't ambition, that is an illness. And it is an illness that permeates our sick society to such an extent that EVERYBODY equates success with fame, no matter what the industry. The desire for fame is the perfect desire for a capitalist society, because it creates a sense of anxiety, a constant state of desire that can never be satisfied. And that makes you constantly buy things to attempt to achieve your desire. In an actor's case, you buy classes, and new head shots, and clothes, and weight loss clinics, and plastic surgery and and and. It is time that artists (and everybody) put down the crack pipe of fame and figure out what REAL success looks like.

CultureFuture said...

I agree with you that the original post was about ambition equaling fame, and if 99 Seats hadn't responded to Tom on the issue of cynicism/openness to people's dreams, and if I hadn't subsequently connected that to Ian's post on internships, I wouldn't have posted it as such.

As to the original sense of Tom's article, he's basically right; the young man has the sound to him like the fodder for reality shows, where fame is the beginning and the end of everything.

On the other hand, I don't know if a desire for fame, as part of a larger dream, is necessarily as corrosive as it comes across. If I dream that one day I'll be successful enough in my field that I'll earn recognition for my hard work, I don't think that necessarily creates that constant hunger. Fame, after all, is just a recognition by a larger number of people that you've touched them, and artists should want to touch people -- maybe volume shouldn't be the be all and end all, but it would be nice to touch more people, or to gain recognition for a job well done.

The difference is between fame as a dream and fame as a goal; it is nice to daydream about being famous, but it shouldn't be confused for an end. If fame happens, it should be an afterglow of what that real success is that you're talking about.

Scott Walters said...

"Fame, after all, is just a recognition by a larger number of people that you've touched them, and artists should want to touch people"

No, that isn't fame. Fame is being projected into the public eye, and has very little to do with "touching people." Yes, success is touching people. You can do it superficially, or you can do it profoundly.

CultureFuture said...

I mean, the touching isn't always positive or deep, but fame is the moment you intrude on the consciousness of others. Not enough people are concerned with how or in what manner the touching happens; it's just enough for them to reach out and touch.