Contributed by Leonard Jacobs
I keep returning to the idea that my answer to this question is not unlike Shakespeare’s seven ages of man. I was a product of New York City public schools at a time when no one dared call arts education a frill—its importance, then as now, incontrovertible and obvious. Thanks to a particular teacher—and the original and adapted plays and musicals he produced—I came to know intimately the theatre’s intoxicating properties: laughter, gasps and applause; the air of achievement and collaboration; the sense of creating and belonging to something greater than ourselves.
Through junior high, high school and college, I wasn’t mewling and puking and whining as Shakespeare’s infant and schoolboy (well, not about theatre, anyway), but my furnace-hot passion never wavered. Here, if you don’t mind, I’ll stop tying Shakespeare’s ages to my own, for hopefully you follow my larger point: we evolve. Working in—and working for—the theatre we want is a lifelong process, however it may be manifested in our lives.
I also believe there’s a self-actualization process that comes from working in theatre. Many, if not most, young practitioners are blissfully unaware of it. They're newly formed and buoyed by passion—but rare is the incipient artist able to identify with true, penetrating introspection, the roots of that passion. Its gut. You must do the work.
And so I reflect on my own early-passion years as a playwright/director/dramaturge type, forever traipsing around New York City at once carefree but adamant, with fondness and charity. For there is so much beauty in “I have to write this play,” in “I need to direct this play,” in “I must ensure that this work is seen.” What did it matter if I had two, four or six jobs, if I bunked at home, if I dozed and drooled on the E train to Queens? What mattered was exploring and, yes, celebrating that passion, pursuing theatre that I believed in—and wouldn’t sleep without.
We work in theatre even when the self-actualization turns painful. Nearing 30, I wearied of being poor. I questioned if creating theatre was the only way I could channel my own creativity. Frankly, it took time. Then I realized that if I truly believed in theatre’s power, if I honestly saw glory in fostering something greater than myself, if I really cherished the theatre’s addictive properties, then a new career path wasn’t failure, but evolution. Cynics scoff because they’re ignorant: phrases like “those who can’t do, teach” (or “those who can’t do, critique”) are for fools. Without growth, we die.
During my 20s, I was fortunate enough to enjoy, as one of my 37 jobs, freelance gigs as a critic and arts journalist; so, with my 30s, my shift in self-identification came organically. Spending 10-plus years as a theatre writer, editor, critic and blogger proved freeing (and I still work as a practitioner when so moved). The lesson is that working in theatre is what you make of it, not what it makes of you.
Entering my 40s, the self-actualization goes on. I have plays rumbling in my head (thank you, Tina Howe, for encouraging me to write), sure, but I also see myself equally as an advocate and a person passionate about policy. I see theatre advocacy as a way to knit my personal and professional evolution toward higher goals.
Why work in theatre? If the 9-year-old on that grammar school stage could answer that question, he’d offer a peroration for the ages. What I will share, however, is a memory that I can articulate in two words:
Leonard Jacobs is a writer, editor, blogger and critic with roots in arts, entertainment and culture. He is founder and editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, a nationally recognized blog covering arts and politics; he is a former national editor at Back Stage and, before that, founding editor of the website Theatermania.com. He currently contributes to a mix of digital and print publications, including the Huffington Post.