Mar 16, 2023

Punk Theatre

Or, Doing It Ourselves

What Chicago theatre can learn from Fugazi, Rudolf Rocker, and Ursula K. Le Guin


We are all here

But we are all


Let's get one thing out of the way: when I say punk theatre, I’m not talking about American Idiot. I'm not talking about gritty set design with graffiti-littered flats. I'm not talking about a flock of 20-something theatre kids jumping around a stage in flannels and ripped jeans. This is not punk. This is a masquerade. Trend-chasing. It's the typical capitalist collapse of a threatening political movement into an aesthetic one. The diminution of an idea into leather jackets and Doc Martens.

No, I'm talking about something bigger than aesthetics – something that rebuilds the theatre world from the ground up. And there's no better model to follow than that of punk.

Above all else, punk is a political movement. Anti-authoritarianism and anti-consumerism is engrained in its DNA, if not its prime directive. The irony of so-called punk bands that are packaged and sold as a top-tier Broadway experience is certainly a deep mine of content to explore, but that's not my intent with this write-up. Instead, I want to focus on the good. I want to focus on the ethos. I want to focus on Fugazi.

Some of you might be familiar with Fugazi. For those of you who aren't, here's the gist: they're a band that didn't create punk, but lived it. They built their artistic and business decisions on ethical grounds, embracing a rugged Do-It-Yourself attitude instead of pursuing a major record deal. This meant sacrificing simple comforts; taking full ownership over their touring, marketing, and distribution of their work. They also practiced radical access, choosing to only play in all-ages venues for no more than $5 (or later in the 90's, a whopping $10).

Because of these self-imposed boundaries, they built their tours around non-traditional venues, playing everywhere from basements to Elk's Lodges to YMCAs to The White House. They refused to sell merchandise – a position they addressed in their song titled…. well, "Merchandise:"

Merchandise keeps us in line

Common sense says it's by design

What could a businessman ever want more

Than to have us sucking in his store

We owe you nothing, you have no control

You are not what you own

This radical dedication to access and aversion to typical money-making schemes had a curious side effect: it was profitable. With minimal overhead costs, wide-open concert attendance, and the absence of a record company to leech percentages off of every dollar, the band rarely lost money on their tours. But that wasn't the point. It was never about making money. It was about making music.

Huck magazine asked Ian MacKaye, founder and vocalist for Fugazi, about how he defined punk.

My definition of punk is the free space. It’s an area in which new ideas can be presented without having to go through the filtration or perversion of profiteering. So, if we’re not worried about selling things, then we can actually think. The problem with new ideas is that they don’t have audiences. And in terms of the marketplace, an audience equals clientele. If you have no audience, it’s not profitable.

But punk was an area, for me at least, where it didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t know any punk rocker who thought, ‘I’m gonna make a living out of this.’ The ones that did quickly left. What I received from the counterculture was a gift; the permission to create freely. And my reaction was to take care of this gift and keep it alive because it continues to give. Of course, there were some people who thought, ‘Wow. If I polish it, I can sell it.’ And then it ceases to be a gift.

And this is what the theatre world needs to learn. Or, perhaps, re-learn. There's no doubt that change is needed. The old ways of running the show are quickly crumbling around us. Companies are disbanding. Institutions are failing. The question that remains is how to rebuild, and what, if anything, needs rebuilding.

Epic Problem

I've got this epic problem

This epic problem's not a problem for me

And inside I know I'm broken

But, I'm working as far as you can see

I’ve lived in Chicago for over a decade now and have been attending theatre here for just as long. College productions, immersive house shows, storefront premieres, Broadway tryouts — I’ve seen it all. That’s not a particularly rare thing for the theatre community here. It’s a tight-knit, supportive bunch. Active and hungry for more. I’ve worked on the fringes of the scene for going on ten years now. While that may seem like a long time to some, it’s quite short considering this city’s rich history. And given that my contributions to theatre in Chicago are admittedly limited, I certainly don’t speak for the scene as a whole. But as someone who has constantly had one foot in the door and one foot out, I’m beginning to smell something rotten.

During my short time here, the scene has been in constant flux, shifting from one scandal to another at a steady clip. Most of these circulate privately from artist to artist, but occasionally one will break through to the public eye. I've seen it all. Racist casting practices, faking an ethnicity for personal gain (just trust me on this one), sexual harassment, physical and psychological abuse, and plenty more. It seems as if every major theatre company in the city has been rocked by some form of ethical violation. No one is immune.

But even beyond those missteps, we've also suffered the loss of multiple theatre companies – no doubt exacerbated by the pandemic. The House Theatre recently ceased productions after a two-decade run. Underscore – one of the only companies in town to produce new, locally-grown musical theatre – suffered the same fate. Neither of these cases stem from nefarious actions, but rather from the difficulty of operating an arts organization under capitalism. One that's beholden to full-time employees, wealthy benefactors, and rent-seeking landlords.

However, one of the standout stories of last year involved the historic Victory Gardens, which faced a deluge of resignations after their board of directors unceremoniously dismissed its artistic director in what appears to be some bizarre real estate scheme. But still, the story remains the same: in a capitalist society, artistic success boils down to how much money you can make for someone else.

Of course, there have been attempts to fix the system. 2017 was a remarkable year of activism within the community, with multiple organizations popping up to directly address serious issues. However, these groups were short-lived. Not In Our House, which formed to tackle harassment within the community, has seemingly dissolved. ChiTAC, which focused on creating a safer and more equitable culture of theatre criticism, also appears to have vanished. In fact, the only organization left with a functioning website is the Chicago Inclusion Project, though their last published article is from 2021.

Now, it's possible that these organizations are still loosely functional, or have merely allowed their web domain payments to lapse. And I'm also not saying that these organizations were not successful. They brought attention to serious matters plaguing the Chicago theatre world. They helped change some behind-the-scenes standards and practices. But these issues still remain.

Most solutions I've seen have been of the typical American reformist ilk. Remove the offending persons from the system, replace them with a better option, and place restrictions on them to prevent this from happening again. But would you believe it? It happens again! There's always the possibility of adding more employees into the mix. Officers whose job is to police the system, making sure it's working as intended. But these are costly positions for small arts organizations, and as with any positions of power, have potential to be abused.

Participating in these systems does nothing to reform them, but instead further legitimizes them. There's no better way for those in power to neutralize a threat than to absorb it. Co-opt their usurpers to shield themselves from further criticism. As the saying goes: who eats of the pope, dies of it.

So perhaps the solution isn't reform. It isn't bloating the system with increased oversight or installing leaders with self-serving allegiance to your values. Perhaps the solution is to destroy the system entirely.


We'll draw a blueprint

It must be easy

It's just a matter

Of knowing when to say no or yes

Now, we enter the portion where I might lose some of you. And that's okay, I expect to – but I encourage you to stick around and consider other possible futures. These ideas are not my own, but rather collected and bastardized from various other thinkers and artists. It's not a new idea. It's not a radical idea.

There's a current trend in the theatre community to brand your organization as anti-capitalist. I don't doubt the sincerity of those claims on the individual level. What I worry about is that certain companies are using this as an advertising point. An aesthetic to attract like-minded leftists into their theatres, transmogrifying their tickets into profits. Perhaps they stage some politically-charged shows – the likes of which you would never find in traditionally capitalist theatres. Perhaps they've included anti-capitalist messaging on the About page of their websites. Perhaps they've posted some radical imagery on their Instagram account.

This is theatre equivalent of putting on some eyeliner and calling yourself hardcore.

What specifically about these companies is anti-capitalist? As far as I can tell, the workers do not own the means of production. The actors, techs, and stagehands do not receive a cut of the profits. In fact, the whole structure of these companies appear to align perfectly with their capitalist counterparts. Complete with governing boards, artistic directors, and financial officers.

And there is certainly an attempt to reform. Some theatres are pushing toward an hourly pay structure over the traditional stipend. Some are adding more full-time staff members with benefits. But this simply isn't a feasible option for companies just starting out, nor is it particularly helpful for contracted artists like actors, musicians, and crew members.

This is where we need to start looking at new ways of building theatre. And to discover those new ways, we should look into some rather old ideas.

Rudolf Rocker was a German man born 150 years ago, which is, by all accounts, a very dusty and non-punk way to start out. But fear not – this wasn't just any old German man. You see, this one wrote the book on anarcho-syndicalism. That isn't a euphemism either, he literally wrote the book on anarcho-syndicalism.

I first encountered Rocker at a very formative moment. A time of significant political upheaval in the U.S. and a time when I was attempting to form some semblance of an artistic identity. The first Bernie Sanders campaign had failed. Trump was in power. Like many, I was disillusioned with traditional systems. As I attempted to kickstart my own original work, I wanted to make sure that whatever system I created to do so wouldn't be as vulnerable to abuses of power. The only way to do this was to attempt to remove those powerful positions entirely.

Rocker's proposal wasn't new, but it did synthesize and formalize a lot of what was in the air. It was a worker-focused approach to building a new economy and eliminating the need for a traditional government, which he saw a bourgeois and unnecessary. In Anarchism and anarcho-syndicalsim, he wrote:

All political rights and liberties which people enjoy to-day, they do not owe to the good will of their governments, but to their own strength. Governments have always employed every means in their power to prevent the attainment of these rights or render them illusory. Great mass movements and whole revolutions have been necessary to wrest them from the ruling classes, who would never have consented to them voluntarily.

Rocker believed in organizing from the ground up. Workers would organize their workplaces into democratic cooperatives, linking with other co-ops into a larger trade union. These unions would in turn join like-minded syndicates, and so on and so forth upwards into a unified council. But it's also the introduction of direct democratic practices that sets it apart form our current system. Big D Democracy like our own relies on long-term representatives, creating a new, permanent ruling class. This new system, however, has no terms. Each delegate is temporary and subject to immediate recall. It's a system focused on ground-level association rather than top-down coercion.

But what would this mean for theatre? I've stumbled on this question for many years, experimenting with my own work and how it takes form. With my musical The Book of Sebastián, we paid all artists equally and gave everyone an additional cut of the profits, but it still lacked a democratic approach to decision making. With The LEA Project, I attempted to create a director-less production. But the isolated nature of remote work prevented any natural and free associations. Long story short, I've tried and failed. But that isn't to say I haven't formed a potential theory; a goal to strive toward with future projects.

The idea is this: every artist, creator, tech, or other collaborator gets an equal vote in the ensemble's decisions and, more importantly, an equal cut of the profits. It's that simple. Ideally, administrative positions would be voted on regularly. These are not lifetime positions and should not be seen as a governing body. Perhaps they only last a season. Perhaps only one production. They do not exist to dictate choices for the group, but rather to act a representative of its collective interest. This means that artistic and financial direction would belong to the ensemble as a whole. It's direct democracy in action. It's workers owning the means of their production. In other words, we're all artistic directors.

But it's a difficult proposition to make. It would mean eliminating multiple full-time jobs within the industry, which is, admittedly, not a popular idea. But it's important to remember that those full-time positions don't exist without the exploitation of another's time and labor, such as underpaying actors, musicians, ushers, technical artists. These roles are seen as expendable to the company as opposed to the highly essential and enlightened Director of Artistry and Taste. An artistic director at a mid-level house can make upwards of six figures, while an actor typically receives less than minimum wage. Not to mention that the worst instances of abuse often stem from these coveted and powerful roles. The unfortunate reality is that artistic success within a capitalist world is directly tied to another artist's subjugation.

So, what if instead of reforming the existing system, we reversed the flow of power? What if we distributed that money equally across the company? What if these administrative roles were not beholden to boards but to the ensemble itself?

I believe that we can create a system that's better. But I don't promise that it will be easier.

Long Distance Runner

The answer is there, the answer is there

But there is not a fixed position

It keeps moving along and I keep coming along

That's why I'm a long distance runner

One of Ursula K. Le Guin's crowning achievements is her novel The Dispossessed. A highly political story, it chronicles a lone scientist's escape from an anarcho-syndicalist lunar colony (Anarres) to publish his world-shifting discoveries. While Anarres remains free of laws and hierarchy, it still abides by a strict social code. The idea of overt individuality is frowned upon. This leads to the ostracization of non-conformists and other "propertarians," pushing the hero to escape to the capitalist planet of Urras. While this may sound like it undermines my argument, I promise it's leading somewhere.

At one point, our protagonist, Shevek, is told a story about the disappearance of his friend, Tirin. Tirin was a pot-stirring playwright who had concocted a popular satire about living in their anarchist society. This eventually lands him in a psychiatric facility.

Tirin couldn’t take it. I think it really drove him a bit out of his mind. He felt everybody was against him, after that. He started talking too much—bitter talk. Not irrational, but always critical, always bitter. And he’d talk to anybody that way. Well, he finished at the Institute, qualified as a math instructor, and asked for a posting. He got one. To a road repair crew in Southsetting. He protested it as an error, but the Divlab computers repeated it. So he went.

The Annares society pushed back against Tirin's resistance to cultural norms, eventually relegating him to hard labor. Some say it was revenge. Some say he was due for it, as he had successfully avoided such work whole life. But he was a playwright at heart. An unappreciated genius — not someone cut out for road work. It's this unspoken code of conduct that compels our hero Shevek to leave this society for one that would respect his theories.

Only that's not what he finds on the other side.

While the people of Urras respect his theories, they do not respect each other. They use his work as a means to generate profits, obtain more possessions, and keep down the lower classes. Everything on Urras is self-serving, and the culture-shifting work that Shevek had hoped would change society was now owned by his handlers.

On Anarres he had chosen, in defiance of the expectations of his society, to do the work he was individually called to do. To do it was to rebel: to risk the self for the sake of society.

Here on Urras, that act of rebellion was a luxury, a self-indulgence. To be a physicist [here] was to serve not society, not mankind, not the truth, but the State.

He eventually escapes the hyper-individualist world of Urras and returns to his anarchist home of Anarres. But as he is set to arrive, he describes things as "a little broken loose."

It was our purpose all along—our Syndicate, this journey of mine—to shake up things, to stir up, to break some habits, to make people ask questions. To behave like anarchists! All this has been going on while I was gone. So, you see, nobody is quite sure what happens next.

And that's what the novel is all about. After its publication, it has since adopted the subtitle "An Ambiguous Utopia," reflecting Shevek's initial disappointment with Anarres' society and eventual acceptance. It's a Hegelian take on the argument similar to Marx's own process while writing Capital. It highlights the flaws of working within an anarchist system, but also proves it to be a better option. According to the novel, it’s not the system that's failing, but the people. And because that system is pliable, the people are willing and able to change. And therefore, it is the better system.

Yes, it's ambiguously better. But it's better nonetheless. And it's within this ambiguous model that I believe Chicago theatre can thrive.

Waiting Room

I am a patient boy

I wait, I wait, I wait, I wait

My time is like water down the drain

Anarcho-syndicalism is not utopian vision, but a course of action. Unlike other systems, it does not promise to keep human fallibility in check. Instead, It seeks to eliminate problems that are inherent in a system. To prevent human failure from gumming up the works.

So, it's not a perfect plan. There are ways in which it can be abused. It can lead to a clique-like atmosphere within the theatre community. It is victim to the will of the mob. But those problems already exist within our current system, and they don't stem from the system itself. With a flatter, more democratic structure, these problems can be addressed with greater care and immediacy than a revolving door of disappointing leadership.

But these are the trade-offs we must accept if we wish to live in a fairer and more just society. In revolutions of the past, we overthrew the divine right of kings to gain our individual liberties. But what we lost was a faster, centralized response to major crises. Representational democracy is slow compared to a dictatorship. Long legislative arguments, drawn-out elections, court cases that stretch over multiple years — all of these are downsides of our current democracy. But that’s part of accepting individual sovereignty. It’s part of learning to respect one another as equals, not as rulers and subjects.

We must learn to reject the safety of the old ways to explore the possibilities of the new. We must learn to be patient with one another, and to acknowledge the talent and the genius that each of us are capable of. And that includes acknowledging that genius isn’t so unique.

I was recently talking with my partner about what I believe to be the ultimate society. The one where art and culture can thrive without exploitation. She was a little taken aback by my answer. The way I see it, the only way to create a society free from pain and subjugation is to spread out that pain evenly. And that may be a tough pill to swallow.

We all want to live in a world where we can pursue our deepest desires. To live the lives we were called to. Artists, musicians, designers, dreamers. But the reality is that someone needs to shovel the shit. I mean that both figuratively and literally. There’s a mound of shit piling up that we all need to deal with. The type of work that nobody wants to perform, but are forced to under our current system of economic oppression and exploitation. We need to accept that our current dreams of living a fully dedicated artistic life is the direct result of someone else being forced to shovel shit.

So in my future, we’re all shoveling shit.

But if we all shovel the shit, there’s less shit to shovel. Which means there’s more time for culture. For art. For life. So maybe there is no full-time artist in my future. No working actors or artistic directors. Just like-minded individuals organizing around a shared love of theatre. Maybe we can finally begin to think of our creations as art, and not as work.

But to get there, it’s going to take some work. It’s going to take some time. It’s going to take some organizing. But we’re going to need to do it ourselves.

And that’s as punk as it gets.