About 12 years ago, despite living in Los Angeles, I decided to start seeing more theater in New York City. (Yes, there is also theater in LA; no, it’s not the same.) Up until then, I had seen NYC theater occasionally and enjoyed it. Why not see it more often, and enjoy it more often?
Or so I reasoned. The reality was different.
Before each visit, I would buy tickets to three or four of what seemed to be the best-reviewed shows, based on my aggregate impression from NYC-based reviewers. (Tickets were never cheap, but solo theatergoing is a favorable economic stratagem, because shows always end up with isolated seats near the front that are otherwise difficult to sell.) I saw all kinds of shows: mainline Broadway, weird off-Broadway, drama, comedy, musical, etc.
Most, I hated. The rest, I found boring and mediocre.
You may be wondering, as I did at that point: had I deluded myself about my interest in theater? In the late ’90s I had seen the original production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It was memorable because the production was scruffy and bare-bones, yet everyone in the theater—including me—was transfixed by what was unfolding onstage. I didn’t expect every theater experience to be like that. But I had hoped that I could—maybe sometimes?—revisit that sense of transport.
The evidence suggested otherwise, however. After a few years, I discontinued my NYC theatergoing on the grounds that it was far too expensive for the results generated. I concluded that my expectations were, on some level, unreasonable.
Recently I was reconsidering this conclusion while reading Uneasy Stages, a collection of theater reviews by John Simon. I didn’t know Simon’s work before. But I realized I had (albeit too late) found the critic I should’ve been heeding years ago: Simon hated everything too.
True, bad reviews make for more entertaining reading than good ones.* Simon’s writing is lacerating, tart, and witty. (These particular reviews were written between 1963 and 1973, so unfortunately they also include casual moments of sexism, homophobia, and racism.) Perhaps needless to say, Simon was never a favorite of the NYC theater community. As a critic, clearly he felt his loyalties should remain with the theatergoer, whose time and money were at risk. (Compare, say, critic Terry Teachout, who is himself a playwright, and whose reviews are relentlessly—in hindsight, misleadingly—positive.)
Still, none of it would work if Simon came across as a bratty, dissatisfied tourist. On the contrary, he credibly presents himself as a disappointed optimist: someone who wants theater to be wonderful because he knows that it can be. And then reality intrudes.
Reading Simon’s reviews from 50 years ago, it was interesting to notice how little had seemingly changed. Even in shows Simon hated (= most of them) he acknowledges that many elements were top-notch (= lighting, costumes, staging, certain performances). Despite this, the soufflé still collapses.
Too often, this was also my experience in the audience. It was apparent that I was experiencing the work of the most accomplished theatrical artists and craftspeople in the world. The ingredients were wonderful. But the result was inert.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this disjunction between inputs and outputs. Let’s call it the Broadway paradox. Why should it be true? I suppose it works like this: compared to the number of people who aspire to be theater professionals, Broadway employs a relatively small number. So there is intense national competition for these jobs, and Broadway at large can afford to employ only the best.
But the forces that make a show successful as an economic entity are completely different. Broadway shows can only be profitable over a relatively long run, and for that reason, these shows can’t afford to alienate the parade of tourists and other casual theatergoers.
Taken together, you have a situation where the most talented people are pledging their skills to productions that are, by and large, designed to minimize artistic (and hence financial) risk. In turn, maybe artistically transporting theater—like the kind I sought—turns out to be more of a lucky side effect than an intentional result.
Of course, having noticed this paradox, one detects versions of it elsewhere. For instance, as a law student, it was apparent that the most promising graduates are strongly funneled toward the immense law firms who feast on areas of legal practice that are hugely profitable but, by most insider accounts, extremely boring. Or in software, the best engineers are recruited by tech companies who primarily make their money by selling advertising designed to exploit the vulnerable. (I wish we had a John Simon to write pieces about the tech industry, where tough journalistic scrutiny is almost nonexistent.)
“But MB, what’s the paradox? People with skills have always sought to profit from them.” Agreed. That’s not the paradox. The paradox is why—say, if you’re a Broadway producer, or managing partner of a big law firm, or CEO of a tech company—would you bother hiring highly skilled people at all? If the greatest profit lies in pursuing middlebrow outputs, why not hire people who are less skilled (and assumedly cheaper), thereby making the venture even more profitable?
With this question, I’m tripping casually into the domain of labor economics, about which I know nothing. I speculate, gingerly, that highly profitable businesses could in fact easily make do with cheaper people. They prefer, however, to deploy some of their economic power toward locking up highly skilled labor as a form of market competition. That is, they buy something they don’t need and waste it, to prevent a competitor from doing so first. Taking this to its logical extent, we might reach a peculiar endpoint where the price of highly skilled labor tends to be set not by who will put it to its highest productive use, but who can best afford to destroy it. (Especially ironic considering the educational debt incurred to acquire these skills.)
A labor economist might quibble with my phrase “highest productive use”—as a matter of rational incentives, nobody would be destroying highly skilled labor if that destruction were not, in purely economic terms, its highest productive use.
But I’m reaching for something different, however ineptly. What does it mean—ethically, culturally, morally—to have reached a point where these are the prevailing economic incentives? That grinding up the best & brightest is what’s rewarded? Should we regard this as a great slow-motion tragedy of human progress? Some kind of cultural glass ceiling? A recipe for a new dark age? Or just shrug it off, trusting that the invisible hand of the, uh, “free” market will correct these errors? And are they even errors? Or are they just the natural progression of things?
Again, I’m far from the first person to notice this phenomenon. A 2012 story in the MIT Technology Review was headlined “You Promised Me Mars Colonies. Instead, I Got Facebook.” The technology world is especially prone to this sense of nostalgic wistfulness, because in real time, we’re watching tech slouching toward this strange endpoint that Broadway, big law firms and other commercially mature industries arguably reached a long time ago.
I think about this a lot. Not as an armchair labor economist. But as a technologist entering his fourth decade of professional work. I’m alert to the possibility that I’m in the midst of what might be a typical mid-career moment of curmudgeonly reflection—plus ça change and all that.
And yet. It’s not hard to find affection for earlier eras of technology, even among those who didn’t live through them. So perhaps it’s also true that my industry is indeed ossifying into something quite different from when I started.
Ultimately, the Broadway paradox contains a lesson for me as a theatergoer, and also as a designer.
As a theatergoer, I think I’ve realized my mistake. The reason Hedwig was so good was that it had no other choice. As a minimum-budget far-off-Broadway show, dramatic excellence was the only way to survive. By contrast, the bigger-budget shows that are charging $200 a seat must deliver a different kind of experience to ensure their own survival. For that matter, John Simon probably would’ve enjoyed the theater more had he not chosen to make a living as a theater critic, which forced him to attend every major show. In the future, if I want to maximize my chances of seeing great theater, there’s a simple prescription: spend a lot less on tickets.
As a designer, if it’s true that I’m working in an industry that derives increasing benefit from destroying skilled labor, then as a laborer with skills, I should step carefully, lest I monetize my work in ways that turn out to be insidiously destructive. In the last 10 years, one way I’ve done that is by avoiding any entanglement with the various large corporations involved in the marketing & distribution of fonts, because their incentives are muddled at best, conflicted at worst. In the next 10 years, it may be different.
* Film critic Roger Ebert published an excellent anthology of his own lacerations called I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie.
In recent years Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been fairly critiqued for being less progressive on matters of trans, gay, and female identity than it holds itself out to be.
Tech layoffs are currently happening in bulk. A theme of the coverage is how much headcount grew at Big Tech during the last couple years despite signs of economic headwinds. A common question: “Why did Big Tech need so many people?” Answer, if you believe my argument above: they never did. As we reached the top of the market, they hired indiscriminately as a competitive measure. Thus, the unwind of this tactic is happening equally quickly. Once your competitors can no longer afford to hoard talent, you don’t want to be the only one doing it.