“Sold out” is supposedly a neutral term, in a box-office sense: your performance venue has sold all the possible seating it has available that doesn’t violate fire code. Some festivals have different and more precise parameters for this; for example, I think in Edinburgh Fringe if you sell 95% capacity, the show qualifies as “sold out” for slapping the designation on your marketing materials. Either way, these are easy enough to define.
Hang out with any group of Fringe performers long enough, though, especially when they have had a few and they’re talking about their Fringe run, and you will quickly sense the second meaning of “selling out/sold out,“ which is quick to plant itself in the conversation. Selling out your venue is a good thing, but underneath that is the faint echo of “sold out”: made artistic or ethical compromises, greased the wheels with an unseemly amount of money or networking or something other than artistic input, committed to working with other folks who are not interested in the art but only making money or some other tradable commodity.
I don't think that this is an actual, inevitable part of selling lots of seats, and making lots of money. But I think many artists are afraid that it is. I know that I’ve been carrying that second meaning around as the primary meaning for a while. It’s certainly a less humiliating view on the problem of not making enough money on one’s art, if one posits that the art that does make money is less artful in some way.
But this year at Edinburgh Fringe has pulled me up short around this subject, when what I think is my best work to date, nerdfucker, has been a serious box office underperformer. I’ve been wrestling with this, and my urgent need to make money, for weeks, months, maybe a couple of years now, and it kinda came to a head last night after Smut Slam, when I was hanging out with a couple of artist friends and I half-jokingly said that next year at Edinburgh Fringe I wanted to sell out. I think I made a smile or a wink that indicated clearly I meant making money and probably doing something that was not a purely artistic effort.
One of those artists, who had been nose-deep in a pint of beer, sat up and set the glass down on the table with a snap. “I’m tired of that phrase, ‘selling out,’” she said. “It makes it sound like there is something wrong with making money, with creating works with an eye toward making money. Artists need to eat.”
You’re right, I said, of course you’re right. I guess I mean commercially viable.
“Okay,” she said, settling back down into the hotel lobby chair. “That’s fine.”
Theatre companies of a certain size have followed this pattern for a long time: produced guaranteed money makers—usually around Christmas, like A Christmas Carol—as well as more surefire productions (what I would consider conservative offerings), then occasionally something that is a little more groundbreaking or confrontational for their audience.
Solo performers and tiny companies maybe don’t do that so well. Not as a matter of course. And I'm going to change that for myself.
Previously I had written works that “felt like they needed to be written”; none of these works have yet gone on to more than moderate festival success, even including Phone Whore, which is the most visible and “popular” of my plays. So, next year I am going to turn my hand to a work that “needs to make money.”
I don’t know how this is going to go yet; I’ve never approached this issue from the start of a project before. It will be fine, eventually. I am just not quite sure, right now, how to do it. I’m already finding myself second-guessing working titles and content and outreach. But I’m hoping I can push beyond that quickly and get to the nitty-gritty of the work, which is writing what I want to write and what I feel the world needs to know, while giving it to people in a way that they can handle. When selling out, the second part of that equation has to take precedence.
I’ll be honest, gentle readers: I don’t know what to do otherwise. As my friend said, artists need to eat. That is to say, I want to feel comfortable in my life, be able to plan ahead, not always scramble and fight to keep the wolf away from the door. Just as importantly, I want to be able to give myself room to create the less financially viable stuff and not have to worry about whether those will survive.
Because nerdfucker and Phone Whore and Hearthcore (my next non-commercially viable serious play, don’t worry, you didn’t miss it) are good plays. In my mind, these plays do need to be done. But I don't have family money; I never had a great job. So until such time as I get the commissions and grants and government subsidies, I need to learn how to subsidize myself, with things like Smut Slam and Sidewalk Smut and next year’s sell-out commercially viable comedy show (announcement coming shortly).
I have to reassure you, and also myself: my sell-out work will still be my stuff. It’ll still be about opening up space to talk about sex and other awkward shit in a really authentic way. It just won’t have a title that has to be censored just about everywhere; it’ll be a little more accessible to more mainstream audiences.
Selling out can mean lots of people are seeing what I want to share, and paying money for that privilege. Lemme see if I can wrap my head around that for a while.
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