“I don’t care if I get paid at all. You don’t really do theater for money, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.” – John Malkovich
I’m inclined to give John Malkovich a pass on the statement above, as it was a response to a question about how much he was getting paid for a stage engagement. I’d also like to think that, since the statement was made at a press conference in Mexico, maybe there’s some bad translating involved. After all, Malkovich was an early member of the once scruffy and still ambitious Steppenwolf Theatre Company, so he’s paid his dues. As someone who alternates stage projects with art films (and the occasional Bruckheimer or Bay spectacle), he’s a star who hasn’t sold his soul to Hollywood, even if he has leveraged his name for such projects as a clothing line. But I have to take note of the quote, because it is emblematic of how theatre is discussed in relation to television and film, and makes theatre out to be something less than those fields, something that is done out of a mix of love and charity alone.
I would have been much happier if that statement was, “I don’t really do theatre for money now.” I wish all celebrities took that tack. Because by generalizing to all actors, they minimize the fact that actors need to make money to live, even if they work on stage out of love; it is only the independently wealthy or the highly successful actors who work in other fields who can do theatre indulgently. The fact is, for everyone working in, or trying to work in theatre, artist or administrator, theatre is a career choice, not a lark. Perhaps most recognize they’re unlikely to get rich, but we cannot (pardon the expression) afford to have it treated as a pastime. We need those who have succeeded to make the case for why it needs to be funded, for why people working in the theatre should be able to make a living at it if they choose, a living that can support them, a spouse or partner, a family; a career that provides health insurance, that allows for vacations, that doesn’t require a second job.
Does theatre pay like the movies or TV? No, it doesn’t (unless you’re Hugh Jackman or the authors of Wicked). But it can be a life, a fulfilling one. If every time a star takes to the stage they rhapsodize about love, and the press points out how extraordinary it is that they’re willing to take such a drastic pay cut to work on stage, the myth of theatre as avocation is perpetuated. Let’s also recognize that “no money” in theatre for celebrities is a relative term when they work commercially: they may not make as much as they do when working in those other fields, but trust me, we’d all be quite content with what I hear Ricky Martin is getting for appearing in Evita.
I have no doubt that when John Malkovich and the many celebrities spawned by or invited into Steppenwolf over the years return to that theatre, they make exactly what everyone else makes, and I applaud them for their commitment to that company and the many other theatres where they continue to work. That’s why I use the quote at the top of this piece as an object lesson, not a battering ram.
But let’s recognize it for hyperbole (I imagine if his fee were to go unpaid in Mexico, Malkovich’s agent or attorney would be getting on the phone right quick) and for unfortunate simplicity. Or perhaps everyone who can legitimately do so should immediately call his agent and offer him the greatest stage roles imaginable, the greatest directing projects he could desire. See what happens when you mention you’re asking him to donate his services.