If he had been a great and wise philosopher like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.
—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer*
From the perspective of someone who both works and plays in theater, I find this quote fascinating. It is referencing the infamous whitewash scene, when Tom tricks the local boys into doing his work for him by using the following argument (translated into dramatic format):
TOM: What do you call work?
BEN: Why, aint that work?
Tom resumes his whitewashing.
TOM (answering carelessly): Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.
BEN: Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?
The brush continues to move.
TOM: Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?
And with that, Ben begs Tom to hand over the brush. Even trades him an apple. Other gullible children filter in and take up the job, and three coats of paint later, Tom is heading to the town square to play. But are these boys conned? Tom’s argument seems legit: why should we not enjoy experiencing the rarely-experienced just because it’s labeled as “work” or “chore”? Should it not be the redundancy of experience that bores us? But then, we enjoy our pleasurable routines even though they are ordinary . . .
The idea of work and play in theater is an important conversation to have, because so often so many theater artists are practicing their crafts for free. When people ask me if they should move to Chicago to do theater, I tell them my impression is that it is easy to do theater in Chicago, it’s just hard to get paid to do it. A vibrant community of eager, hungry, brilliant theater artists isn’t going to wait around for a paycheck. That’s the supposition the off-loop scene is built on. This frustrates me because it means that a lot of talented people aren’t being compensated for those talents and to pay their bills are necessarily working often mind-numbing day jobs filled with a repetition that would have made Tom Sawyer explode. But it also excites me, because in this community an investment of creativity and energy trumps the investment of money. And because of this, things happen. Like what’s happening at The State Theatre. The State Theatre is still in its infancy, two or three years old, and started by a guy I interned with at the Goodman in 2007. But already, they’re airing their productions on the web, which is a direction many big theaters are probably considering since London’s National Theatre started broadcasting their productions. While the bigger theaters were considering it, The State Theatre just did it. No hesitation. No red tape. The actors signed a waiver (I assume) and off they went.
I watched their Chicago opening from my computer in California. In real time. How cool is that?
*I started rereading Huck Finn and quickly realized I needed to start with Tom Sawyer. Such a tragedy, let me tell you.