We play ourselves
The novel about dangers of working in the arts and entertainment
In his incisive essay titled 'Democratization of culture was a mistake', Sean Monahan lays it bare: obviously people working in the arts and entertainment industries run on the promise of fame and power, because after all, we are just people. We have monkey brains that despite all noble intentions can get so easily corrupted by the far sight of status. Jen Silverman's novel We Play Ourselves cracks open this notion that the arts industry is run on moral notions of making the world a better place. What starts as a mere passion can get all too easily transformed into a calling that pays too well, in both money, and reputation.
Cass is a thirty-three year old playwright living in New York. After a decade of stringing living expenses from several part-time jobs and staging plays with friends in basements, Cass gets her big break. She wins an award, and as a result, gets an agent. Cass is a clumsy schmoozer and struggles to play by the rules of the upper and trendy echelons of the theatre industry. She is a punk writing absurdist plays, coming from a small town, rather than a Broadway native with family connections to back it up.
The gripping change happens, however, after Cass's swift downfall from public grace due to a singular bad review of her new play in The New York Times. This is followed by a scandal of her own doing, after which she moves to Los Angeles and gets involved in her new neighbour Caroline's documentary film production. Cass understands that what she is after is power and fame, partly to get her revenge on the critics back in New York, and she doesn't mind. In other words, even punks who write absurdist theatre are still subconsciously desiring what they might hate on the page. Ironically, the power and fame Cass gets in these moments is actually not tied to any financial gains or exposure to the public as a credited filmmaker. They are satisfied through Caroline's promises that the documentary will be big, that it will win at Sundance and that Cass will get a co-creator credit. The only power Cass ever gets is giving orders to unpaid interns. The snake eats itself: Caroline exploits Cass who exploits the interns, in order for the film to get made.
As someone who worked in the arts for several years, I can say that one of the most elusive aspects to explain to the outsiders is the strange religiosity involved. It partly relies on the communality and worship of the work, like Cass explains in the novel: “Your heart [...] resides inside the bodies of a strange troupe of individuals who have signed up for this ritual. Who, by agreement, have become something precious and unnamable. You will love these people savagely, beyond language, for the moment in time in which all of you are bound to each other. If they love you similarly, it will be with similar caveats.” And generally, work is closer to religion than we might think. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams assert in Inventing the Future that many people struggle to imagine life without work as meaningful and downright impossible, even if income weren't an issue. This is directly correlated to the concept of religious salvation that one deserves after a lifetime of suffering. So at work, we only deserve a holiday once we completely spend ourselves. We only deserve to tend to ourselves once we burn ourselves to the ground.
Work in the arts even more specifically reminds one of the religious meaning as it's often described as a calling whose workers are expected to subsist on an internal drive of love and passion for their deity. The charitable crumbs thrown their way - meagre state funding and surface-level appreciation from society that does not, however, recognize art as essential - only support this notion. Silverman presents an array of characters working in theatre, performance, film and TV, and nobody escapes her laser focus: every arts and entertainment worker in this book is far from living the cool and glamorous life they appear to have on the outside. Most are dwelling in an eat-or-be-eaten state of mind.
Silverman does not offer any solutions on what is the correct way to navigate working in the arts. I have been drawn to the novel and writing about it in the hope of working out my own thoughts on what used to be my work, my identity, my daily bread, but is no longer. I probably have even more questions at this point. What is clear in We Play Ourselves is that nobody gets what they want: even those professionally on top have extra mental puzzles to solve. There is always depression to tend to, always an extra mile to go, always another project to make a move on. But isn't this a design feature of life, rather than a specific problem? That there is always progress to be made and that the only way to respond is either to keep going or to willingly stop?
Ironically, Cass ends where she started: doing art for nothing much besides her own enjoyment. She narrowly escapes another scandal of her own doing in LA, but this time, she is motivated to act scandalously by taking a moral stand. She refuses to take part any longer in Caroline's manipulative working practices that take advantage of and exploit the actors. The gesture is simple. Cass walks out of the house where the filming is taking place, packs up her stuff and buys a one-way ticket to her hometown, because she has nowhere else to go.
The snake eats itself, again. The protagonist understands that art will always be there for her, regardless of its monetary or professional value. She now lives in her teenage bedroom and works at a local drugstore and is clearly depressed, but a different sort of intensity is channeled. As she renounces power hunger, financial and societal success and goes through the motions of an ordinary, small town life, she also falls back in love with writing and with the creative process. At the end of We Play Ourselves, Cass finds herself performing a failed Easter play for crying kids at the local church, eventually switching to a made-up-on-the-spot absurdist puppet theatre about the meaning of life, using puppets made from found scraps that she worked on to unleash her anger and disappointment, expecting to toss them out into trash. We don't find out whether all of the audience found it great, or relatable. Afterwards she is standing in the parking lot, inhaling crisp winter air, feeling good (or, feeling alive?), despite having fallen way below the societal expectations of a successful playwright.
The novel doesn't offer nuanced answers to questions we might have about how to improve the lives of people working in the arts. Instead, it shoots right through the possibility of a debate with a no. The answer offered by Silverman is in the form of refusal, scaling down and sharing of art non-commercially, just for our own pleasure, on our own time, among informal groups. The answer offered is to stop seeing art that is not published, commodified, marketed, sold, or shared online as lesser than. This kind of art is perhaps devoid of social media presence or sleek branding. It does not come with merchandise. It's the art of local community centres and basements. It's a statement into the wind and not much more. It is done in the living room, away from the prying eyes. It is maybe driven by a mysterious force of doing that possesses us, rather than expectations of what will be. This art serves its creator and then their perhaps-audience in nothing but expression. It's a welcoming of DIY and amateurism and recognizing that every person can be a producer in their own right, even if what they produce lacks a website, a brand, a strategy, content, working hours, invoices, or fame. Maybe Cass will get her big break again in the future, but at this moment in time, she only has herself and her creative process and that is enough.
Sometimes, a no is the only thing you have left to fight for your dignity. The novel is a call to stop romanticizing the industry that produces what makes us feel alive so often. Instead, it's a call to romanticize the sometimes joyful, sometimes ugly process involved in the making of these things.