A friend of mine was named by his parents “…”. I met most of his parents. In fact, recently I ran into one of his mothers at a bar in a part of town where large cars park illegally on the sidewalk in front of it and because they are so shinny and expensive the local police don’t even ticket them. My friend and I hadn’t seen/heard from each other in a while so I was a bit preoccupied when he invited me to his office this day for coffee and a discussion. That’s exactly what he called it: a discussion. His office was on the wrong side of the Rhine which also made his coffee taste funny. But I went with it. I had little choice.
My friend is a big lanky fellow from a place called Ratingen – again, on the wrong side of the Rhine. His looks are a cross between a Greek fisherman, a look he took on as a gesture of love for a Greek woman he fell for but then subsequently lost, and a Rhine river customs bureaucrat from circa 1789. Although it didn’t really surprise me, his invitation wasn’t just for coffee; it was mid-day and he was in casual dress; there was some sweat on his braw, mostly above his thick, dark, right eye. So much for the easiness and less self servitude of self-employment. I guess.
”Tom”, he said when I arrived. “I’ve told you a thousand times that you have to stop dreaming. Where have you been? You really can’t afford it anymore.”
”I know,” I responded. “Hey, I finally met your father’s third wife.”
“Don’t even try to change the subject,” he said. “You haven’t stopped. The dreaming. When are you going to stop?”
“I know,” I said. “I can’t. Its my nature.”
”Well, you can’t afford your nature anymore,” he said. “And I hope you’re counting your blessings. Yours will be the cheapest divorce I’ve ever seen.”
“She’s just throwing me out,” I said naively. “We’re not at the divorce thing yet.”
“Well,” he said. “It won’t be the end of the world for you, that’s for sure. It’ll probably be better for the both of you. Luckily I’ll figure something out. Just knock off all the dreaming and get back to work. By the way, weren’t you supposed to call me last week?”
My friend is a consultant. He’s also a part-time lawyer. He is a very successful consultant, more so than being a lawyer – but that’s by his own personal career choice. He consults to European corporations about law and he makes really, really good money doing it. Consultants are very thorough when it comes to providing information regarding the intricacies of managing business(es). Some of them can also apply these skills to managing lives, especially when those lives are in critical situations. The key to being the best consultant is his/her ability to offer an objective voice that has all the right answers. That, btw, is how I met my friend. I worked for him once but I haven’t for a while. And when our relationship began he confidently said, in answer to my question(s), that he has all the answers. He added, if he doesn’t have all of them, he’ll find them. He was very thorough in explaining to me that consulting wasn’t just bullshit – which I thought it was up to that moment. Then he cynically labeled me a struggling artist, said, “ah, anywho”, and I started working for him.
The thing about consultants and consulting at the level my friend does it is that it usually involves direct communication with corporate heads and/or advisory boards. Communicating at that level on a constant basis can be very influential to ones personality and/or character. My friend is no exception to his character being influenced. Yet when I confront him about his hardcore, steadfast personality, he denies the influence.
“Your dreaming is and will always be unprofitable,” he says. “But I accept that,” he continues. “I accept it because I am willing, not out of sympathy, mind you, to subsidize it. I will never forget the arts and what they stand for. But that’s all beside the point. The dreams of the dreamers running companies is what we are here for. It is that basic fanfare that provides us – I mean, you – with the ability to subsidize. So, when you are critical of the hand that feeds you – as you often are – I fare that you should be careful of such comparisons. You have made your choices in this life and so too have the corporate heads. Don’t blame them now. Just be happy that you still have the likes of me. Capice.”
My friend thinks that compromise is not just a necessary evil in life but it is the basis on which life is sustainable. He even goes so far as to compare the rich and the poor and the only thing that separates the two is one sides ability to compromise.
“It’s been that way,” he says, “ever since we got out of the caves.”
For my friend, the corporate honchos that run most of life’s show are dreamers of another kind. Perhaps, to him, they are like aliens. Maybe they are like gods. Either way, even if he’s critical of them – for driving him to work so hard – they have long since earned his respect and admiration. That’s why I smirk when my friend tells me to stop dreaming all the time unless I dream like THEY dream – which is knows is next to impossible.
“You are right on one thing, their dreams are about compromise,” I once tried to argue. “Mine are not. That’s what makes a real dreamer – as opposed to a corporate dreamer.” That was one of the rare moments where he was speechless – or perhaps too busy working to respond.
My friend has one weakness – even though his success proves otherwise. In a world falling prey to the whims of reactionary business antics, customer disenfranchisement, corporate peon vs. corporate peon, consultants across the globe have seized what they consider to be a rightful place among the old-school professions, e.g. lawyers, doctors and, arguably, accountants. But if one looks deep down through an empirical lens, the professional consultant will always be in the shadow of other professions that all share, and here’s the gist, sanctioned academic commonality. The above mentioned professions all have university curriculum. Anyone can be a consultant with or without a so-called MBA. But I dare not go that deep with my good friend as we argue (for old times sake) the definition of “dreamers” because he is providing me with some well needed legal advice regarding what will inevitably be divorce proceedings. Talk about a dream killer. The only thing I ask of my friend is that he not refer to corporations and those in them as dreamers. But he refuses my request. I digress.
He put away one set of papers and pulled from a drawer another stack of yellow A4 papers. He removed the heavy clip and shuffled them into order. Each sheet was filled with penciled graphs, text in exquisite handwritten print and a few white-outs that were then covered with more perfect penmanship. Keep in mind that this was a time before PCs, powerpoint and Word. Before he handed the stack of papers to me to review, I asked him if this was his new project and when the deadline was. There are a few imperatives to being a consultant and/or working for a consultant. One of them was always knowing your deadline. Since we both knew of my situation, it was probably the right moment that I apply myself beyond being a failed artist and get out there and earn a few Euros.
“It’s time to earn your keep and luckily I need your help,” he said. “I got a little surprise for you, too.”
My first reaction was to think about the money. My friend paid me well when I worked for him, and, although I hated the work, I appreciated this form of magnanimity which had been such a huge part of my expatriation to Eurowasteland.
”You’re new project,” he said, handing me the papers.
The title of the cover sheet read: “Turning A Profit With State Funded Theatre”. The subtitle read: “Moving Beyond Subsidies.” There were bulleted alternative subtitles, one stood out particularly: “Getting Dreamers To At Least Face Some Realities.”
Seedy, cynical thoughts starting running through my head. What was my friend up to? Is this a joke and I need to prepare myself for it? Is he setting me up for a hilarious fall?
I flipped through a few sheets of the document and noticed that my friend had created a dummy lay-out of a typical corporate slide presentation. It would be my job to complete all the necessary research, finalizing the slides, and subsequently put it all on folio for the over-head projector – just like old times. My only initial question was, who, exactly, was the client? Dazed & confused at the subject matter – which was so different than anything I had ever done before when it came to earning money – I sat down on the prized old leather couch across the floor from my friend’s desk – where I had slept on occasion during our all-nighters – and reviewed my new undertaking. As usual – for he felt it to be his task, especially since he thought it best to mostly work alone except for hiring an occasional secretary or me – my friend got up to get us both a cup of instant coffee and I heard him sigh in the process – yet another subtle signal regarding his discontent with all things career, profession and bank accounts, i.e. the typical western worries, times three or four. As he was fiddling around the scarcely furnished office kitchen as though it weren’t his, coinciding with the sound of spoons clanking on cups and my fingers pulling at paper, I reviewed a few random pages of the dummy document. Slowly the idea that this might be something serious started to hit me. Although the document was still in its infancy, preliminary, a rough draft, it was full of statistics and analysis regarding the current two billion Euro government budget that was used to subsidize theatre in this part of Eurowasteland (circa 2001 AD), which confused me even more. Was my friend, my very successful consultant dash lawyer friend, actually doing work for a non-profit enterprise, a government subsidized entity? Again. My friend was a lawyer by education and a 2k Euro/day consultant by profession. He didn’t get to where he is by working for – as he called them – non corporate dreamers. The dummy document was interesting enough for me at a personal level since it dealt with the world – the dream world – I lived within. But to now be commissioned to analyze it?
As usual, my friend was thorough and this rough draft was well thought out. I was laughing and smirking at times thinking how unfitting this all is. It was so unfitting, for example, that I pinched myself without my friend noticing. You know, a pinch to check for a dream or reality. I was awake. Then, suddenly, while skimming through the third to the last page of the dummy, there was a surprise handwritten note in the margin of the page. It read: Write – Produce – Produce. That’s odd, I thought. But I had to move beyond that because a decision had to be made. Would I tell my friend that even though the subject matter is of interest to me, I am part of the government subsidy world that is to be researched and that makes me ethically liable. Even as an “artist”, starving, failing, etc., or not – there are boundaries. I mean, my occupation – if you can call it that – isn’t about the management of state subsidized theatre but instead the artistic merit behind it. Could I then objectively research the subject matter? I could here him laughing in the background at my thoughts – almost as though he knew exactly what was going through my head. On top of all that, I did owe him something, even though he was the one that offered my the lawyer advice regarding annulling my marriage.
For the sake of verisimilitude and in passing, here a summary of what the dummy document was dealing with.
My friend had been commissioned by a newly elected state official in charge of budgeting national culture. I don’t recall if this official was a governor, a senator or president, but he/she must of have been pretty high in order to pay my friend’s fees. As is the case with most government policy there were drastic cuts being negotiated among entities. The basis of his analysis was that theatre, not unlike businesses in the free market, had to be profitable. He went on to argue that just as a business had a research & development department which served the purpose of providing new products, theater had to utilize its diverse organizational attributes to enable and facilitate strategic decisions. Then he proposed that Eurowastelandia theaters, like TV, should create theatre instead of regurgitating it, which in turn could be traded as commodities – this would be something akin to syndication. Theater could then create, cycle and recycle and with each phase generate revenue, hence requiring less government subsidy.
I paused for a moment and sipped from the bad coffee. This was very radical stuff. It was almost revolutionary. It would be quite a challenge to get this into the heads of smudgy, arrogant people who run theater but if it could be put in… Stop. I turned to my friend.
“You’re not serious,” I said.
“As a three dollar bill,” he smirked. “Of course I’m serious. I had to drop my hourly fee by a few bills but I thought it would be worth it. So I took the challenge. Thought of you immediately. When was your last production? Been a while, eh? Besides, I could use the publicity. You know how many corporate heads the governor meets with on a daily basis?”
Controlling my cynicism as best I could, I knew this was a doomed idea. My friend had finally taken a wrong step – a step that he should have consulted me about prior to taking. But at least I understood that his reason for rushing me out to see him was about something more than trying to get my ass off the proverbial couch while my divorce was in limbo and so too was my artistic career. I smiled and sipped at the steaming cup of cheap coffee, thinking that at least my well-off friend could afford one of them fancy automated coffee machines which would go well along side his Mercedes worth over 100k.
“Is this some kind of joke,” I asked.
He didn’t respond to my question. Instead he continued with what seemed to be a graphical presentation of the dummy document – even though it was like presenting a skeleton and saying it’s a real person. As I watched and listened to him I thought of all the college grads the world over. Are they are this doomed? Out of some misconstrued sympathy for the arts suddenly the over-educated the world-over are seeing the light that it ain’t all about – and shouldn’t be about – money. I mean, how could a guy who had a Bachelors of Science in Economics from North West, an MBA from Birmingham, a PHD pending from the University of Kiel – the thesis of which was about chaos economics and global interest rate strategy as a form of inflation control – come up with the idea that Shakespeare could or even should profitable?
“Come on! Where did you get all of this from,” I asked. “I mean, you’re pretty detailed in parts of this.”
“I did some research,” he said, and placed a second cup of steamy coffee on the table in front of me – where I noticed that there were three morning steaming cups. I watched him spoon sugar into his coffee cups and then noticed that his desk was now full of steaming coffee cups and the headlights of his Mercedes outside were shinning directly into the office through the side window.
“You gave me the idea,” he said. “Remember? We talked about theatre once and you said that there’s no place for writers anymore. And I disagreed.”
“We always disagree, I said, still staring at the steaming cups of coffee on the table in front of me. “I also said that all would be well if I were something like David Mamet,” I smirked.
“Ah. The self pity role again,” my friend smirked. “That’s a good one.”
I thought of the pinch trick again but realized that trying it twice in a dream cancels it out. I had to try something different. I grabbed one of the steaming cups of coffee. It was full to the brim. From the cup handle I could feel the heat of the cup. Without breathing deep I turned the cup toward me and then dumped its contents into my lap. Steam rose and I crossed my eyes watching it.
“You know,” my friend said. “I looked him up. That guy. David… He doesn’t really write for the theatre anymore. He’s not an artist like you are. He makes money now writing for film. He makes lots of money. That’s not being an artist. But thats another issue. Were not there yet. More coffee?”
I stood up and starred at my lap. No stain. No coffee. No more steam. I grabbed another cup from the table and poured it into my lap. Then I did it again with a third cup. Obviously I was in a dream. The pinch trick – or in this case – the steaming cup of coffee trick usually gets you out of the dream. But, like I said, I was standing, there was nothing left of having poured the dreamy cup of steamy coffee into my lap. And more importantly, I was still in the dream.
”Stop it! This is crazy,” I said. I looked around and for a split second thought that I was alone in the office of my friend. I had never been in that office alone. He never let anyone stay in there along. Suddenly when I turned to look elsewhere there was my friend standing still, smiling with a six-pack of St. Pauli Girl and a text bubble from a presentation graph that read: drink beer instead of coffee it makes you sleep better.
”Sit down my friend,” my friend said.
I sat. All of the remaining cups of coffee that were on the table in front of the couch were gone or had transconfigured into open, consumed bottles of St. Pauli Girl beer. At the end of the table was a empty bottle of Eurowastelandia kräuterschnapps and two ashtrays overflowing with cig-butts and ash.
Since I obviously couldn’t get out of it, I went with it.
“The thing that gets me,” I added, “is that you actually try to legitimize writing for the theatre here. In your little mock-up presentation to whatever governor of lower von saxony, being an artist – even a failed one – is legitimate. Are you fuckin’ nuts. This is Eurowastelandia, man! They dont care about art here anymore. They only care about having state houses the regurgitate Lance & Leone or King Lear for the umpteenth time. These aren’t theaters. There government tombs. I mean agencies. They’re government agency tombs. What the fuck is up with that?”
“Ah, I’ve finally acquired your attention,” my friend admits. “You’ve been gone for a long time.”
”And what about that fucking Botho von Strauss? No one gives a fuck about him. Hes a subsidy writer. No fucking creativity. Would never make it in London or New York. And what about Handke? Jesus fucking Christ, man. Handke is old school. Hell, nobody ever even went to see his plays when he was writing. When was that? Eighteen-hundred and… something…. Besides, he’s a fucking communist.”
“You’re getting red in the face, my friend,” my friend said.
“Good. I’m gonna have a fucking heart attack,” I said. “I’m getting to old to be a failed artist.”
”And don’t forget. Strauss is a communist, too,” my friend added.
”Yeah,” I said.
“So maybe you’ve given up?”
“I haven’t given up. It’s given up on me,” I responded.
“So maybe you’re no longer trying hard enough,” he added.
“This ain’t about building blocks, lego or playing house with dolls, man. This is the creative process. You either nurture it or it dies. Basta. That’s it.”
“Yeah,” my friend said. “As much as it pains me. You have taught me one thing. There’s no place for creative souls in Eurowasteland anymore. That’s a real shame.”
It was at that moment I started to sense something. Something in the air. It’s moment in consciousness where the mind is completely autonomous to the functions of the body. I tend to think it’s the moment of dream entry and/or exit. The thing is, I didn’t know if I was entering another dream, exiting this one – or if there was yet a third possibility. What I was clear about was that even in my dream I hadn’t consumed anything from it. There was no taste of beer in my mouth, no smell of work on my fingers and no sense of accomplishment or failure from having achieved anything. The perfect moment for some, but for others….
Then my friend’s phone rang and he picked it up and started talking about becoming a theatre producer. I could hear the laughter on the other end. He said that he was going to produce my newest play and it would be a litmus test for other productions. Then he covered the mouth-piece of the phone and said to me, ”I’ll treat it as though it were a business.”
My friend was no philanthropist. Nor was he a man of enough means to control all doubt regarding success or failure as an artist. Since I had never had a ”successful” play it didn’t really matter to me what he knew or didn’t know about theatre. What did matter was the fact that this friend, who had provided me at the required times with a means of survival – that is, with a means to prevent my soul from dying – was making me such an offer.
That night while contemplating the production of my latest play, The Good Criminal and reviewing the newly translated (English to German) text, I thought: yeah, its taken me till mid-life to realize what friends are for – and I’m glad I have at least one.
And Rant on.