BWW Blog: Michael Milligan of Off-Broadway's MERCY KILLERS - Passing the Hat
Most kids in drama school dream about working at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and I am certainly no exception. And so there is an irony that for me, it was the achievement of this milestone, working at the Guthrie, that was the turning point for me where I decided to put my conventional career on hold and step into the unknown. It can be difficult being a writer and an actor, trying to balance and sustain two extremely difficult hustles, like balancing your career in poetry with your career as a nightclub singer. And on top of that, you also have to earn a living. For many years, I found myself on a kind of treadmill where, in between acting gigs, I would build up some momentum with my playwriting, do some readings, workshops, etc. and inevitably, when things got going, I'd get an acting job out of town and have to put everything on hold to focus on preparing a new play. It can be difficult for the layman to comprehend the amount of effort that goes into mastering a major role in the amount of time usually allotted to a rehearsal period. The actual hourly wage for an actor in the regional theatre, if you include at home research and studying the script can realistically hover just above minimum wage- but no complaints, ours is a labor of love.
When I played Hamlet, I actually had a recurring dream every night where I was sitting on my bed studying my lines... now that's a lot of extra hours! So, when I was at the Guthrie last year, I felt myself stepping onto the same treadmill and made a choice to stop the cycle- I had to keep my own work afloat. So, while I was in Minneapolis, I contacted a wonderful organization called "Healthcare for All Minnesota" and told them I would love to collaborate with them on presenting my play, which is a kind of expose of the American healthcare system as seen through the eyes of a libertarian struggling with trying to pay for his wife's medical crisis. They were thrilled and we did a couple of benefit performances and also, a special presentation at the Minnesota Nurses Association convention- for 400 nurses, which was very meaningful. Having performed this play many times since for folks who work in the medical professions, I have had many long conversations and heard many stories about what it's like to work on the front lines in healthcare. And it has both broken and opened my heart, to hear the stories of healers, who so often have to witness patients foregoing or being denied care due to financial considerations.
The stories keep piling up strengthening my resolve to keep doing what I'm doing. For example, a Dr. who had organized a performance for me in Minnesota pulled me aside before the show, and said, "Hey, I thought maybe it would be useful for you to know this. But, I work in the ER and a young man came in yesterday in excruciating pain in his side, thinking his appendix had burst, or he was passing kidney stones, and after some testing we found that he had cancer. I gave him some numbers to contact and told him what the process was going to look like for him. But even as I was telling him these things, I knew that he wasn't going to be able to do what I was saying, because he didn't have any insurance. And this is just something that happened yesterday, so I'm telling you. It's not something out of the ordinary, I see it all the time, but this is what happened yesterday."
Before working on this piece, I never thought about what it can be like to be a Dr. or nurse in this country, and have to witness people's lives being destroyed, not just by disease, but also, an unlisted, often devastating side effect of treatment which is financial disaster. And so these stories very much compelled me to keep on doing the play no matter what, and the urgency I felt made me impatient to wait for the normal means and channels of getting something produced, channels which I honestly was skeptical about being receptive to the piece given its no holds barred look at the healthcare system. So, I did the logical thing one does in such a situation. I rented a theater in my home town, Columbus, Ohio, and set up a three week run in collaboration with Single Payer Action Network and some other labor and social justice organizations. All the performances were free with the hat passed around at the end for my troubles. I performed in Columbus on the weekends and on my days off, SPAN organized performances around the state: places like Cleveland, Dayton, Athens, Toledo. It was an incredible experience. On many levels. To finally be doing my own work, to collaborate with the most wonderful, compassionate people in the world, not just doing relevant work, but also, doing it in a way that represented a different paradigm for creating art. The local activists were my producers, my publicists, my audience development coordinators, my ushers, sometimes my stage managers, crew, house managers, and also, in some cases, my biggest patrons. And they selected themselves as patrons after the show by dropping a hundred bucks in my bucket because the play spoke to something that was important to them and they wanted the story to keep on being told, and they wanted to make the play available to people who might not have anything to drop in the bucket.
So, that was the beginning. I've continued to do "Pass the Hat" performances, although I also now work on a "fee" basis as well. There's really something magic about passing a hat around. I made a commitment that I'm going to do this show for a certain period of my life, even if it means eating beans and sleeping on people's couches. And some of the organizations I collaborate with can't come up with the cash, but they come up with an audience, often times an audience of people who might not otherwise go see a play- and those are the people I most want to perform for. But please don't feel sorry for me. If you knew how little money actors generally make doing a play, and you consider that if I can get 80 people a week to throw ten bucks in a hat, I'm actually making more that most actors in the theatre. And this model is going to allow me to do a ten day tour around West Virginia, which is very exciting, because those are the exact people for whom I wrote the play. This is part of the reason I'm so excited about doing the show Off Broadway with the Working Theater and Harold Clurman Lab Theater. The Working Theater's mission is the presentation of plays with working class themes FOR working class people. Which means the ticket prices are set for people on a budget. The HC Lab, reflecting the values of Harold Clurman and the Group Theater is deeply committed to a socially relevant Art that speaks to society as a whole, that should be an integral part of the whole community and not just the privileged pastime of the affluent. And I don't think this is pie in the sky stuff. If theater is going to survive and be relevant it's got to open the doors. And not in a patronizing way, like "oh yes, we will set aside 10 tickets a performance so that those less fortunate may attend." I think in addition to ticket prices being off putting, what is also off putting about the theater to those who are not in the affluent classes, is that the themes and content of plays has no relevance to the vast majority of people's lives.