Vanity

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille."

"You've Got Some Balls Expecting Me to Read This."

It’s happy hour at Art Bar, my friends and I have commandeered a couple of squashy couches, and the Prosecco is half-price. Of course we are talking about theater. And of course we are talking about what we’ve seen, what we’re planning to see, what we loved, and what we hated. Agreeing, disagreeing, and generally having a fine time. Then we hit this: 

“It’s a vanity production. It was really just that Actor X and Director Y wanted to work together and decided on this play.”

And I asked, how is that different from regular season planning? And we sat there, stumped. Really. How is that different from regular season planning? Are all self-productions “vanity” productions? We fiddled around with the question for a while, and the best we came up with boils down to this: a vanity production is a self-produced show that is bad. We came up with plenty of examples of self-produced excellence, and plenty of examples of well-established theaters going on record that “we like so-and-so and wanted to work with him” as the basic rationale for choosing a project (results ranging from garbage to great). And I’m sure we can all name more than a handful of productions at every level that happened because the producer was sleeping with one of the principal artists (again, results ranging from garbage to great).

I have to say, I’m pretty vain. I have no rational basis for my confidence and self-esteem. I regularly send out my work fully expecting people to like it, despite knowing for a fact that some people won’t. How do actors show up to auditions or directors to interviews--all of us with enough vanity to think we should be produced, cast, hired. And what about the vanity of producers, who figure “Hey, I like it so it must be good and I’m going to produce it and hire a marketing team to tell everyone how great it is.”

Modesty doesn’t really have any place in a theater career.

Humility, yes, but modesty, no. They’re not the same thing. I can have the humility to recognize other people’s talent and mastery. In fact, I’m vain enough to think I’m pretty good at spotting other people’s talent (mastery tends to be obvious to everyone). 

But does plain old vanity have a place? Where do I draw the line between “look at me!” and, well, look at me. It seems to boil down to a completely subjective equation of good taste vs. obnoxiousness, talent vs. lack thereof, success vs. failure. That is all. We applaud the true talent who won’t take no for an answer and gets their work out there and we cringe when someone we don’t respect does the very same thing. Perhaps the thick skins we develop in this business blind us to when we ought to dial it back. Then again, the insecurity this business is good at fostering can stop us from going for it. Either way, I think vanity is getting a bad rap. I don’t want to go all “mirror mirror on the wall” but being proud of my work and happy to share it are not bad things.

Unless you think my works stinks. In which case, you can enjoy trashing it during happy hour with your theater friends. It’s still a win.