April 7th, 2015

The Small Business Mode of Theatre

I grew up in a deli. I don’t really have any other concept of a childhood home than this colourful little shop. A whiff of cheese brings waves of nostalgia cascading over me like no other scent can. I often joke that a lot of my stories for the theatre come from being a fly on the wall in the family business. Today I realize that my roots impact more than my artistic vision, they influence the code of conduct I adhere to as a professional. A few years ago I created a Facebook page for my parents’ deli. I was trying to usher them into the age of social media. I thought it might help. This is what I wrote as the page description:

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My family’s story is similar to that of the countless immigrants who came to Canada seeking opportunity. My grandfather arrived here from Italy in 1961, his young bride holding my mother in her arms. After enduring over a decade of low-paying jobs and sharing tiny apartments with other families, Giuseppe Giampa opened La Casa del Parmigiano, an Italian delicatessen specializing in cheeses. He put in long hours to make sure that his business would support his wife and five children. Today my parents, Maria & Carmine, run the small shop that has managed to feed and clothe our family for close to forty years even in the face of globalization and large conglomerates which have been devouring the livelihood of small businesses. I feel that the East End store where I went every day after school, spent whole summers, and run to whenever I need comfort food, is symbolic of my family: who we are as well as the obstacles we’ve overcome.Nestled beside a Subway restaurant with neon “Eat Fresh” signs and directly  across the street from a Maxi supermarket, La Casa del Parmigiano burns bright and proud.

That blurb is painfully ironic as I consider that at the end of this month my family’s deli will be replaced by a fast food chain restaurant. When I told my mother that I wanted to write this article, she urged me to clarify that many factors contributed to the decision. It is important to her that her life’s work is not seen as a failed business. Of course not. My parents have been working for a long time in a neighbourhood whose economic reality has changed and they are tired. However, let’s not pretend that they would still be closing their doors if they had more continued and loyal support.

My mother always reminded me to be thankful to our customers. She would explicitly point out the privileges in my life that I owed to them. Whenever I asked for anything, my mother would give me the exact weight of a cheese or cold cut she’d have to sell before I could have that item. My Master’s Degree in theatre cost 500 kilos of Reggiano. Or 2000 kilos of Mortadella San Daniele. Despite this economic exchange and a certain feeling of subservience to the public, customers became our friends more than anyone else in our lives. In fact, extended family and friends were not frequent visitors to the store. My grandfather used to say, “They’re afraid we’ll get rich.” A proverb my mother adopted after my grandfather passed away. I used to consider that expression harsh, or at the very least I had difficulty accepting the implied malice of those we hold near and dear. Today, I understand better what was meant by that statement. I have spoken to a few acquaintances who have gone into business for themselves and they say the same thing, “my friends and family don’t come.” I have been self-producing my work for 4 years now and I can feel that old proverb creeping up on me no matter how much I resist talking like my mother.

Are they afraid I’m going to get rich?

Fear of the success of others. The idea that if one person achieves glory or wealth it greatly diminishes your chances of doing so. This is poverty mentality. This is a mentality I got to know very well among growing up in St-Leonard. It is a mentality I fear can thrive in the arts as well.

I lost friends over potato salad.

A while back there was a Kickstarter campaign for a potato salad. It was created in jest by some teenager who wanted to see how much money he could raise to make a potato salad. This popped up around the same time that I had created my web series, Sex & Ethnicity. I paid for it out of pocket and I wasn’t asking anyone for money. What I was asking, in personalized messages, was for friends and family to share the link to our Youtube page on their social media. Not only was that request often not carried out, but I didn’t even receive responses from those I considered close to me as to why they were choosing not to share the link.

The potato salad raised upwards of $55,000. I shared an article to my Facebook about it and I said, “I feel like this is a metaphor for my life right now.” I expressed that I couldn’t fathom how this potato enthusiast was receiving money from strangers, but I couldn’t even receive the free service from my friends and family of helping me spread the word about a project. Within minutes, a friend commented, “Maybe if you didn’t throw your friends under the bus they would share your link.” Someone else went called me an “entitled artist.”

As a teenager, I was considered quite annoying by several of my friends because I refused to eat at Subway (or any chain fast food really), claiming that I would not support my parents’ competition. I had this one friend who would get upset to the point of yelling at my insistence that my parents’ food was better than all that junk. She accused me of not being objective.

Maybe people feel that I’m still that way today. Maybe I have tunnel vision.

After the potato salad incident, I tried to curb the zeal with which I promote my artistic projects. Quickly, that subdued attitude started to feel odd. I realized: THIS IS HOW I LIVE! Art is a small business, the biggest and the smallest of businesses at once. Art. So vital and yet so fragile. Especially English-language art in Quebec. Especially English-language theatre in Quebec.

Screw objectivity. Objectivity is complacency.

Yes, I might expect people to support me, but I also live my life by the same standards I hold others to. I don’t shop at big chain stores, I only eat at family-owned restaurants, and WHENEVER one of my friends starts a business, if it is a service or product that I would buy anyway, then I buy it from them. Why not? I’m not afraid they’ll get rich. I HOPE they’ll get rich because that will help all of us. My small-business mind means I believe in word of mouth advertising and I do that for others whenever I get the chance. Small-business mindedness means sharing expenses and co-producing. It means being present even when you don’t have cash to spend. It means bartering services. It means buying local.

I don’t presume to dictate where folks should spend their money. It’s a free economy. However, I think a little awareness can go a long way. Maybe you don’t spend money on art at all. In that case I understand that you won’t be buying a ticket to see live theatre any time soon. However, if you support Hollywood movies, if you go to pop concerts at hundreds of dollars per ticket, if you see the big budget for-profit musicals that come to town, you *might* consider investing a small percentage of that disposable income into the local art scene. A thriving local art scene encourages tourism, festivals increase foot traffic for local businesses and most importantly your local artists are telling your stories.

Todd Hirsch wrote a special piece on the Canadian arts economy for the Globe and Mail in 2013. In it he says, “Cultural workers often act like serfs, begging for crumbs falling from the government’s table. They need to start exerting more entrepreneurialism – and consumers need to recognize their value. If Canadians purposefully seek out and support cultural events with their own dollars, artists and athletes will have better financial success.” I will address entrepreneurialism for young artists in a later piece. In many ways, I think we are responsible for creating our own opportunities. Today, however, this piece is a call to action to support the grassroots companies that give our city its distinct flavour.

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I was raised in a deli. I know firsthand what loyalty can do for a fledgling business. I feel eternally grateful to every single person who has ever dropped a coin in our till. I am aware of what I’ve gained through their support and the privilege I was afforded through my family’s sacrifices. My mother was always adamant that I not be forced into the family business the way she was when she was a teenager. She begged me over and over again to be someone’s employee so I could have benefits and stability. “Anything but the family business,” she’d warn me, “You don’t belong here.” Except I did go into the family business. I entertain others in the same way I watched my parents entertain clients. I tell the stories I’ve heard my mother tell rapt customers time and again. I peddle words the way my family peddled slices of prosciutto to their famished St-Leonard clientele. I provide tradition, ritual and nourishment through my work. Most importantly, like my parents, I know my worth. (It’s at least 20 kilos of Reggiano)

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