COLUMN: Wiley's Follies
Urine Good Company
Published: Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 13, 2013 11:09
This summer was a real pisser.
For the second year, I spent the better part of June, July, and August working with The Charles Seller Foundation. What you need to know is it’s a charity theatre project—a 65-year-old charity theatre project—a nonprofit entity operating out of my hometown of Bloomfield, N.J., donating all proceeds from its annual production to a beneficiary from the northern New Jersey area. Oh, and it all started when young Charlie Seller got hit by a train.
No, he didn’t die. He lost a leg, but that’s not the remarkable part of this story. See, a group of Charlie’s friends banded together to put on a variety show for his benefit. Almost over night, the group of a couple dozen became hundreds. I’m happy to report, 65 years later, Charlie is alive and well, and so is the Charles Seller Foundation.
Returning this September to the Carroll School of Management—after seeing in action this organization kept going by young people for well over half a century—it’s odd hearing so much talk of “startup culture.”
So goes the fairytale, this proverb of a brilliant class of young people, banding into a brilliant court of young entrepreneurs—a hard year or two poured into an idea, and then sold. With the slash of a pen, these brilliant young people inherit the world twice over, selling the sustainability of that great idea. The more trendy, the more volatile, the more timely the idea, the more attractive it is to large corporate entities. Gladly absorbed is the risk, and with it, the youthful ingenuity. Fueled by profits, the engine of most business is largely unsustainable.
The world of CSOM finds its heart heavy with the hymns of The Wall Street Journal, bred on the parables of millionaire youth. The world I engaged in this summer? A delicate bubble, wedged in the history of a solidly working class community, its engine greased for 65 years by a group of young artistic types—a world, often wanting, as far as efficiency goes, but pushed along nonetheless by the weight of a tradition.
So what happens when these two models are turned in on each other?
In Urinetown: The Musical, I played the role of McQueen, a profiteering business hack, perpetual yes-man, and serial follower (it’s a role I certainly hope I wasn’t type-casted for). The premise of the show is that in this nondescript town—much like any other town you’d find in a musical—all bathrooms are public commodities. Implemented by Urine Good Company, this measure for the supposed regulation of water consumption was accomplished through the bribing of the political elite. The price of failing to pay and urinating publicly? Banishment to Urinetown, which is a metaphysical place, a means of keeping the poor in check, which we’re all pretty certain is just death.
Eventually, the poor stage a revolt—the people claim they have the right to pee for free, because people inherently are free. And without giving too much away, it doesn’t end well for them. The musical reaches this Malthusian conclusion, that extreme charity is unsustainable, and leads to overpopulation and scarcity of resources. This partly pharisaic, but genuinely cautionary message certainly resonated with this business student.
Interestingly enough, Thomas Robert Malthus—the notable 18th century political economist inspiring the message of Urinetown—likely could not give a good account for the sustainability of something like the Charles Seller Foundation.
Artistic capital is remarkably easy to come by, and with few strings attached. And the goodwill of people can be seen as a near inexhaustible resource, if properly harvested. I’m making this pitch—this business pitch—because I believe the arts need more business students, and business students could use some more art. And fundamentally, perhaps the brilliant young people starting these multimillion-dollar companies aren’t all too different from Charlie and his friends, who started something 65 years ago.
The truth is, we’re all either headed to Urinetown, or waiting to get hit by a train. Profits aren’t sustainable, but ideas often are.