By Nikki Delamotte
The heat has already been shut off in the small corner of Euclid Square Mall and water drips from the ceiling. A little more than two years earlier, on an early spring night with a temperature teasing the line of freezing, Aaron Calafato first performed his equally stripped-down monologue For Profit for a huddled audience of sixty in this storefront that, like most shops in a once-bustling mall, had been abandoned. It was a humble beginning.
It seems suitably bleak for a solo performance concerned with the escalating debt of graduates—the kind of in-the-gutter-looking-up-at-the-stars tenacity that resonates with a rightfully jaded age group facing an uncertain job market. But like most adversity confronting young people, the tacking on of “crisis” to the end of “student debt” can be likened to the kind of optical illusion where the image shape-shifts after a focus steadied a moment too long—a recorded $1.2 trillion dilemma sometimes still met with skepticism about the millennial work ethic and criticisms about responsibility from older generations.
Presented at eye-level with audiences, For Profit is delivered in a style of theater traditionally known for blurring the lines between performance and reality. And in many ways, it does. In lieu of dramatic smoke and mirrors, the performance is all the latter: a reflection of Calafato himself and, within that, a rumination on the state of a generation.
While working to pay off his own loans, the inner workings of a system that kept students in debt started to unravel.After performing For Profit at more than 35 schools and touring the country for the last two years, Calafato is, if anything, less idealistic about the situation and more diplomatic. He has a composed voice, hands clasped over a black coffee near his south Cleveland home.
“I’m not anti-commercial,” he says directly, without prompt, as if well versed in opposition. “You can have this Starbucks, all that’s great. I just want to see more of a balance.”
The impact of student debt has become so pervasive that even the most capitalist-minded, conservative pundit can no longer skirt around the issue. But to understand why Calafato is so relatable is to also understand what this new wave of graduates are up against.
He graduated from the small-town Bowling Green State University with a degree in communications. He followed his wife to New York as she finished a master’s in social work. In short, like many recent graduates of the recession era, he went through every middle-class motion he thought he was supposed to make.
With it also came a combined $1,500 monthly loan repayment. And that’s when lines blur and opinions diverge. The now 70 percent of all graduates affected by debt can become an elephant in the room, while the condemnation of a student’s personal choice to sign for a loan or the choice of a degree deemed impractical are voiced loudly.
Casual in an army-green jacket with a few pins spread across the lapel, Calafato is eager with a poised intensity and the fervor of a new father; the way his background echoes the current state of affairs gives him an edge. For all the myriad facts and figures that surround discussions of any kind of debt, the performances of For Profit put a human face to debt’s impact.
“The enormity of the problem with student debt isn’t just a student problem, it’s an American problem,” he says. “When students graduate it carries to their 30s, their 40s. Their children are affected by it, their parents are affected by it, and businesses are affected by it. This is an American problem and an American story.”
“I tried to make concessions. In the end, the cost was more than money. The cost was ethical. There was a person who couldn’t read and they asked me to enroll them in the college and I wouldn’t do it.”During his stint in New York, Calafato slept in New Jersey and spent his time just over the border, cultivating a budding acting career in New York City. His aspirations started out traditional but strayed off the beaten path as he studied the disciples of experimental monologues, such as Spalding Gray. For Profit took shape years later, simple in set-up and nomadic in adaptability. Relying on the sponsorship of schools and organizations, For Profit is most commonly performed for free, with productions taking place everywhere from off-Broadway theaters to the basements of churches.
But For Profit’s narrative began when money ran short and Calafato and his wife returned to Cleveland, where he took a job in enrollment at a local for-profit university. While working to pay off his own loans, the inner workings of a system that kept students in debt started to unravel. As he questioned the machine, he spent his breaks at work penning his monologue.
“I went to this training and they taught you how to manipulate people. So, you know this job you’re getting into is kind of sketchy. But you also know on the other side of the door you have $1,500 a month in student debt. You’ve been able to pay it, but if you leave this job for moral reasons, what happens?” Calafato asks. “I tried to make concessions. In the end, the cost was more than money. The cost was ethical. There was a person who couldn’t read and they asked me to enroll them in the college and I wouldn’t do it.”
Calafato was fired. “What was great was they gave me an ending to my play.”
The next months were spent evolving his performance. And while it was inspired largely by his experience at a for-profit college, a subset widely known for preying on lower income families by working the same Federal Pell Grant system meant to offer those students opportunities and bridge the class divide, as time has gone on it’s become apparent the subject matter’s reach continues to grow much further.
“Keeping people scared and keeping people poor is profitable. It takes someone expressing autonomy and saying no,” he says. “It’s not about being a superhero; it’s a culmination of little acts of rebellion.”
Student debt has grown significantly over the last decade. There was a 25% increase in average student debt load from 2008 to 2012 at four-year colleges—students who borrowed in the class of 2012 now owe an average of nearly $30,000, and the disproportionately higher debt owed by minority students only adds to the seeming exploitation.
But if For Profit has a defense to its opponents, it is in its rejection of decadence and its suggestion that art can be a vehicle to even the playing field.Unemployed, Calafato began taking the RTA from meeting to meeting with theater directors, looking to make connections, but all seemed to fall flat. Eventually taken under the wing of Nina Domingue, he was cast in A Raisin in the Sun and went on to work with Karamu Theatre.
As For Profit took shape and Calafato continued to expand his network of vocal activists, he joined with attorneys and advocates from across the country to found the nonprofit organization Student Debt Crisis. The organization become a megaphone for reform and a hub for petitions and discourse, with the unique asset of Calafato’s storytelling as a platform for sparking discussions.
“I didn’t just want people to come see a play, I wanted action. I wanted there to be an impact, for people to learn about it,” explains Calafato. After performances, he often hosts panels with local politicians, thought leaders, students, and sometimes even school board members. “You can’t make anyone do something, but if someone can walk away more informed it adds to the movement. When we have conversations after a show, I encourage you to disagree.”
Critics, of course, make themselves readily available. In one corner there is the recent virility of a Slate essay dismantling the mantra of “Do what you love, love what you do,” and its rose-colored scope of privilege and the devaluing of less glamorous work, while in another corner crushing student debt shows the weight of assigning a price tag to chasing our passions. But if For Profit has a defense to its opponents, it is in its rejection of decadence and its suggestion that art can be a vehicle to even the playing field.
“The message is about equity and fairness and reform and looking at the economy with a different lens,” says Calafato. “I want this play to end. Once this is over, it’s looking around the world and saying, what else? And it’s not trying to make this utopian society; it’s just trying to bring balance.”
Nikki Delamotte is a writer in Cleveland, Ohio.