I'm going to start with a few little things that regularly tick me off, and that are surfacing in this discussion. A few quotes:
"Hey, there's nothing wrong with people that was to be big fish in a small pond - but it's not what I, myself, want out of this life - I want to do it for a living. As Matt pointed out, you simply cannot do that from Bumfruck Iowa. You can't. If you could, I'd still be there."
"You don't go to Alaska to harvest tropical fruit.In that analogy, it's clear when I say Alaska, I mean Zack's Wichita, and when I say Tropical Fruit, I mean artistic praise. Let's just assume that when a producer in the great plains sees "produced in New York" on a play's resume, they're more likely to take a look at it than when they say "ran for ten years in Wyoming."
"I cannot find that in my hometown of Boyertown, PA, where baseball is the order of the day."
"That being said, I also feel that we're underestimating the popularity of theater outside of New York. Anywhere you'll find a public high school, I'm sure you'll find at least one musical being produced."
What ticks me off about these comments? The insulting assumption that once you get west of the Hudson River, the audience is comprised of a bunch of unwashed, uneducated, and unenlightened hicks whose idea of theatre is a high school musical. Words like "Bumfruck Iowa" are insulting and belittling. Just because they don't live in the concrete canyons of NYC doesn't mean that they have no appreciation for or understanding of quality theatre. And so for all you New Yorkers who think a 100-zip code is proof of superior intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities, I say: get over yourself.
Phew! OK, that felt good. The above gripe goes along with my other gripe, which is the insulting way that people from the South are represented in popular culture and even the news media. But that's for another day...
What is most interesting to me about the rest of the discussion we have been having is the way it is bringing to the surface previously buried assumptions.
I'm very puzzled: several of you say you are living in NYC because you want to be a professional writer. A sample of these quotations:
"I want to write for a living. I don't want to be a weekend warrior, like the cover bands I've written about in "No More Covers" - driving a truck during the week and doing theatre on the weekend."
"I want to be compensated for my work, I deserve to be compensated for my work - my work is worthy of that. "
"I do want to have a successful career and when you want that, you go where the industry is thriving. You don't go to Alaska to harvest tropical fruit.In that analogy, it's clear when I say Alaska, I mean Zack's Wichita, and when I say Tropical Fruit, I mean artistic praise. "
Now, tell me: are you all making a living doing theatre in NYC? Didn't Josh just post an eloquent and passionate article about how much doing play's in NYC costs him? And how difficult it is getting to produce work in NYC? It doesn't sound as if you all are making a living doing theatre. It sounds as if you are weekend warriors working day jobs to pay for your theatre habit.
So there must be something else. Obviously, it isn't the actuality of making a living, it is the possibility of making a living that keeps you all there, right? But even that doesn't make sense, at least to me, because where are the venues that are paying playwrights a consistent living wage? Broadway, but I don't hear any of you singing the praises of Broadway as a playwright's haven. Off Broadway? Are those theatres paying regular sizable royalties? I'm not there right now, but when I did live there, I didn't see that happening much.
No, what I saw (and still see) happening is that serious plays are transferring from regional theatres, they're not originating in NYC. In fact, many of our prominent playwrights don't live in NYC: Paula Vogel, Romulus Linney, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, the late August Wilson -- all non-New Yorkers, aren't they? Productions are transferring from Steppenwolf, the Goodman, the Seattle Rep, LaJolla.
What this really is all about, it seems to me, is the myth of NYC. The whole New York, New York thing. I think earlier in this blog, I got taken to task by somebody for implying that they were naively hoping to become a star, and that's why they were so devoted to living in NYC. But isn't that what it is? Not necessarily the fame thing, but the making-a-lot-of-royalties thing. It really isn't about the art, it is about how much you get paid for doing the art. It isn't about receiving artistic praise for your work, but about who is giving the artistic praise. If you ran a theatre in, say, Athens, Ohio, you might actually make some money (even a small amount), and not have to spend money in order to do your work. But the money wouldn't be NYC money, and the appreciation wouldn't be NYC appreciation, and the hands clapping wouldn't be NYC hands.
I teach in a prison twice a week, and one of the phrases I hear when a couple guys are arguing about something is: I'm just keeping it real. So let's keep it real. This isn't about being paid a livable wage for your work -- you aren't being paid a livable wage. This isn't about getting an opportunity to see your work mounted -- you aren't able to get much of it mounted because of the high production costs. This isn't about being in the place where you might get a production -- most productions of straight plays are coming from the regional theatre. (And I suspect that your biggest royalty checks will come from productions done, not in NYC, but in the regional theatres as well.) So what is it about?
Listen, Zachary isn't holding a gun to anybody's head and forcing them over the Brooklyn Bridge. But why is it so necessary to denigrate the desire to try a different approach? Why is it necessary to view that route as banishment, as giving up on the Golden Dream? As Zachary pointed out, at one time early in the 20th century, the Little Theatre movement was where the artistic experimentation was happening. In the 1960s, the regional theatre movement sparked an artistic renaissance in America. Ours is a big country, too big for the theatre to be centered on one small island off the east coast.
Our theatre culture isn't working. We need a new model, a new way of thinking. Robert Sternberg, in his book Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity, says that creativity involves "buying low and selling high" -- i.e., grabbing an idea when few want it and riding it up. When you do this, you let yourself in for ridicule and dismissal, so I suppose all this is to be expected. After all, Going to New York has been the main theatrical pilgrimage for some time now, and most people see NYC as the Holy Grail of theatre. But isn't that grail getting more than a little tarnished?