Monday, May 28, 2007


As I promised a few days ago, I would like to take advantage of my own blogspace to elaborate on some of the items that appeared in my recent interview that appears on Theatre is Territory blog. There are several remarks that have been commented on, and I would like to use them as prompts.

The question that seems to have attracted some initial attention was in response to the following:

7) If class issues are preventing theatre from being a more vital voice in American culture, who’s responsible and how do we fix it?

I began by discussing my belief, shared by Dudley Cocke of Roadside Theatre (see his passionate and intriguing article "Art in a Democracy"), that theatre audience has become homogeneous and rich (80% of the audience is comprised of the upper 15% of the economic pyramid), and that to some extent Tyrone Guthrie's hijacking of the regional theatre movement, which substituted productions of European classics for support of indigenous playwriting, created the conditions that led to this situation.

In response to the "how do we fix it" part of the question, I responded: "First, decentralize theatre – get over our childish fixation with the Cinderella story of NYC and perform in towns across America." This prompted the first part of a comment by David Cote that I'd like to address. He wrote:

We’ll ignore the defensive provincial stance here and point out that the theater isn’t “centralized” in any organizational sense of the word. Yes, the Tonys take place here and a lot of media attention focuses on Broadway openings, but that’s a media issue. The “centralization” of theater isn’t the nefarious work of NYC artists but a natural consequence of concentrated media, wealth, access and population density. There are historical, artistic reasons for NYC being called the center of the American theater universe. Sad to say, they don’t really apply anymore.

What I meant by my statement concerned employment, and the Cinderella myth to which I referred could most easily be characterized by the song lyric "If I can make it there / I'll make it anywhere." As long as the so-called regional theatres insist on casting out of New York, and bringing actors, directors, and designers in from NYC for one-shot, drive-by performances, instead of developing and maintaining their own company of artists who live in the community where they perform; as long as regional theatres continue to use their home base as tryouts for productions that are then transferred to NYC, and then use those productions as a way of "proving" their value to local funders; in short, as long as the theatre outside of NYC is created by NYC-oriented theatre artists, the theatre will be centralized. It has less to do with the TONY's than with the belief that having a 100- zip code makes theatre artists somehow better than those who do not. And it has to do with the belief that theatre that occurs west of the Hudson is somehow by definition minor league.

How does this connect to class? Perhaps another line from Cote's comment can make the connection: "I wouldn’t expect a director or troupe to abandon the cultured, exciting life here to enrich the lives of a theater-loving minority in Iowa." Now, let's unpack that sentence. Of course, there is no arguing with the idea that NYC is cultured and exciting. I lived there twice over the course of my life, -- it is a great city. But I have also lived in Minneapolis, and it too is a great city; and I have lived in Normal, IL and it too is a great city; and I now live in Asheville, NC and it too is a great city; and I recently visited Whitesburg, KY it is a great city as well. They are all great in different ways, but great nonetheless, and they are great because of the people one finds there. Each city has its own rich culture that is exciting in its own way. And those people deserve to see plays that reflects their own rich culture. What Cote implies by defining NYC as "cultured [and] exciting" is that Iowa, or Minneapolis, or Normal, or Asheville, or Whitesburg or any city that isn't NYC is uncultured and boring. And to further unpack the word "uncultured," what he means is less sophisticated, perhaps less educated, certainly less urban. In fact, them there Iowans are just hicks, ain't they? This is what comes of watching too many episodes of "Green Acres" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" -- the poisoning of regional respect by the centralized, urban media. It is a stereotype, one that people are educated into and express without shame or consequences. Over the course of the 20th century, the devotees of modernism have successfully stereotyped all non-urban, not Eastern, non-Northern people of the US as unsophisticated hicks, and it has all the characteristics of most bigotry -- a stubborn refusal to respect ways of being that differ from one's own. This extends to class issues as well, as most theatre artists are college educated beyond their class (I know this is true of me) and often have a great disdain for their roots (something I have had to work through as well). As Cote writes: "As someone who couldn’t wait to relocate here from New Hampshire, I have to say: there’s a reason why kids leave home." Right: because NYC is cultured an exciting and nothing else is.

And this is where the issue of centralization becomes a justification of one's preferences. Cote writes: "Personally, I like living in NYC. I like the people, restaurants, museums, streets, theaters, bars, dog walks, parks and subway. I don’t want to leave. And there’s work to be done here. We have our own theater-ecology crises that need to be addressed. There are companies to support, playwrights to champion, nonprofit giants to shame and commercial behemoths to ridicule....All theater is local. My locality happens to be NYC." And that's just great! I am not suggesting that Bush send in the troops to march all the non-native NYC theatre artists back to their home town! But all of those things exist elsewhere in America, and not in as great a numbers, or even if some elements don't exist in a particular place, they are replaced by other things that are just as precious: the sound of birds singing, a waterfall, an unending blue sky, a local diner, a pick-you-own blueberry patch, a bluegrass music festival, whatever.

But when theatre artists in Minneapolis, in Boston, in Austin, in Asheville, in Atlanta feel that they must move to New York in order to work in their own towns, then something is wrong. When young actors graduate from college and feel that they must go to NYC if they want to work, even though they would prefer to live elsewhere, there is something wrong. Why can't they live where they want to live? Because the regional theatres who might offer a living wage are all casting out of NYC. I freelanced in Minneapolis for a number of years, and it was just an accepted fact that no local actor was ever going to get cast in a decent role at the Guthrie, because they cast in NYC. And that's centralization, and that is wrong.

And it is wrong not only because it limits theatre artists' choice, but also because it homogenizes local culture. Instead of theatres growing out of and reflecting the specific and rich cultures, and rhythms, and values, and music, and colors, and landscapes of an area, and instead of developing a performance style that embraces those things, the American theatre simply exports NYC to the rest of the country under some misbegotten impression that NYC is universal. Up through the first half of the 19th century, America lacked an indigenous culture for exactly the same reason -- we didn't think we were "good enough," and so we imported our novels, our plays, our painting from Europe. Finally, Hawthorne and Whitman and Emerson, and later in the theatre O'Neill broke away from imitation and began to create an American culture. Well, NYC is the Europe of the early 1800s, and it is time for the rest of America to acknowledge the existence of an indigeous, rich, wonderful culture that lives outside of Manhattan.

There is no need to defend one's love of NYC, as long as in doing so one doesn't simultaneously denigrate the rest of the world. This is also true of one's class, level of education, and social group. Diversity is necessary for any bio-system to survive, and right now theatre is choking on its own homogeneity. Shakespeare said theatre was holding the mirror up to nature, but theatre is starting to simply hold the mirror up to itself . Until we begin to recognize and value the wonders of the rest of our enormous country, this trend will continue.


David Cote said...

Hi Scott: Just for the record, I wasn't trying to denigrate any other communities by implication. By stating what I think is obvious--New York is an exciting, cultured place--doesn't automatically mean I think Minnesota, Chicago, or any rural enclaves are full of dumb, boring hicks. I've been to Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Baltimore, Albuquerque and hope to go to many more cities, but I love my NYC. To infer that I think the rest of the country is crap is the defensive provincial attitude I noted (and I'm calling the attitude provincial, not the person). I'm damn proud of NYC and I'm not going to apologize for it. Of course, each year it's home to more and more rich, transplanted assholes and chain stores, so rest assured, NYC's special something is being replaced by the Triple M threat: middlebrow mass monoculture.

Scott Walters said...

David -- I know you weren't trying to do that, and I'm not accusing you of it. But at the same time, the crack about Iowa doesn't exactly sound like love, if you know what I mean! But I suspect that, for you, Iowa is the opposite of NYC, and you love NYC, and that's cool. As someone who lived in Illinois for quite a while, I can understand how one might develop a similar love for the plains, and the generous, plainspoken people that live there. What I would like to see is an equal sense of the theatrical value and opportunities for both loves.

And another "just for the record": despite the heat of our previous discussion, I don't think you are a Mean Bad Man. As somebody has already noted, our styles are similar: passionate, intense, individual, and with a tendency toward argumentativeness. And as I believe you said in the context of the previous discussion, if you can't stand the heat... Well, we both like the heat, but I also think we generate a lot of light as well.

parabasis said...

Interesting thoughts, Scott, and this is the first time in the history of your blog that I thought you were making an argument against NYC-Centrism that wasn't at the same time an attack on NYC, so... thanks for that.

I do, however, continue to take issue with the whole cinderella thing, which is actually completely unrelated to your main argument but you still drop in in here. Namely, that it implies the only reason people come to NYC is to be rich and famous and traditionally successful. I think it implies this becauser you have yourself written that you believe this on your blog on several occasions.

And this is where it starts to upset me. Because you frequently write on your blog about the need to listen to one another, yet at the same time, and that blogs can help that... and yet my experience is that you frequently ignore those arguments that don't fit into your worldview. In this case, your view that poeple who move to NYC are doing it to be rich and famous cinderellas despite the fact that myself and several other bloggers have spent a great amount of time trying to disabuse you of this notion. So to me it calls into question how sincere you are about wanting to listen as opposed to be listened to.

And I say this because I actually agree with about 90% of your argument, and I find a lot sympathetic in it, but this aspect of it keeps me from listening to you and keeps you from being heard, and I think you should know this as you continue to put your impassioned and interesting ideas out on the web.

Of course, there's every chance that I'm misinterpreting what you've written based on past tussles you and I have had on the internet. If that is in fact the case, I'd appreciate some clarification.

Thanks for your time

Scott Walters said...

Isaac -- No, you're right, I have said that, but I don't mean to imply that there aren't many, many who are in NYC, like you, for other reasons, and who simply love NYC. But I do think there are many young people who go to New York thinking it is the way to stardom. Perhaps that was the case at one time -- many actors in the 20s through 50s made the jump to Hollywood or television from the NY stage -- but it seems to me that the connection is a bit weaker these days. It happens, sure, but not enough to justify how many youngsters head to NYC with that dream in their duffle bag. I would like there be a theatre culture in American where young people leaving college had different viable choices for their career. Right now, I don't think that exists, and that feeds the Cinderella Myth that still draws theatre people to the city despite there being so, so many already there, and so many people across America who would really like to experience theatre. And there are many talented people for whom NYC is just not a good fit, and we're losing those people's talents.

Claire Downs said...

great blog!!! I'm side-barring you right now!

Mike said...

From the post:

"Of course, there is no arguing with the idea that NYC is cultured and exciting. I lived there twice over the course of my life, -- it is a great city. But I have also lived in Minneapolis, and it too is a great city; and I have lived in Normal, IL and it too is a great city; and I now live in Asheville, NC and it too is a great city; and I recently visited Whitesburg, KY it is a great city as well. They are all great in different ways, but great nonetheless, and they are great because of the people one finds there. Each city has its own rich culture that is exciting in its own way."

I have to say this has the air of pap about it--apparently all places are great, each in its own special way, and all places are equal, too, as they all have special people in them.

There's almost nothing being said here--you could use this kind of reductive arguement to prove almost anything. I think we'd have to hear more about the very real differences between Normal and New York City for this to have any rhetorical weight--and as such it doesn't bolster your arguement that Cote's comments are so out of line. I mean, is there really more theater-loving audiences anywhere in Iowa than there is in NYC? I'd love to see a post that compared your experience of theater in all the communities you list--numbers, experiences, artists suppoorting themselves through work--as it could be really fascinating.

Scott Walters said...

Mike -- You are equating quantity with quality. Of course NYC has more theatregoers than Normal Illinois. So what? Does that mean that the people of Normal Illinois don't deserve to see theatre? Does that mean that they only deserve to see theatre that bears the stamp of approval of NYC? Does that mean that they shouldn't see theatre that reflects their experiences, their ways of telling a story? Could an artist support himself through work there? Well, Whitesburg KY is a community of 1500 poor coal miners, and the Roadside Theatre / Appalshop supports quite a few artists. The same is true of Dell 'Arte in Blue Lake, CA -- another very small lumber town: lots of good work and good artists working there. There is an old saying: like bringing coals to Newcastle. That's how I feel about NYC. There is so much theatre in NYC, and the rest of the country is being frozen out by the centralization. There are other ways of being an artist. Oh, and by the way -- just how many theatre people are actually making a living doing theatre in NYC? There's another part of the NYC myth that needs debunking.

parabasis said...

Scott... I don't think there's actually much of a myth about making a living doing theatre in NYC anymore. There is the potential to make a living doing it, far more of a potential than in many (but not all) other places.

BTW: I think it's worth noting that there's a shift going on in the relationship between regional theatres and NYC that's worth looking into. Namely that theatres whose missions include doing productions of new work usually are the places where writers build up enough cred to eventually get produced in NYC, once those productions happen in NYC, said writers then get productions in more regional theaters in the US. I know that that's a reductive a simplified way of stating it, but it's worth looking into...

So for example, Jordan Harrison and Sarah Ruel's works were performed all over the place regionally before being done in NYC, in venues like Humana, Berkeley Rep, Woolly Mammoth etc. before they got big productions in NYC (at Playwrights Horizons and Lincoln Center, respectively).

Scott Walters said...

Isaac -- Do you see this trend as a good thing, or a bad thing?

Mike said...

"You are equating quantity with quality."

No, I'm saying that the statement that all cities are great cities doesn't have a lot of value.

"Whitesburg KY is a community of 1500 poor coal miners, and the Roadside Theatre / Appalshop supports quite a few artists. The same is true of Dell 'Arte in Blue Lake, CA -- another very small lumber town: lots of good work and good artists working there."

Because this is specific, it's interesting.

"Oh, and by the way -- just how many theatre people are actually making a living doing theatre in NYC?"

I'd be very interested to know that as well.

Joshua James said...


If you weren't a professor, could you make a living at theatre in the city where you live?

I know people that do it in Minneapolis and Chicago, Miami and Denver . . . I don't know anyone that does it in Iowa (except set designers) or Nebraska (I lived in Lincoln) also the money ceiling is very low compared to nyc, which is the heart of advertising in the country (more commercials here than any where else) and supports many an actor . . .

As someone who ain't a fan of nyc but has lived in those places,

Scott Walters said...

Mike -- Oh, well, I do believe that all cities are great cities, and I don't believe in ranking. Because the rankings betray specific ideologies. Great in what way? For instance, if I were to rank cities based on natural beauty, NYC would be near the bottom, Central Park notwithstanding. I believe places are great because of people, and I think all places have fascinating, beautiful people -- as long as you listen and look with an open heart. Perhaps you will find that mawkish, but I believe it is true.

Joshua -- There are two Equity companies in Asheville: North Carolina Stage Company, and Flatrock Playhouse. So yes, I suppose it is possible. And as you see in the response above, there are artists making a living doing marvelous work in towns as small as 1500. But for me, that is not really the center of the issue. You and I have gone around before about the issue of making a living, and what place in that should have in one's considerations. And I have complete sympathy for making a priority the making of a living through theatre. But personally, and of course I am being idealistic, I am primarily focused on doing work that I can commit my heart to in a place that I care about -- that is my foremost priority. If I want to make money, there are much easier ways to do it than doing theatre, and I'd rather do one of those things and be able to follow my vision than to make the compromises necessary to follow a more traditional path. I also believe (and this is going to REALLY seem crazy) that if you focus with passion on following your vision, the money will follow. I look around at the small towns across America, all of whom support multiple churches and pay a pastor for most of them, and I wonder: how do they do it? But the answer is fairly clear: they do it because their church is important to them, and they are willing to do whatever is necessary to keep the church viable. What would it take, I wonder, to make theatre as intrinsically a part of a community as a church? (And I hope that you and David will resist the temptation to open up the argument about religion again, because that ain't the point.) How might theatre become a source of re-creation and meaning for a community? How might it stop being a commodity, another option on the entertainment menu, and instead become something that is central? I don't think it is about marketing -- it is about a new relationship with a community, a relationship of trust and commitment. It is built on dialogue and nurtured through empathy.

Perhaps these are not New York values -- perhaps they are more appropriate to Whitesburg KY. If so, then this is more evidence of how different places have different values, and so should have different theatre. And that is one of my points -- that unless the rest of the nation outside of NYC begins to value the theatre, it will wither and die. There must be roots in every part of this nation.

Joshua James said...

There is a difference between making money for money's sake and making a living doing work that you love . . .

You need to be able to pay the rent and feed the kids, otherwise whatever ideals one has are meaningless if the kids go hungry . . .

It makes no sense to dig for coal in the desert.

Scott Walters said...

I agree, Joshua -- and I also think there is value in making a living that supports doing what you love by freeing you from the need to worry about paying the rent and feeding the kids. Many of the greatest artists have made their primary living doing other things, which allowed them the freedom to remain true to their artistic vision without feeling economic pressure. And I think that is valuable, too. If that isn't your orientation, then that is fine -- I wouldn't force it on anybody. But it is a valid orientation that shouldn't be scorned (and I'm not implying that you were scorning it). If your rent is paid and your kids are well fed, but you have abandoned your ideals to do so, then what is the point of staying in theatre? It's a tightrope, and one that can be walked from either end.

Joshua James said...

You inferred, after I inquired about making a living in other areas, that to worry about making money is to abandon ones ideals . . . maybe that wasn't your intention, but that's certainly within this argument. If one's ideals is to reach the widest audience possible, is that selling out?

I mean, how can we really judge one person's ideals against anothers? How can you say ANYONE has abandoned their ideals when we don't even know what the common ideals for everyone are?

When does one abandon their ideals? Don't those things change and evolve like everything else?

I mean, I would never say that you abandoned yours because you took a teaching job rather than pursuing the craft itself . . . the fact that you do what you do is ideal for you, and the fact that I do what I do is ideal for me, right?

Who's to say anyone's every abandoned their ideals? Who do you know has done that (and don't say Nicolas Cage, he's a bit nuts and that's exactly where he wants to be), I don't really no anyone doing this who has. I know people who are crazy and not good at what they do, but I don't know anyone who deliberately does bad work for the money.

And I know people who do stuff for big money. I know playwrights who work in television because it pays the bills and theatre doesn't. They still get off on their work, and if anything, theatre is the one who abandoned them, in many ways.

Anyway, I'm no fan of nyc, but I've lived in Iowa and worked as a paid actor there and in nebraska. There's a very low ceiling to what a person can earn as a theatre artist in those areas, unless they also teach.

It's important to make a living, and to do that, location is important. If you want to make a living as a nautical engineer, one needs to be near water, not the desert. If you want to work in television, you need to be in LA and if you want to make money doing commercials, you need to be in NY, to make a living.

People make a living in other places working in theatres, you bet, especially in Chicago and Miami and Seattle.

But you don't in Lincoln, Nebraska. Not consistantly. Maybe if you go on tour.

Making a living, surviving, is our first priority as artists.

First thing my theatre history professor taught about theatre history was that there was little to no arts pursued during times of famine because, when people are starving, they don't have time for anything other than surviving . . .

To infer that it's not important, to me, that's a bit off.

Scott Walters said...

Joshua -- Nobody except yourself can tell you if you have abandoned your ideals. Do people do it? Sure, all the time. I see it at the college level, when students choose majors that are practical rather than what they love. They know they are giving up, and that they're doing it out of fear. Their parents want them to be safe, by which they mean comfortably middle class. And as a parent myself, I don't blame them! But there was a kid in my freshman colloquium a few years ago who really, really wanted to be a car mechanic, but his parents thought he was too smart for that and should get a college education and a "good job." My course was on the hero's journey, and we discussed the need to pursue one's Personal Journey (ala Paulo Coelho's novel "The Alchemist"). A year later, I got an email saying that he had followed his heart, gotten trained as a mechanic, was happily working at a dealership and engaged to a wonderful woman. And I see that is a great, great thing.

Nobody can judge another's ideals, and I'm saying I can. What I am saying is that if you start out with the criteria that what you need to do is pay the rent and feed yourself, you will make different choices than if you start out saying I need to honor my ideals.

Let me illustrate. Let's say I really wanted to marry a woman who was tall and had red hair. If I have ten women to choose between, I can do two things: date the three tallest women and then marry the one with the reddest hair; or date the three women with the reddest hair, and then marry the tallest of them. Depending on the order I apply the filter, I will marry different women! Same here: if you apply the economic filter first, then the value factor you will end up at a different place than if you apply the value factor first and then the exonomic factor. That's my only point.

And I think there are enough examples of people who have made their living in theatre all over this country to justify giving it a try.

Scott Walters said...

"Nobody can judge another's ideals, and I'm saying I can" -- Typo: I'm NOT saying I can.

Slay said...

"It makes no sense to dig for coal in the desert."

It does if you really like the desert. What's wrong with that?

Joshua James said...

I like the desert, too. But can you expect to find coal there?

Scott Walters said...

Perhaps you need to stop looking for coal... The skills you need to live in the woods are different than those needed to live on a desert. If you spend your time looking for nuts and berries in the desert, you're gonna starve! If you go to a non-New York place, you cannot expect to leave unchanged your New York ideas of what theatre is or should be. If you are only able to be happy working within the downtown NYC aesthetic doing plays about downtown NYC subjects, then by all means don't leave NYC! But if you are willing to adapt, to seek out the unique beauties that exist in a different place, and explore what effect those beauties might have on the way you create theatre, and/or what you create theatre about -- well, then by all means follow your vision. Joshua is right -- you can't get blood from a stone. But that doesn't mean the stone isn't beautiful or useful or desirable -- it just means you have to shift what you are looking for, as any geologist will tell you!

Jay Raskolnikov said...

I must say, I balk a little when I here of "making a living in theatre" as a guidepost. I have been on both sides. I made a pretty good living doing theatre projects for 10 years.

I now have a non-theatre, bill-paying job that allows me enough time to work consistently in theatre. The change was extraordinarily liberating for me as an artist and I don't think locale has anything to do with it. If feeding your kids requires doing any job you get, you take it.

While a freelancer, I took many projects as a actor, designer and director that I knew would be awful--but paid well. At some point regardless of how good the lights look--a project can still suck. But if it pays well, you take it.

Now I don't do as many shows a year (I now do 4-5 as opposed to 25 and up) but I only do projects I'm passionate about.

Your location does not affect that. NYC, or Chicago, or Paris has many more companies doing work. They also have a disproportionate amount of people going after that work. You make less money in Indiana (if you work nonstop in NYC) but the cost of living is so far less, that the lower income is more than balanced out.

Quality, passion, ideals, income--all are individual questions, none are location specific.

Slay said...

Did you see this?

At the same time, Mr. Elmes was also talking more with other arts organizations in Brooklyn about a host of issues, including how to keep artists from leaving New York.

From the NY Times article about the Galapagos move.