Sunday, October 21, 2007

Welcome, Asheville Readers

Today, the Asheville Citizen-Times posted a guest commentary I wrote concerning a proposed performing arts center being planned for downtown. I was opposed. Not because I don't think we need venues for the performing arts in Asheville -- we do. What I oppose is the creation of yet another generic arts palace "anchored" (in the sense of sunk) by a 2400-seat auditorium that will house the symphony, but for most of the year will be filled with second- and third-tier touring shows from New York. Here is the text of my letter:

I have been involved in the arts for more than 40 years. I care deeply about the arts, and think they are crucial to creating a vibrant community.

So I find it painful to find myself in opposition to the proposal for the new $80 million performing arts center (PAC) proposed for downtown Asheville. But I am, and here is why.

Unlike other creatively vibrant local and regional arts organizations like, for instance, Handmade in America, the Southern Highlands Craft Guild and venues like Woolworth Walk, the proposed PAC is not focused on supporting local artists, but relies on touring shows to fill the 2,400-seat auditorium at its center.

Such a monstrosity is suitable primarily for one local arts organization: the Asheville Symphony Orchestra, a group that performs nine concerts a year and “employs” 80-100 musicians and performs music aimed at the gated communities of Asheville.

And the other 350 nights? Cats and Rent.

Grow your own artists

The HUB Project calls for Asheville to be an arts destination.

To do so, it needs to focus first and foremost on its local and regional artists by serving as an “incubator for the arts,” as the HUB puts it.

This implies growing your own artists, not importing them. Visual arts organizations seem to get this, but the performing arts are still stuck in a mindset that looks toward New York City as the height of artistic value.

Yes, North Carolina Stage Company will have a space in the PAC, and that is as it should be — it is an Asheville gem.

But what about other arts organizations? Will NCStage have to share its space with them?

Or will it be relegated to the rehearsal studio, which will also be programmed by the Asheville Symphony? Where do smaller organizations perform?

Is the expectation that all the performing artists in Asheville will be competing for those two spaces while the massive auditorium sits empty?

A better approach

What we need is a PAC that follows the goals of the Asheville HUB Project, fits into the culture and architecture of downtown and is focused on growing and spotlighting local artists that define Asheville as a unique place.

We need a center that includes a wide variety of smaller, less luxurious venues that might include: a small concert hall for quartets and trios; a café for bluegrass, jazz and folk musicians where parents can bring their children to listen to music in a smoke-free, alcohol-free environment; a 300-seat theater for North Carolina Stage Company; a smaller black box for more intimate performances and readings; a dance space specially designed to accommodate the needs of that art form; and an open market where visitors could have refreshments and buy the goods of local artists.

We must provide venues for a diversity of performance styles and traditions including African-American, Hispanic, Celtic, traditional mountain, contemporary avant-garde and other performances.

An artistic bazaar

What we don’t need is an artistic McMansion: cheaply opulent and far too large. What we need is an artistic bazaar.

Such a space doesn’t have to be built from the ground up, but rather could be retrofitted into existing buildings. Imagine the Grove Arcade had it been devoted to performance spaces.

I’m not an architect, so I can’t say whether that would be cheaper, but I do know that a massive new building built in the midst of downtown, complete with parking garage and automobile accessibility, will destroy much of what makes downtown interesting and unique.

If you thought the sign in front of Pack Place was a mistake, wait until you see this building.

Our own unique flavor

If Asheville wants to continue to be recognized nationwide as a unique and attractive place to live and visit, we need to design an arts facility that reflect who we are and what makes us different.

We don’t need a generic performing arts mall complete with cut-rate versions of “The Producers,” but rather a center that is designed to highlight our unique identity and support the artists who make their lives here.


The group that is raising money for this PAC, the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts, did a presentation recently that I attended. They showed a video with images of other PAC's they had visited that was supposed to leave us slack-jawed with awe -- God-awful arts McMansions that were about as unique and individual as a McDonalds. These are pseudo-palaces for the arts designed to accommodate the wealthy, intimidate the rest, and signal our cultural "superiority" by bringing in a mix of has-been pop artists and cut-back versions of New York entertainment. Meanwhile, our own performing artists -- actors, dancers, musicians -- are desperate for places where they can rehearse and perform.

Asheville gets a lot of retirees who come here from New York, and they bring their belief in NYC as the gold standard of the performing arts with them. They join boards and promote that provincialism while scorning the vibrant artists who dare to make their home in Western North Carolina. Meanwhile, our own artists struggle.

We are outsourcing our artistic life, and it is time for it to stop. There is no reason that local taxes should be used to import culture. If housing touring shows was the way to become an arts destination, Greenville-Spartanburg would be the NYC of the southeast. People come to a town because they can get something there that they can't get elsewhere. Nobody visits a town in order to hit the local multiplex, which is what this PAC resembles. If people want to see a Broadway musical, there are cheap flights from Asheville airport to see the real thing. If they want to come to, or live in, Asheville, they should see the real Asheville thing.

What happens when we rely on touring productions? We get insults like the touring production of The Great American Trailer Park Musical, which is coming to town in mid-March at another touring venue, the Diana Wortham Theatre. Another NYC insult to the south, and another example of how we allow the wealthy and educated to ridicule and insult the poor and uneducated. And then we wonder why our public policies seem to focus on helping the wealthy and middle-class, and why programs like SCHIP are able to be vetoed without protest. The description of this abomination is:

Direct from Off Broadway [because that means it must be good, natch] comes the first national tour of The Great American Trailer Park Musical. There's a new tenant in town, and she's wreaking havoc all over Florida's most exclusive trailer park. When Pippi the stripper [because, you know, what other kind of woman lives in a trailer partk, right?] comes between the Dr. Phil-loving Jeannie and her tollbooth collector husband, the storms begin to brew - and we ain't talkin' about any old Florida hurricane [no sirree bob].

From spray cheese [because them there trailer park folks all eat spray cheese, yuh know] to Dr. Phil, road kill [har har -- probably cooking up that there road kill, right?], hysterical pregnancy, agoraphobia, and more, colorful characters and lasting friendships are at the heart of this hilarious side-splitting new musical. An infectious score, cheeky script, incredible set, and some of the most roof-raising, girl-group singing since the Pointer Sisters all add up to a fabulous and fun night out.

Kill me. This particular producer -- Off Broadway Booking -- seems to specialize in insulting different groups, with shows like Beehive, Dixie's Tupperware Party, and The Mo' Tenors. (And for those of you who, a few months ago, asked for examples of plays that insult the south and the poor -- spend some time at that website.)

This is the kind of "culture" we get from road tours. Is this what is going to make Asheville an arts destination? Is this so superior to what our own artists produce? And let's be clear: at $23 - $35 a ticket, this is a middle-class entertainment whose main appeal will be to let the elite snicker at the poor.

The proposed PAC is for the elites, not for the majority of Asheville citizens. As Dudley Cocke wrote in "Arts in a Democracy," the audience that will attend these shows will look like no community in America other than a gated one. In this case, a gated community of NY retirees. And in the meantime, it will reinforce the misbegotten notion that anything of value in the performing arts comes from NYC.

We need a PAC that grows the Western North Carolina arts community. We don't need to outsource our cultural life.


Ivan Rogers said...

Edifice Complex: The tendency of politicians to have large buildings and stadiums built as a concrete reminder of their "Legacy".

Soon, we will have a circuit around the state where "the touring show" can swing from city to city.

Soon, all the students of theatre will count their AMERICAN IDOL as a three hour course.

I love performance, and I have especially enjoyed BET's SUNDAY BEST. But, we are setting ourselves up for an either/or rather than THIS "and" THAT.

I am curious though. I have viewed your posts with great interest for the last few months. Could you say more about cultural diversity in the grand scheme?

I think that Black Performers are in a sense, canaries in the coal shaft.

I watched the clip for THREE MO TENORS. On one hand, I was engaged. On the other, I was appalled. The Black artist had to be both "european trained" and "popular." I was watching these very talented men slip and slide of the proverbial slope.

I keep thinking of Robert Townsend's film, HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE. After training in European aesthetics, you can only play the newly coined "urban" or "received notions" of 19th century Blacks.

I believe I have found a kindred spirit, so I am not flaming you. You are hearing a rant from a middle class African American with a little expendable income. I want more.

I really like saying Tyler Perry and George Bernard Shaw in the same sentence.....

Keep the faith.....

black baldheaded theatre guy

Anonymous said...

I know your pain.

In my own hometown (Richmond, VA), there are few places that "incubate local artists." For people who aren't already in the know about theater, it's hard to get started even if you are really passionate. The only place that really does offer something local is the Firehouse Theatre. I wish some of the other run-down buildings were renovated this way in Richmond.

But alas, everything is being snatched up by VCU and corporations.

Scott Walters said...

afrodyte -- Yes, it wasn't that long ago that an aspiring theatre person could gain experience by playing bit roles with established theatres. Read Moss Hart's "Act One" to see how easy it was. Now there is no apprentice system, which is why people go to college. Then when they get out, they have to head to NYC rather than working in the place of their choice. It is truly a dysfunctional system.

Ivan -- I would like to address your questions about diversity at length in a future post. In the meantime, let me say that the centralized mass theatre works against diversity, because it requires a "broad appeal" in order to fill the large houses. "Broad appeal" is translated as "appealing to the white, middle-class audience." Smaller venues can be more focused on serving specific groups of spectators. And they can do so on an individual basis rather than an anonymous, mass basis.

Danielle Wilson said...

My husband was talking last night about his tastes in theater, and I realized that if the University weren't here addressing some of his tastes, he'd never go see a show.
He's mostly interested in classics not as museum pieces, but as social commentary. Some new work. Things that make him think. Musicals are torturous.
Maybe we need to use the University as the place where local art happens. And then if it gets a stronghold here, it can begin to thrive on its own.
We've actually had several companies begin with students at the University, but they always take their newly formed companies elsewhere--Houston, Chicago, San Antonio.

Travis Bedard said...


I actually think you could point some of your City planners to Cliff Redd is aiming at with the Long Center here in Austin -

The anchors are the moneyed groups yo would expect (opera, symphony, ballet), but it also includes multiple venues for rental by local groups, and has a linked subsidy program to offset the rental price. The master plan also includes a performing arts school with linked performance space to make the center truly tied to the community.

It's not perfect, there will still be tours and a mainstage lockout, but it's definitely a reasonable model for what Asheville should look at.

Anonymous said...

Sam Flint said...

This is the worst idea I've ever heard. It's bad enough they put in a Staples... Pretty soon, Biltmore Ave. will look like Tunnel Road. And that ain't good.