I don't want to rehash Isaac's stories -- read his post, I'll wait.
I want to start broadly, and then move to Isaac's last paragraph, which asks a series of questions.
Let's start with a few things I suspect we can all agree on. First, that there is nothing magical about the 100- and and 606- zip codes as far as acting talent is concerned. There's nothing in the water that makes people who live in these areas better onstage than anyone else. An actor from Ohaha doesn't become better simply by moving east. Second, I think we can also all agree that NYC and Chicago acting is not uniformly superior, and that there is a boatload of bad acting in NYC and Chicago. (And for those of you who are going to ask, I have lived in NYC and in Illinois and have a decent amount of experience with acting in those cities.)
Now lets take one step away from the easily agreed upon, but still the relatively safe: this issue is a chicken-or-egg question. Do regional theatres rely on NYC for casting because the best talent is there, or is the best talent there (if it IS, in fact, there) because the regional theatres are casting from there? Let's say you are a really good young actor living in, say, Charlotte. You grew up in Charlotte, you really like Charlotte, your family is in Charlotte, your friends are in Charlotte. You'd like to stay in Charlotte. But when you contact the professional theatre in Charlotte, they tell you that they only cast small roles locally, but most of their larger roles are cast out of New York. Are you going to stay in Charlotte?
Fast forward. Now the Charlotte regional theatre has a play set in North Carolina, and it looks around and says, we'd like to hire a local actor for this role (or director or designer), but...well, all the good ones went to New York! But then somebody remembers that you were good, you went to NYC, and you even did a couple off-off-Broadway shows which will impress the local newspapers. And so you sign the contract, do the show, remember how much you really like Charlotte, visit your friends and family, marvel at how much cheaper it is to rent an apartment in Charlotte -- and then you get back on the plane and jet back to LaGuardia because the next show the Charlotte theatre is doing doesn't need your "type."
It's a vicious cycle, and one that, unfortunately reinforces and reifies the status quo. Then a blogger brings it up, and someone from NYC or Chicago plays the "realistic" card, and writes "Let's be real -- all the best actors are in NYC and Chicago, and we can't ask a regional theatre that simply wants to produce the best show to give up the best talent they can afford in order to hire local talent!" Now a ridiculous status quo is trumpeted as reality plain and simple.
Isaac concludes by asking:
For what reasons should we break that cycle? Because believe you me, I believe that cycle should be broken and I believe an American theatre scene with as many robust well funded and well staffed local mini-scenes as possible would be a good thing. I think decentralizing theatre away from New York would be a great thing. I just think that those who are resistant to making the first steps towards doing so have perfectly good reasons for being resistant and it's worth looking at and talking about honestly.
So here we are. Looking at it and talking about it honestly. And here I stand, teetering on the edge of writing things about the NY-centric theatre system that, in the past, has led only to acrimony. Step away from the chalupa, Scott. But I can't.
In the past, I have blamed NYC for creating the problem. I no longer believe this is the case. Those in NYC are as much the victims of this system as everybody else.
In the paragraph that precedes the one quoted above, Isaac may have provided me with a way of addressing this without setting the woods on fire. He writes:
The theatre feels they have a choice between having better shows (short term gain) over a better overall theatre scene (long term gain) and they choose the former. I don't really blame 'em for it. We can say the thinking is flawed, or ask to redefine what "good acting" means*** or talk about any number of other ancillary concerns, but at the end of the day, if the theater views its job as putting on the best show possible and if to them that means casting outside of their local area, why shouldn't they do it?
If you define your job as "putting on the best show possible," and you are thinking about short term gain, then you have no choice: cast in NYC or Chicago. The definition leads you directly there. But the definition is the problem.
Before I go on, let me relate a story that Jim Wallis, the head of Sojourners, often tells, most recently on NPR's Speaking of Faith. He tells the story of addressing a group of citizens who had come to Washington DC to lobby Congress on an issue. He told them that you could spot the politicians because they were the ones walking around with a finger in the air. When they needed to make a decision, they would lick their finger and see which way the wind was blowing. The mistake people make, Wallis continued, is in thinking that we can cause change by replacing one wet-fingered politician with another. No, he said, you change things by changing the direction of the wind.
When theatre people begin demanding that they not be required to live the life of migrant workers in order to make a living, demanding that they not be forced to leave parts of this country that they love where their family and friends live, demanding that regional theatres hire them for longer than a single show or two -- in short, when theatre people start demanding that they be treated like human beings and not chattel, THEN the wind will change.
But at the same time, theatres need to start demanding something from actors as well. They must demand that the actors commit to their theatres, they must demand that actors stop seeing them as just a yellow brick on the road to the Emerald City. Actors need to become serious artists, not fame and fortune mongers. They must value the ability to consistently work on their art MORE than the possibility of getting a high-paid TV commercial.
Until then, it is reasonable for Isaac to say that he doesn't blame theatres for making the choices they do.
But the status quo is killing the American theatre. And until theatre people get fed up enough to say "enough is enough," and they start saying it loudly, and they start saying it to each other, and they start saying it without worrying that maybe somebody who might be in a position to hire them someday in the future might overhear them, and they start saying it to their agents, and they start saying it to their union leaders, and they start realizing that all the hogwash being peddled to them in books like Acting Professionally and Acting as a Business and An Actor's Business: How to Market Yourself and Audition is nothing but a hoax, a con game, a way of getting you to keep feeding quarters into a theatre slot machine that rarely hits a jackpot, and that will eventually make you think that prostituting yourself is a form of marketing and abandoning your aesthetic values is a good business decision -- until theatre people recognize that show biz is not theatre, then nothing will change.
In 1931, Harold Clurman wrote that America has no Theatre. Nothing has changed in 75 years.
I get so dispirited reading theatre blogs and seeing all you talented, intelligent, articulate, and creative artists struggling just to get an opportunity to make art. You twist yourselves into pretzels,and work your fingers to the bone and share tiny apartments with too many people in order to scrape together enough cash to give to all the bloodsuckers -- the theatre owners and rehearsal hall landlords and headshot photographers and agents and newspaper ad salesmen and Kinko's franchises -- just so that you can do a play, give your gifts to the public. And to make matters worse, you all live in NYC, where just the cost of living is so exorbitant that it makes it that much more difficult to save money to get a chance to work. Imagine if novelists or painters had to do this -- had to raise thousands of dollars before they could type a word into their computer or put paint on a canvas. How much work would go undone? How many great works would never have been written or painted?
It is SICK. And it it time for us to quit pretending it isn't. It is time for us to stop sighing, "That's just the way it is." Because it may be the way it is, but it isn't the way it has to be. But we all have to have the courage to admit it, to speak it out loud and often.
Enough is enough.
Thanks, Isaac -- I needed to get that off my chest.