Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Changing the Direction of the Wind

God love you, Isaac, now you've done it! You opened up the "New York and Chicago actors are (perceived as) better than non-NY-and-Chicago actors" issue. This one oughta rage for a while. I'm glad you brought it up, since I was headed in that direction after the new plays discussion, and it is better that it start elsewhere.

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.


Travis Bedard said...

Welcome Back.
Good to have you.
Read here
More Later

Adam said...


Respect your passion but I'm a bit confused by it on this issue.

With well over 1,000 nonprofit theatres in the country, how could it be that America has no theatre?

And is there really any number of theatres that could match the supply of actors looking for work?

Scott Walters said...

Adam -- When Clurman said America has "no Theatre" (note the capital letter), he wrote "What our theatres lack is some integrating Idea," some core commitments. I think he is right -- we have a whole lot of independent activity, but not much sense of contributing to a whole.

Your question about numbers is a good one. There will always be more actors than roles. The point is that they shouldn't all be huddled in NYC, but spread around the country leading real lives and serving their community. It is a mistake to feel that, unless you solve the whole problem in one fell swoop, the status quo should be left alone. The primary focus of my post is about decentralization.

Tony said...

Food for thought.

I do think that currently many of the best actors are in NYC, Chicago and LA. Not that there are no talented people anywhere else. Being in Chicago, I am constantly in awe of the amount of talented people there are here.

However, this is not accidental. It is because actors move there. They move there because they can work in (and from)those cities.

Ironically, there are (very large) theatres in Chicago that often don't cast locally. And if a Chicago actor can't get cast at some of the theatres in Chicago of all places, it makes it tough for actors to stay in North Carolina or Michigan or wherever. People go where (they think) the jobs are.

It is a continual cycle. Actors move because theatres won't cast locally, and theatres say all the local actors move to Chicago, LA or NYC.

Part of me thinks that only if audiences, subscribers and/or donors demanded change it would happen.

Scott Walters said...

Tony -- Well, maybe so, but audiences, subscribers, and donors really have no idea about these issues, nor do they feel empowered to comment. They've been taught to leave it to the professionals. No, those most affected have to be the ones to lead. It was African-American's who led the civil rights movement; it must be theatre artists who lead this one. And maybe what we need are some examples like this one from the comments on "Trust" earlier this month:

"I know that one of the reasons why people keep coming back to the theatre that I work in is because they love to see the same people, they love to see how we change, and they have a personal (albeit distanced) relationship with us. They know us, our quirks, our foibles. They come in expecting certain things, and when we deliver something different, they're blown away by our versatility."

Maybe instead of focusing on marketing and fundraising, if we started talking about the relationship between a theatre and its audience we might get somewhere.

Tony said...

Agreed. But with devil's advocate hat on . . .

If artists lead this by creating a relationship directly with audiences, who then would force the big houses to reexamine their thinking, would the shift happen?

Travis Bedard said...

I'm going to end up in trouble if you keeping posting 12 things for my every one, but let me say before the moment is gone:

The best marketing is ALWAYS relationship. To the show, to the theatre, to the company, to the Star...

Adam said...

Scott said:

"No, those most affected have to be the ones to lead. It was African-American's who led the civil rights movement; it must be theatre artists who lead this one."

The movement to accomplish what exactly? Giving theatre artists more jobs? More pay?

Scott Walters said...

Adam -- More freedom. Freedom to make a living in places other than NYC. Freedom to live where they want, and to stay in one place and have a stable life for their family. Freedom to live close to their family and friends. Freedom to not have to spend large portions of the year on the road in order to make ends meet. In short, freedom to live an adult life instead of the life of an itinerant undergraduate.

Travis Bedard said...


I think your biases are cropping up a bit here: "freedom to live an adult life instead of the life of an itinerant undergraduate."

I would hew a bit closer to (what I thought was) your thesis: for the greater health of American theatre, and the possible growth of a national (or strong regional) voice of American theatre, we decentralize the talent base back from whence it came, and still allow that talent to make a living.

Scott Walters said...

Travis -- You are right, the American theatre would be stronger with a stronger regional voice, and that is my main thesis. That said, the two points are connected. Right now, the theatre is largely a young person's game, because at a certain point artists get tired of the itinerant lifestyle and lack of money associated with the current system. They would like to have a family, or a home, or health insurance, or enough money to take a vacation. They either get out completely, or move toward film and TV. This hurts the theatre, because we lose the experienced artists just when they would be able to make their best contribution.

Yes, there are people who really love the bohemian lifestyle, and they thrive on the current system. But many, many do not, and right now there is little alternative.

More regional opportunity, and more commitment to artists on a long-term basis, would be good for the American theatre as a whole, and for many artists as individuals.

Travis Bedard said...

You know I agree. I think your thesis is dead on. I'm living it.

I am a theatre practitioner moving out of 'young' into 'middle', and pretty surely not desirous of bohemia...
And so I'm living in Austin (see link above) and making the kind of theatre I don't see reflected here.

(I'm just angling to keep your rhetoric in the vicinity of your thesis so we don't lose all of the right that you are in a fight that you're not trying to have ;) )

Anonymous said...

More for Scott's argument...

Pricey city drives out artists

By David Freedlander | dfreedlander@am-ny.com
January 4, 2008


Scott Walters said...

Travis -- Thanks for keeping me on message. I sometimes get distracted -- "Look! A shiny argument!" And very often, a commenter will focus on a single detail and ignore the real center of the message, and I will take that bait and get embroiled in something much less important than the message.

RLewis said...

Don't regional theater's still have annual auditions in some major city each year? Outdoor Drama's still have auditions in Chapel Hill. And there are other annual regional auditions (SETC, NETC, etc). Isn't that because coming together in one space/city gives the most amount of actors the widest opportunity to find work? And the theater's get the biggest chance to fill roles with the most appropriate actors? I worry that Supply & Demand factors effect this issue more than ideology. I think there's something to be said for getting all of the buyers and all of the sellers in the same market at the same time. But I do acknowledge that Progress is changing this, and that's a good thing.

Adam said...

It is sick. It is hard. And the cost of living in this country is much higher and the salaries lower than they used to be so it's harder than it used to be in that way for sure. And everyone should be able to live wherever they want even if they aren't independently wealthy. I'm not sure what is to be done exactly. How does a system change? It's hard for individual artists to rise up against the people they want to accept them and work with them. It's biting the hand that might someday feed you. But i'm also not sure how one would rise up.

Scott Walters said...

Adam -- I don't think it is an issue of rising up -- I don't think there are any villains here, or oppressors. There is just a system of doing things that needs to change. The first thing that needs to happen to change the wind is for people to acknowledge that the system doesn't work. The conversation needs to happen a lot. Bloggers need to write about it, which might lead reporters to write about it, which would lead theatre people to acknowledge the problem, and pretty soon there might be a change. But first we need to acknowledge that there is a problem, instead of spending our time trying to work within the system and pretending that it is OK.