Thursday, March 27, 2008

Reply to Sarah Hart

I have been thinking how best to reply to the welcome response from Sarah Hart, the Managing Editor of American Theatre to my post "The Nylachification of American Theatre Magazine," as well as to a comment left by Isaac concerning my methodology in writing that post. It is certainly not my intention to demonize the American Theatre staff -- publishing a monthly magazine about a topic as large as the American theatre is a very difficult job, and involves making many difficult choices, as Ms. Hart points out in her letter, and I respect that. My purpose is to tease out of the data an orientation that I feel works against the original noble goals of the regional theatre movement.

In his 1972 book Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage, Joseph Wesley Zeigler, who from 1966 to 1969 himself led the TCG, decided to use the word "regional" to describe the theatre about which he was writing "mostly because it reflects the anti-capital philosophy which is the core of the story." In his first chapter, "Defining a Revolution," Zeigler elaborated about this commitment to decentralization. "The regional theatre phenomenon has been a major and determined attempt to spread American culture throughout the country and even more to create a new basis of theatre not dependent on Broadway. The purpose of decentralization has been less to spread the wealth than to triumph in an ideological war between the institutional theatre and the commercial theatre. Those in the forefront of the regional theatre movement see it as a way to strip Broadway of its power. The primary force of their crusade has been centrifugal." Unfortunately, in the years since 1972 entropy has robbed this centrifugal force of most of its energy, and the gravitational pull of Broadway (and its once rebellious but now equally tamed sibling, Off-Broadway) has reasserted itself. Charles McNulty, in an article about San Diego's Old Globe entitled "Theaters Playing to Bottom Line," does a nice job illustrating how the increasing focus on New York transfers is undermining regional theatres like the Old Globe, who "have come to mark their success by the number of Tonys their splashiest shows go on to win."

What I was asserting in my post on American Theatre is that this primarily New York (but also, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles and Chicago) orientation has come to inform this fine magazine both through its choice of articles and through its choice of writers. Are the articles written by these writers informative and inspirational? Absolutely, I would certainly never argue with that -- I read my American Theatre almost the moment it arrives. But I believe a magazine published by a regional theatre service organization ought to promote the values described by Zeigler that gave the movement its power and distinctiveness, and also resist the pull of the celebrity culture in which we live.

Isaac asks "why does something about a production in Kentucky written by someone who lives in NYC considered a NYLACHI article?" The answer, and I suspect it is one that will lead Isaac and other NY bloggers to throw up their hands, is that a New York author will write about a subject through a lens that is shaped by the New York context in which they live. It isn't intentional; it is a natural adjustment that occurs when one lives in a place and regularly encounters the values embedded in that place. Richard Florida's book Are You Living Where You Should Be?, which Joe Patti describes at "Butts in the Seats," says essentially the same thing. Joe writes about Florida's ideas, "communities have a certain character on a macro-level. There is always an artistic/bohemian, etc. area in any city of size. However, this area in Oklahoma City, OK is not equal to the same area in Philadelphia, PA but rather reflects what each city will tolerate of their artists. As I understand Florida, he is saying the artists of Oklahoma City will have absorbed the more conservative vibe of their city." [ital mine] I agree, and I New York is exempt from this effect. So when New York critic David Cote visits Reykjavik, Iceland, for instance, his reactions are filtered through his New York sensibilities. Can you imagine an Icelander writing this way about Reykjavik? I can't:
"It was interesting. Farty-smelling water from sulphur. Wickedly expensive. Insular. Nordic. Beautiful people - if you like the translucent-skinned elvish type. Scary, depressing hard drinking on weekends. Local theater is both slick-Euro and about 15 years behind the avant-curve. Reykjavik is a small Scandy town with one main street full of overpriced boutique stores. Men who look like rugged, homicidal Vikings but turn out to be exceedingly polite. Four-dollar hot dogs with crumbled onion rings and three types of sauce…very popular. And delicious. Dank, cold, dark....Iceland has not produced its Robert Wilson, its Wooster Group, its equivalent of Off-Off Broadway, or even its own exportable mainstream playwrights. Its productions hardly ever make it to the Brooklyn Academy of Music or Le Festival d’Avignon.
How in the world can we take it seriously if it hasn't even made it to BAM? I mean, whatEVer.

In American Theatre, this surfaces in articles like the cover story about Edward Albee written by Carol Rocamora, a New York University professor, who refers to Albee's "distinguished 15-year teaching career at the University of Houston, where that city's Alley Theatre also gave him a home" as -- get this -- "critical exile." The Alley Theatre, founded by regional theatre pioneer and visionary Nina Vance, is one of the original flagship theatres of the regional movement. It should not be dismissed as a place of exile, least of all in American Theatre. Grinding salt into the wound, Rocamora lionizes the New York-based Off-Broadway Signature Theatre for doing the same thing the Alley Theatre did -- "giving the playwright a new home," and then she concludes the sentence by repeating the same insult: "after a decade of critical exile from New York." While Houston may seem like exile to a New York University professor, for those of us who believe in the value of the regional theatre movement, and who hold to the "anti-capital philosophy" of decentralization described by Zeigler, such throwaway insults are a slap in the face to everything regional theatre stands for.

Perhaps a more subtle example can be found in the December 2007 cover story Ms. Hart refers to about the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of It Happened in Little Rock, which portrays the 1957 events surrounding the integration of Central High School. That was a powerful article, there is no doubt about it, and it was inspiring to read about the production, and I applaud American Theatre for writing about it. But I'll also point out that it was written by Nicole Estvanik, American Theatre's Associate Editor (New York), about a play that was written by New York playwright Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj (who Estvanik points out has a father from India, a mother from the Caribbean, and who grew up on Long Island and did not come to America until he was school-aged), and was directed by Robert Hupp, who before taking over the Arkansas Rep spent nine seasons as the Artistic Director of the Jean Cocteau Rep in New York. So what? Am I suggesting that only people from Arkansas can write about Arkansas? Hardly. But I am suggesting that the lens of an outsider does have an effect on what is perceived, and that that is important.

Jill Dolan, in her brilliant book Utopia in Performance, writes about this very topic in her chapter on The Laramie Project, which raised similar question about the us/them, there/here binary. "The project," Dolan writes, "proceeds from the perspective of outsiders for outsiders, with the danger of condescension to the local using such techniques involve." The use of the word "exile" to describe fifteen years in Houston is an example of such condescension, which assumes a non-Houston audience that would share such an attitude. Poor Edward Albee, stuck in the fourth-largest city in the United States having all his plays performed at a nationally-recognized regional theatre with a 75,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility when he could be being performed in a 160-seat theatre on 42nd Street in New York City. Why, it's just tragic.

As far as the articles themselves, Hart asks: "In our April issue is an essay by Wallace Shawn on his writing process; he’s obviously a New York writer, but he reports that his favorite production of his work was done by Rubber Rep in Austin, Tex., whose productions are prominently featured in the issue. Is that a New York story?" I haven't received my April issue yet, but I would venture to say of course it is a New York story. Wallace Shawn is a New York writer, as Hart says, and that is why his article is being published. If he were an Austin, TX playwright, is it likely that American Theatre would be at all interested in his writing process? Not very. He is being published because he is the author of a number of plays that have been produced to some acclaim and notoriety in NYC, and because he achieved national recognition as a result of his film work. Is it nice that his favorite production was in Austin? Sure. Will the article be a good one? No doubt. But that's not the point. The point is, to use a phrase that continues to resonate in academia, the Problem of The Canon.

When people in literature departments argue about the canon, the argument often focuses on what underrepresented voices are going unheard because of a tight focus on canonical dead white males. In theatre, NYC has come to define, even for the regional theatre movement, the nature of the canon, by which I not only mean plays, but also actors, directors, designers, critics, and playwrights. When American Theatre interviews "8 Tall Actors on How to Play Albee" as part of the Albee cover story, they talk to Myra Carter, Rosemary Harris, Bill Irwin, Brian Murray, Bill Pullman, Mercedes Ruhl, Marian Seldes, and Kathleen Turner. I could be mistaken, but those all look like actors who have appeared in New York productions of Albee's plays, and yet for 15 years his plays were being done in Houston at the Alley Theatre. Why aren't those actors interviewed? Because they lack New York cache, they stand outside the NY canon of actors. They are the underrepresented voices that are going unheard.

Yes, In the Red and Brown Water received its premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, and that is truly wonderful. But playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is a New York playwright, a Yale Drama School graduate of the MFA program in playwriting, and his previous play opened in 2007 simultaneously at the New York Public Theatre and London's Young Vic (which also plans to produce In the Red and Brown Water). The play is being directed by Steppenwolf member and Anne Bogart collaborator Tina Landau, designed by NY designers Mimi Lien, Jessica Jahn, and Scott Zielinski. These are all NY-canonical names and credits. This is not a regional playwright, nor a product of a regional theatre. This is an import.

My intention is not to dismiss the value, quality, or importance of these people or plays or productions; my intention is to show that a New York pedigree seems to be critical to being included in the pages of American Theatre. And to say that I don't think that is truly supporting what the regional theatre was meant to be, or those who have devoted their lives to working in it.

What I want to see from a magazine purportedly committed to the health of the regional theatre is a focus on people who have committed themselves and their career to the regional theatre movement. Not a complete and total focus -- I like to read about Wallace Shawn and Anne Bogart as much as the rest of you -- but some level of equity. People need to know that it is possible, indeed admirable, to have a rich and satisfying career by committing your life to the regional theatre alone, and even better one regional theatre, rather than bouncing from Broadway to film to regional theatre to TV. Commitment to the vision of the regional theatre should be an important guide for choosing subjects to spotlight in American Theatre. I want an article about James and Rose Pickering, who I saw give brilliant performances at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre when I was in high school 30+ years ago, and who are still there and part of the resident acting company. I want to read about people like Cliff Fannin Baker, who founded the Arkansas Rep in 1976 and ran it for 23 years. I want the spotlight to fall on people whose names we don't already know, because they have spent their career devoted to a regional theatre movement that was supposed to be decentralized and anti-capital. I want an article about Charlie and Angie Flynn-McIver. the co-founders of North Carolina Stage Company, who have committed themselves to creating a professional regional theatre here in Asheville, NC, and who are not bouncing around the country picking up acting and directing jobs in NYC. It is a crime that incredible acting teachers such as Jean Scharfenberg and Cal Pritner, who taught at Illinois State University through much of the 1990s and who had a hand in teaching many of the founders of Steppenwolf as well as a whole boatload of talented actors like Judith Ivey, Laurie Metcalf, and the founders of Chicago's 500 Clowns and Breadline Theatre , were ignored because they didn't teach in a "name" east coast theatre department but in central Illinois. Instead, we get interviews about teaching acting with Andrei Serban, of all people, who teaches at -- you guessed it -- New York University.

This reply was supposed to be calm and polite, and I know I haven't managed to keep it that way. But it frustrates me to see a movement that I grew up with and that had such promise for creating a true renaissance in the American theatre be co-opted by Broadway aesthetics and succumb to the culture of celebrity. And I want American Theatre and the TCG to be vocal proponents of what the regional theatre was supposed to be.


Sarah McL said...

Hi Scott,

Regarding the lens - how many people who are living and writing (and working) in NY do you think were born there? Lived their young lives there? I live in NY, was raised in New England, and none of my friends grew up in Brooklyn or Manhattan. And I know one of your big things is people shouldn't have to move to NY to make theatre, but... I'm not really seeing the argument.

Ok, also, ever heard of Richard Feldman? He teaches at Juilliard and NYU. How about Ralph Zito? Sandra Bowie? I'm pretty convinced that good acting teachers are the ones who are gifted artists, but consciously relinquished the spotlight to devote themselves to teaching. And ok, I know your point is that you want attention paid to these un-spotlighted people... but I don't. Teachers who are big stars are usually pretty bad teachers, but pretty good resources. Anyway.

Finally, TCG isn't a service organization for regional theatre, it's a service organization for not-for-profit theatre in the US. Which includes New York, LA, and Chicago. I get that you're saying you perceive a NY bias, but I think I you're implying that you think TCG is a service organization for regional theatre. Am I wrong?

Not trying to pick a fight, just pointing some things out.

Scott Walters said...

Sarah -- It's not about where you are born, it is about where you live. I was a different person, and looked at the world differently, when I lived in NYC than when I lived in Normal, IL. You adapt to your surroundings.

TCG was created by the Ford Foundation in the 1960s as a service organization for the non-profit theatre which, at the time, was the regional theatre. I am not arguing that NY, LA, and Chicago are not part of the regional theatre, but rather that they are not the CAPITAL of the regional theatre, and should not be regarded as such.

And yes, the point is that we need a good dose of balance, some non-Nylachi role models, some people who see the regional theatre as more than a landing pad for a 6-week gig. The purpose is not to diss NY, but rather to call for greater balance.

Sarah McL said...

Ok, I guess we're just going to have to disagree completely on this one. I will never root for the Yankees, I will never prefer Manhattan Clam Chowder, I will never stop confusing "T" for "Subway"... and I've been welling up with tears watching "John Adams" because I feel like I'm watching my Boston/NH accent evolve in real time. I'm New Englander, not a New Yorker, and I would feel pretty miffed if someone implied I looked at the world through a New Yorker's eyes.

Anyway, no big deal. I think you're the best, and I appreciate your point of view.

Anonymous said...

Scott--C'mon. You were distorting the facts by claiming more articles were "NYLACHI" than actually were. And you got caught. That's what happens to didactic rants that pretend to be fair-minded journalism. Get over yourself and apologize for twisting the facts.

Freeman said...

This sort of does make me throw up my hands a bit.

American Theatre magazine said "We're listening. We share your concerns."

Isn't that a good thing? Why respond this way?

Jess said...

And I think your response is spot on.

David Cote said...

Scott: If you can't appreciate that I tried to learn a bit about Iceland's history and culture and share it with the reader…I don't know what to say. You make it sound like my entire blog post (and essay) is slagging Iceland. Yes, my perceptions were filtered through a subjective lens. Do you think I can detach my subjectivity? Are you Thumper's Mother, who counsels her son "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all"? Don't you distort places like NYC, LA and Chicago with your ongoing victim-complex filter? If people actually took you seriously, we'd live in a world that would be even more tribal, insular an authoritarian than it is right now.

Scott Walters said...

Matt -- The alternative is what? American Theatre is listening, nice and lie?

Sarah -- I'm not saying you become a New Yorker, but that you are influenced by what you live in. I am not a North Carolinian by birth, but I do look at issues differently because I live here.

David -- All I said was that I couldn't imagine an Icelander writing what you did -- they wouldn't see Iceland in the same way.

Anonymous -- I stand by my figures, and believe my criteria to be valid.

99 said...

While I know that Scott can (and most definitely will) speak for himself, I just wanted to say to you, David, I didn't get that that his comment was an attack on you, or your post. I'm a New Yorker and a NYLACHI artist and I know it's hard to remove myself from the frame that we all carry around with us: New York is the great city, the important things are happening here and what ranks on our radar matters. I think his issue is with American Theatre defending its prejudices by saying, "But we have writers who have been produced all around the country." That's not the same as writers who live all around the country. Not just are "from" other places. This goes to Sarah above as well: if you're from New England and you've moved to New York to pursue your craft, you're working in the frame. It's not that you've magically become a New Yorker, or lost your non-NYC edge/feel/what-have-you. But you're a part of the system that Scott is talking about: the work is done in New York or comes to New York.

No one is asking anyone to detach their personal subjectivity or keep quiet about it. But I think his point is valid, and not just in terms of theatre writing, but in terms of a lot of current American culture: the institutions, theatres, news organizations, political parties would rather hire someone from an urban center to go out to a rural place and then report back what they've seen rather than hire a "native" to tell us what it's like. Sure, we want that urban person to have the patina of authenticity but it's equally important that they have the stamp of urban approval. That's what American Theatre has fallen into.

I agree that Scott's parameters are a bit...shall we say, generous...but the underlying point is the same. Maybe it was unfair to pull just one part out of a much longer post of yours, David, to illustrate it. But as a reader and fan of both yours and Scott's, I don't think a personal slight was meant. My 2 cents...

Also, I think Scott will be the first to say that he does want a world more tribal and insular...though not authoritarian.

David Cote said...

Oh, a world that is tribal, insular and less authoritarian? A communitarian cult? Yeah, good luck with that.

Devilvet said... it seems that among those of us who are NYLACHIans some agree some surprise there...

But how do the nonNYLACHIans feel? Are you even outthere listening in? Is this really a debate between Scott and NYLACHI?

It never surprises me when NY bloggers tell Scott his viewpoints are too narrow or too jaded too negative...but without voices outside of NYLACHI echoing that negatively critical take on Scott's thoughts...shouldn't a little more investigation and skepticism be called for rather than out and out dismissal of Scott's concerns?

Rather than defending the best intent of NYLACHI writers or AT writers, isnt there the option of further inquiry here?

There is a personal passionate slant that rides the razor edge of aggression in Scott's post, but i think there is still enough balance there on the edge even if precariously, it is passionate without becoming totally inappropriate...

It seems to me that there has to be something to Scott's inquiries. If their wasnt people wouldnt keep tuning in...unless they are hoping to witness him give up (after all these years probably not likely).

If his question wasnt important or relevant...why did AT take such care and effort to address the question?

And the anonymous troller from the last few weeks ought to just grow a pair...come or hate his ideas (my opinion changes daily)...Scott owns what he says

isaac said...


Just a few brief points...

First off... there's a difference between criticizing whether they cover regional theatre and criticizing how they cover regional theatre. With the original post with its data, you lumped both of the above into the same category, which I why I found it (unintentionally) misleading. The truth of the matter is that American Theatre covers a lot of regional theatre, they just don't do it in a way that you like. That's a completely different issue from whether or not they cover regional theatre period. This is not to say that your criticisms of the way they do it or necessarily invalid, just that it's a different issue.

Second, there is a difference between an American covering arts in a small, insular foreign country and someone covering an arts story in a different part of the United States. I wonder, however, if the analogy used is revealing... do you feel like NYLACHI is a different country?

Third, I hate to say this but... Edward Albee's work in Texas was work that happened in critical exile. I might not like it, you might not like it, but there are no critics important to the national theatre culture at large in Houston, TX. Hopefully, if all goes well with your and my shared goals of decentralization, that won't always be true, but it certainly was when Albee was working there. And Albee started working there after a string of bad criticial receptions here in NY. Stating a fact that you don't like isn't the same as insulting something or someone.

Again, this isn't to say the problems you are highlighting aren't real.

Freeman said...

"Matt -- The alternative is what? American Theatre is listening, nice and lie?"

No. So your goals are being met. So they're respecting you and responding.

Not all discussions are about who wins. Sometimes, knowing that your concerns are even a factor in the decision making of the decision makers is a big step in the right direction. The chances of other people wholly absorbing your worldview and changing their decision making to match your standards is nearly non-existent. But they may, and seemingly will, take your concerns into account. Which, while not the whole ball of wax, is a very good thing for your own cause.

So, I'm not suggesting you "be nice and lie." I'm suggesting that being combative is counter productive. It makes people take you less seriously.

That's why I'm throwing up my hands. You make progress here, and what happens? You become wildly defensive. I can't understand it.

Alison Croggon said...

Scott - there's a certain irony reading this, and thinking, well, here's me, on the edge of the Antarctic, thinking some pretty interesting theatre is going on here, and pretty interesting educational and institutional models for anyone who cares to look, that might indeed be pertinent to concerns here; and at the same time I remember being told, evenin so many words, that it is of little interest because this is a blog about American theatre. To us on the outer of empire, that looks, well, inward looking. At least Cote got off his arse and went to Iceland (which I recommend).

I'm all for regionalism. I don't see at all why it's incompatible with being curious about what's going on in major cultural centres. What matters is the breathing in and out. And I worry that this tribalism thing is just about a one-way focus.

Scott Walters said...

Alison -- My point, as I'm sure you know, was not that David Cote shouldn't have gone to visit Iceland, nor that his reactions were somehow "wrong," but rather that we all take our frame of reference with us when we travel, and it colors the way we see. This also pertains to having people from outside an area writing article about that area. If I visited Australia, I'm certain that I would write about it differently than you would, because you would understand the context in a different way. My perceptions as an outsider can be very valuable -- a fresh set of eyes -- but when those outsider eyes are the only ones that are representing you, then it is problematic. Any study of, say, colonialist literature makes this very plain.

Also, I believe what I said about the American-ness of this blog is that the model I am creating is focused on specifically American economic conditions -- I make no case that it is universally applicable, although I certainly welcome anyone who would like to adapt it. But it is focused on local conditions. You'll notice that I haven't written anything about the types of shows that a theatre tribe should do; that is because each place would benefit from a different focus -- again, local focus.

I am not a fan of modernism's cosmopolitanist orientation. I feel that it left artists rootless and self-involved. I look to Shakespeare and Moliere as artists who were "universal" by being very local. I have great curiosity about other cultures (and not just "major cultural centres"), but ultimately I believe we must communicate with the people who are in our theatres at that specific time and leave history to take care of itself.