(As a side note, this is one reason that signed comments are more valuable than anonymous ones. Had this been an anonymous comment, I would have probably nuked the bastard without a second thought. And it is that second thought that is valuable, because it encouraged me to think through more thoroughly what points I want to make and fully consider what point Don was trying to make, rather than simply engage in the emotionally satisfying flame.)So here is Don's comment, which was a response to my assertion that an audience was an audience, no matter where it was:
Certainly, the 99 people in Vermillion are every bit as important as the 99 in the Village, but the reality is that of those 99, only about six of the Vermillion crowd is interested in anything beyond the most commercial fare while 80 of those in the Village while come out to see that which is new and original.It would be easy enough to point out that West Side Story originated in New York, and is scheduled for a Broadway revival, and that Greater Tuna ran for over a year at Off-Broadway's Circle in the Square and played to packed houses in metropolitan areas such as San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston and Hartford and eventually was turned into an HBO special by Norman Lear. And a quick glance at the plays running in Chicago right now include Fiorello!, Angel Street, Sweeney Todd, Blithe Spirit, Comedy of Errors, and Driving Miss Daisy -- and those are just a few of the titles. New York isn't much different: Equus, Marriage of Bette and Boo, The Adding Machine, Boeing-Boeing, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Chicago, The Country Girl, Grease, Gypsy. Well, you get my point: you're just as likely to find yourself appearing in revivals of musicals and popular comedies in New York or Chicago as in Vermillion IN.
Thus, the promise that by moving and setting up shop provides an opportunity to work frequently is a false one unless your craft is limited to productions of melodramas and Greater Tuna with the odd production of West Side Story when you can find the local talent able to handle it.
But since we're talking about 99 people, maybe we mean off-off-Broadway. What shows are playing there? A Little Night Music, two productions of Alice in Wonderland, Antony and Cleopatra, Arcadia, Cinderella, Edward the King, Everyman. Again, a partial listing. And looking through the "new" shows, I see an awful lot in both Chicago and New York that bear a distinct resemblance to Greater Tuna, new though they are.
Alternately, take a look at the productions done by, say, Dell Arte, an ensemble theatre company based in Blue Lake, CA, population 1,135; or Roadside Theatre located in Whitesburg KY, population 1,600; or Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, celebrating 30 years in Bloomsburg, PA, population 12,375. There are many more examples of small town theatre doing challenging, new, and original work.
In response to Jess's accusation of provincial bullshit, Don responded this morning:
It may sound provincial, and you certainly have the right to leap to offended, but experience doesn't lie, brother. And my experience is that there just isn't the interest in the small communities (midwestern or not). Certainly, there must be some exceptions so don't leap down my throat with your righteous indignation and proclaim that one fringe theater in Asheville, NC constitutes proof positive that the small, rural cats are so into the avant garde that that interest will sustain "frequent work" because that may not be provincial but bullshit it is.I would like to know just what experience it is that doesn't lie? Because scanning the list of Network of Ensemble Theatres, for instance, turns up quite of few theatre producing "new and original" fare.
So perhaps what Don is talking about are community theatres, which perhaps can be expected to produce more mainstream fare. Fair enough, but I'm not talking about community theatres, but professional theatres. And my point is that as long as professional theatre artists remain huddled in Nylachi, the need for theatre (and it is a need) will be satisfied by community theatre fair.
So the facts don't lie -- there is commercial fare in Nylachi, and there is "new and original" work in small towns. But the underlying assumption of Don's comments needs to be addressed. There are two interpretations one might make:
- Non-Nylachi audiences are not as "sophisticated" as Nylachi audiences, and not as open to "new and original" work; and/or
- Because the total number of potential audience members in a small town is smaller, and because "new and original" work (or even more specifically "avant-garde" work) is to the taste of only a small percentage of the theatregoing audience, the likelihood that a theatre devoted to "new and original" work can find an audience in a small town is unlikely.
(Although we might want to discuss whether the poor and uneducated deserve a theatre as well.)The second argument, about the small percentage of the theatre audience that is interested in the avant-garde, has a certain level of truth. Art on the bleeding edge has always been a minority taste, and being able to find 99 people in a city of three million (or 8 million, in the case of NYC) who have such tastes, especially when a sizable number can be drawn from the community of theatre artists and their friends, might be easier than in a small town. On the other hand, I would argue that the willingness to experience the new and original might be enhanced by the trust that develops as the result of an ongoing relationship between an ensemble of artists and their community. Furthermore, one might argue that the artists' knowledge of their spectators' skill level, again because of an ongoing relationship, allows them to more effectively bring them to the edge of their abilities and challenge them to stretch. I wrote about this in my post "Theatre's Value in Three Words" that was part of the mass blogging on the value of theatre:
"One of the keys to flow is that there needs to be a balance between ability level and challenge. If we conceive of ourselves, as artists, as the creators of flow experiences, then it is contingent on us to know and understand our audience so that we can create productions that challenge spectators to dance along the edge of their skills.So in actuality, having a theatre in a place that is small enough for you to get to know your audience, far from encouraging mainstream safety, may allow for even broader experimentation than a theatre drawing its audience from the faceless mass of potential theatre goers.
(Another side discussion might be whether there aren't, in fact, many, many theatre people who would be quite happy doing West Side Story and Greater Tuna or other pure entertainment on a regular basis, or the classics done in a traditional fashion, and for whom the murky world of the avant-garde holds little charm. In fact, I would say that the regional theatre movement itself is built on such values, at least to some extent. Are we going to define the success of a business model according to whether it makes the world safe for the avant-garde?)The root of Don's concerns are probably expressed here:
I'm not saying that the goal of convincing folks to "Go West, Young Man" is not both feasible and noble in intent. I'm saying that the rosey picture you paint of the vast opportunity to work frequently is shaded with a number of limitations you aren't acknowledging.Apparently, Don is concerned that I might be leading theatre artists down the primrose path, and he is here to balance my "follow the yellow brick road" with the fact that there are "lions and tigers as bears" along the road. I have never said that the creation of a theatre in a small town is going to be easy. In fact, it will be difficult. But doing theatre is Nylachi is difficult as well; it has been ever thus. What I am saying is that it will be difficult in different ways than it is difficult in Nylachi, and that those challenges might be worth exploring. Not for dyed-in-the-wool Nylachi-ites like Don, but for others whose personal pathways don't lead them to the metropolis.
But the idea that the audience in small town America is uninterested in anything but low-end mainstream fare simply doesn't hold water.