A large group of explorers are cutting their way through a jungle, hacking through the underbrush with their machetes, working with superhuman strength to clear a path to their goal. One of their members breaks away from the group and climbs to the top of a tree in order to get a sense of the landscape. Looking around, he realizes that the group has slowly lost their direction and are heading at a 90 degree angle from where they want to go. "Hey! HEY!" he calls out. "What?" come a voice from below. "We're going in the wrong direction! Wrong direction!" he shouts. The voice from below shouts back: "Be quiet! We're making progress!"
I thought of this story this weekend when I read the editorial by Teresa Eyring in the latest issue of American Theatre Magazine, and an article by Patrick McGeehan in Saturday's New York Times entitled "The Odds Are As Big As Their Dreams." The former is the voice from below, shouting to Mike Daisey and those who agree with him (like me) to "Be quiet! We're making progress!" The latter is a report from the underbrush, one that dramatizes the New York myth in action. I'd like to look a little more closely at the McGeehan article.
It is hard to deny that there is something sort of heroic about this group of theatre people fervently trying to mount an Off-Off-Broadway production of John Osborne's Epitaph for George Dillon, and hoping for a transfer. They are following their dreams, and that is always an admirable endeavor. Their sacrifices reflect determination and pluck: Actor Michael Rodgers, a recent arrival in NYC from California, "is now looking for his third temporary home in three months, having exhausted what he called “the deal of the century” — $100 for two weeks in the East Side apartment of a friend of a friend of a friend." Other members of the cast are in similar situations: "Christian Martin sold his car and his television to finance his move from Los Angeles to a friend’s couch in the East Village. Denise Crosby left her husband and 9-year-old son in Pacific Palisades and talked her way into a temporary apartment in Harlem. Anna Garduño, the lead actress, has been sleeping on a fold-out couch in the Greenwich Village home office of some friends." She raised money for the production from friends. Rodgers is "almost 40," Martin is 32, the director Larry Moss is 60. The actors received $20 for their work, The SM and the ASM got $100 and an $81 Metro card, and the director got nothing, but his devotion to the play is inspiring: "I’m getting nothing. But I’m getting everything. I’m getting to do the play.” McGeehan goes on: "Ms. Crosby and John Cirigliano, another cast member who lives in Southern California, said they had gladly dipped into their savings to finance their appearances in the showcase. “I can say now that I’ve done theater in New York, which gives you some credibility,” said Ms. Crosby...
Credibility. "The quality, capability, or power to elicit belief:"
I just don't get it. The absurdity of this notion would be laughable if it weren't so commonly held. This play is being self-produced and self-financed by a bunch of mostly California actors, but the mere fact that it is being performed in a 100- zip code gives it "credibility"? Where in the world does this idea come from, and how is it maintained? How would it be different if, instead of leaving her family behind, Denise Crosby and the rest of them had stayed in California, had not sold all of their belongings, and produced the show there? Same cast, same director, same play, probably a smaller budget, probably a larger audience, but everything...exactly...the same...except *poof* no credibility. Why? Why is this production, one of approximately 1700 such productions Off-Off-Broadway each year according to the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation study, being featured by the New York Times except to tacitly reinforce the myth of New York City as the "nation's theater capital," the city at the end of the theatrical rainbow where one finds not a pot of gold, but a pot of "credibility." To use a baseball analogy, they all look like line drives in the newspaper, and as long as that newspaper is the New York Times you are granted immediate and automatic...credibility.
The destructiveness of this myth is akin to the one that says that smoking makes you look cool. It is the crack being peddled on every theatre corner in the nation, and the resulting addiction is so total that those addicted can no longer even sense the absurdity of what they are saying: “I can say now that I’ve done theater in New York," because I and my friends uprooted ourselves and bought a production for $20,000, and that "gives you some credibility."
And let's not even go into the likelihood of a play being picked up and transferred to a larger venue where "we can get paid," except to say this is the same kind of thinking that leads people to play the Lotto. All of this is a pipe dream that makes O'Neill's drunks look like cold-eyed realists. But Mike Daisey is wrong, I am wrong, every person who sees the destructiveness of this NYC shell game is wrong, because NYC is "where the work is," right? It is the "theatre capital" of America.
In the climactic moment of Death of a Salesman, Biff begs Willie, ""Will you let me go, for Christ's sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?" It's too late for this group of theatre artists and so many others, but it might not be too late for the young. For Christ's sake, NYC, will you let these young people go before something happens?
"Be quiet! We're making progress!"
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