Friday, May 02, 2008

The Devilvet Prompts Some Reflection

Over at Never Trust Your Pet to the Devilvet, devilvet (aka Bob Fisher), in a post entitled "Lights rise on a dark room, a man clears his throat and says...," writes about the recent discussions here and on Don Hall's blog. In an attempt to walk the line between being critical and saying something nice (because if he says something nice, you KNOW Don Hall is going to give him a verbal wedgy):
And to Scott's credit, he absorbs the criticisms, then uses them, then diligently tries to answer them, and he doesn't give up even when the argument isn't converting the most vocal monkeys on his back. He risks alot, and withstands alot. I often ask myself if this were say a Mammals production we were talking about rather than Mr. Walter's attempt at a new production paradigm, would I be able to sustain such rigorous deconstruction in so public a forum and for such an extended period of time. It is a tough road.
So I thought I'd talk about that "tough road" for a few minutes.

Sure, my ideas get hammered a lot, and sometimes I get hammered personally as part of the process. Part of the game. Sometimes I find myself feeling angry at being misrepresented or dismissed, but over the past couple of years I have tried more and more to maintain a sense of humor and objectivity rather than just shouting "Oh, Yeah! Well, you suck too! Take THAT, you loooo-zer!" Although truth be told, I still fall into that more often than I'd like.

But Bob's musings about being able to put up with public attacks about his own productions got me thinking. Back in late October 2006 (!!!), in the midst of a discussion about blog ethics (when we talk on our blogs about productions done by people we know, should we say anything critical about it? Resounding answer around the theatrosphere: No), Isaac posted this at Parabasis in a post entitled "(Un)critical response: My Policy": "And Scott, to answer your question... ideas are a dime a dozen. Criticizing someone's ideas is like criticizing someone's socks-- they can always go out and get some new ones (or defend their choice off socks, I suppose). Ideas aren't really work the same way that artistic creation is, which is the space where you have to take those ideas and make something out of them. That for me is why arguing against someone's ideas is totally different from publicly discussing what you didn't like about their show."

At the time, I was shocked and I kinda went, "huh!" I still do, actually. Because for me, ideas are a form of creativity just as difficult and just as self-revelatory and personal as creating a piece of art. And I've done both. Just like writing a new play, original ideas seem to come out of the ether and like plays they also sometimes take on a life of their own. Looking at the world and trying to create a new approach to something means putting together pieces of reality in new ways, placing conflicts into new contexts, looking at issues from upside down and inside out.

There seems to be a tendency to think of ideas as somehow emotionally detached from their creators, like socks as Isaac says that can be thrown away and new ones acquired. I can tell you that this is not the case. Ideas are as much the thinker's baby as a production is the artist's baby, and having people smacking that baby around is just as painful in both cases.

I am always surprised at how little artists seem to grasp this, or at least how little credence they give to it. This sharp double standard seems odd to me. When I read biographies of playwrights like, say, Eugene O'Neill I see how important the ideas of philosophy were to him, and his plays become ways that he converts those ideas into imaginative form in a process that parallels that which the original philosopher went through in order to create those ideas. It isn't a cold, analytic, painless process. "Writing is easy," Gene Fowler once said, "all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead." Those drops of blood form on thinker's foreheads as often as an artist's.

So I am always sort of shocked when artists blithely dismiss intellectual work with a wave of the hand. The blogosphere became inflamed when George Hunka had the temerity to write a review of a production after having walked out at intermission, explicitly stating that he had done so in his review, but when Jason Grote writes a review of the WolfBrown study of intrinsic impacts of the arts without having read the study, a summary of the study, or anything more than the conference description of the study, and I wrote a blog post questioning the ethics of that, the theatrosphere remains apathetically silent. To me, that represents a lack of understanding about just what is involved in the creation of new ideas. The WolfBrown study may or may not be valuable, but as the product of a great deal of time and effort by its authors, the value of which is represented by its being included in the program of a national conference that happens only once every four years and that is being attended by prominent artists and thinkers, it deserved to be treated with respect.

Often, my ideas are dismissed as "just theory" unless I can point to pre-existent examples of these ideas already in action. To me, this is like insisting that a playwright who has written a new play point at some other play that already tells his story before anyone will consider doing a production. Sometimes, you just need to take an imaginative leap. By definition, creativity means bringing something into existence that hasn't existed before, and I claim as much creative license for my ideas as an artist should claim for his or her work. If somebody was already putting this model into action, I'd write a book about them rather than trying to give birth to these ideas myself, which is much scarier and more painful.

But if the ideas haven't been tried yet, before anyone adopts them and commits their lifeblood to trying them out, they need to decide for themselves whether those ideas make sense as far as their view of reality is concerned. Do the pieces fit together logically? Do the assumptions have a level of probability? Are the problems being addressed actually problems? Do the solutions to those problems have some likelihood of effectively addressing them? An idea, if it is effectively presented, should touch both your head and your heart simultaneously.

Anyway, I have benefited greatly from most of my discussion on this blog. It takes effort, and it is not without pain, but as a result my socks are much better than they'd have been otherwise.

Seasonal Theatre

Robert Butler at Ashdenizen, another excellent blog devoted to ecologically sustainable theatre (see also Mike Lawler's edoTheatre) has an interesting post entitled "A Little Seasoning," in which he suggests different performance venues according to the season. Give it a read!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Appalshop as a Model of Community Partnership

Don Hall continues to ridicule the idea of respect and dialogue between a community and its artists, representing it "the blissful world in which the audience informs the artist what is relevant to them." Apparently, the idea that the audience might be seen as a partner rather than a customer is hard for him to swallow. Along with Nicholas Hytner, Don takes a courageous stand in defense of Shakespeare and Mozart against the onslaught of the masses, not unlike Ortega Y Gasset did in The Revolt of the Masses. He quotes Hytner: "Are we going to make over Mozart by making it sound as if it has a dance beat? No we are not! Are we going to translate Shakespeare more than we do already. No we are not!...We have to insist that for the arts to be as revelatory and transformative as they can be, they often have to be quite demanding." Ahem. Why not go the whole hog: "Are we gonna let them rape our women and steal our cattle?"

A commenter, Brian the Director, weary of the ongoing battle, asks "
can we talk a little less in abstract terms and a little more in concrete scenarios?" I offer up for your consideration the example of Appalshop, a "non-profit multi-disciplinary arts and education center in the heart of Appalachia producing original films, video, theater, music and spoken-word recordings, radio, photography, multimedia, and books. Appalshop's education and training programs support communities' efforts to solve their own problems in a just and equitable way. Each year, Appalshop productions and services reach several million people nationally and internationally." Visit their website at http://appalshop.org.

There you will find an organization that has committed to the community of Whitesburg KY and the surrounding environs. Whitesburg, a coal mining community that has fallen on hard times, has a population of about 1200 people. Over the years, through the combination of a commitment to a community and a strong mission, Appalshop has grown a substantial endowment that provides considerable income for the organization. It has committed not only to the developing the vision of the individual artists, but to contributing to the community by providing substantive resources and opportunities for high school students to make radio and film documentaries and other projects. Some of those young people go on to join Appalshop as contributing artists, and most of the people involved are drawn from the communities they serve. They build bridges between Appalachian culture and urban culture, especially after several super-max prisons were built outside of town and they realized that the largely black, urban population imported from places like Connecticut were able to receive the signal from their radio station. They responded by creating radio broadcasts just for that population, one that at first caused anger among the Whiteburg population, and soon led to greater understanding and sympathy for the inmates. You can read about this at http://thousandkites.org.

This is a very specific example of how there might be circulation between town and artist. Appalshop is not always looked at kindly by some of the town's citizens -- sometimes they don't like what they say or do -- but they support them nonetheless, and the artists value their interaction. The artists sometimes provoke them, and sometimes they tell their stories, and sometimes they celebrate with them (for instance, the Cumberland Festival).

You can read more about Appalshop here and here.

Check Out "Theatre Is Territory" Guest Post

Over at "Theatre Is Territory," Ian complimented me by asking for another guest post. Since there was much discussion about...well, about discussion, and whether we should use our real names, and whether we should be fearful for our careers when reacting to productions and ideas, I decided to talk about the recent exchange of ideas here and on Don Hall's Angry White Guy in Chicago blog. I called the post "The Importance of Being Burnished." I know -- almost clever. Almost.

Anyway, there are a lot of you who have been following the discussion here -- nearly 600 of you yesterday. That is the largest number of hits I have on this site ever. Ever. Now, perhaps it is the "playground fight" effect, where everybody gathers around when a couple kids start slugging each other. But I don't think so. I think the visits soar when people are expressing their passions together.

Don, dv, and I tend to express our ideas noisily, and some people get freaked out about that. They think we're really bashing each other. We're not -- it is like a couple of dogs growling and nipping and fighting together. The dogs are just practicing, and honing their skills. Same with the discussions. As dv noted yesterday, as a result of the battles, we all usually come up with some new idea or new way of expressing it that is better.

Sure, sometimes the battle goes on a little longer than it ought to, and then people get impatient. Sort of like the playground fights where the two battlers shove each other on the shoulder and yell "Come on! You want some of this?!" over and over again, and eventually the crowd gets bored and moves on.

But the value is in caring. There are many ways to share a passion -- it doesn't have to be all noisy and chest-thumping. You can express your ideas with a quiet passion as well, and as effectively. Laura Axelrod as Gasp! does that beautifully, for instance. But ultimately, you've got to put it out there, you've got to share. That's community, that's friendship, that's sharing an art form.

Here's my concern, though. Well, concern -- my wish, perhaps would be a better word. We are all so good at commenting with "No," or "Yes," or "Yes, but" (which seems to be a special favorite), but I rarely see "Yes and." As I post my ideas about theatre tribes, I get many comments that seek to knock down some idea, or seek to applaud it. But what I wish for is someone who wants to extend it. Someone who wants to build on an idea, strengthen it by adding a support beam, illsutrate it by providing a personal story or some other example. Those are the comments that I appreciate most.

But I don't mind the others. Would I prefer that everybody bowed low to my ideas and hailed me as the New Messiah of Theatre? Well, I wouldn't mind trying that out for a day or two... But actually, without the friction, without the burnishing, my ideas would be weaker and more flaccid.

I've mentioned I am writing a book about the theatre tribe idea, and I know that book is stronger because of the demand that I regularly defend my ideas.

So, Don, dv, and any of the rest of you: "Come on! You wanna a piece a this? Bring it!"

Words of Wisdom -- Not Mine!

Sun says, "Be your own illumination." Wren says, "Sing your heart out, all day long." Garden says, "Be unafraid of winter. This fallow time leads naturally to spring." Sream says, "Do not stop for any obstacle." Oak says, "When the wind blows, bend easily, and trust your roots to hold." Stars say, "What you see is one small slice of a single modest galaxy." Remember that the vastness cannot be grasped by mind. Ant says, "Small does not mean powerless." Silence says nothing. In the quiet, everything comes clear. I say, "Limitless." I say, "Yes."

--- Danna Faulds




"What you do for yourself -- any gesture of kindness, any gesture of gentleness, any gesture of honesty and clear seeing toward yourself -- will affect how you experience your world. In fact, it will transform how you experience the world. What you do for yourself, you're doing for others, and what you do for others, you're doing for yourself."
--- Pema Chodron


I Laughed and Laughed!

Today is my 50th birthday, and this, on the New Optimist blog, is the funniest gift I have received in my life! Thanks Simon! I'll definitely order me some!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Intelligent Reasons to Believe (Another Response to Don Hall)

As Ronald Reagan used to say in his debates with Jimmy Carter: "Now, there you go again." Don Hall has posted "More Nylachi(dc)," in which he asserts that I am reinventing the wheel of community theatre. He lays out the characteristics of a decentralized theatre tribe pretty well (if incompletely, which is OK), but then makes one goof when he writes, "With the sole exception being the last requirement, it occurs to me that this model already exists. It's called COMMUNITY THEATER..." And what's that sole exception? "The Decentralized Theatre Company adopts an all inclusive business model that resembles the collective model and provides a decent standard of living for all involved."

Brace yourselves, folks: he's right. Without that last piece, a theatre tribe and a community theatre do resemble each other. But that last piece -- well, that's kind of a major exception, isn't it? I mean, isn't that sort of like saying to Marx that the model for communism already exists in capitalism except for that whole private ownership thing? The whole point of this research is an attempt to provide a decent standard of living for all involved while doing theatre outside of Nylachi.

But let's put that aside for a moment.

Don then goes on to talk about his experiences as "Music Director for a Southside Community Theatre," a job he left when he "realized that the production of Cy Coleman's City of Angels and Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance (both were shows that I fought aggressively to get on the program) had garnered more complaints of both elitism (some folks couldn't fathom us doing opera) and offense (the language and situations in City of Angels was just too raw and bawdy) and lost the theater more money than any two productions in the organization's twenty year history. When, in reaction to those two shows, the risky production was scheduled to be Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up I was gone, gone, gone." He concludes:
The choices made before I got there were extremely conservative and my experiments in pushing the artistic envelope were met with nothing less than hostility from the community. The audience was more interested in entertainment that was both nostalgic and, like their Southside churches, avoided challenging their own choices very directly and told them in no uncertain terms that they were just fine. That not being the world that I see, I found the choices of producing yet another production of Anything Goes or Singing in the Rain to be nothing less than pedestrian and self-congratulatory.
I'd like to examine this from several different perspectives. First, the reason that Don offers up this story is to illustrate one of his main arguments about the theatre tribe model, which he sees as a community theatre model in a thin disguise: "the promise that by moving and setting up shop [in a smaller city] 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." To put it into an equation, what Don is asserting is: community theatre = commercial fare.

What is meant by community theatre? I don't think it would be too controversial to offer this definition: theatre that is created by people who volunteer their time and who make their living doing other things. Fair enough? By that definition, though, Don does community theatre. He makes his living working for public radio, and he does plays without being paid a living wage. And this would be the case for Bob's recent production of Clay Continent, too, and pretty much every independent theatre production that happens in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. And that model -- doing theatre and working a day job, i.e., the definition of community theatre -- has been fiercely defended by Don and Bob as allowing artists creative independence and artistic integrity. I suspect neither Don nor Bob are in the midst of planning their next production of Greater Tuna. So what gives? How come Don and Bob, working in Chicago within the community theatre paradigm, can do DADA Soiree and Clay Continent, whereas South Side Community Theatre working within the same paradigm are destined to do Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? Why aren't Don and Bob fated for Barefoot in the Park anytime soon?

The answer is that having a day job and not being paid a living wage for your theatre work (i.e., community theatre) has nothing to do with repertoire. There are community theatres that do commercial work, and community theatre that do alternative work. It depends on the artists's vision.

But doesn't South Side Community Theatre's rejection of Don's "experiments in pushing the artistic envelope" indicate that community theatre is intrinsically conservative? No, and the reason why lies in Don's own narrative: Don's two productions "cost the theater more money than any two productions in the organization's twenty year history." For twenty years, South Side Community Theatre had built an audience that valued what it had to offer. They had developed a brand, and a customer base that was committed to that brand. Similarly, Don's WNEP is a brand Don has developed over his years of running that organization, and he has developed a customer base that is committed to that brand. If Don hired a young director who came in and "fought aggressively" to get Greater Tuna on the WNEP program, I suspect that Don's committed audience would react with with as many complaints as did the South Side Community Theatre audience.

Theatres benefit from a committed audience, and an audience becomes committed to a theatre because they value what that theatre has to offer them. If your artistic values lean toward the experimental, you will develop a following of people whose values also lean toward the experimental, and that audience will not appreciate it if you "throw them a couple bones" of commercial fare. You might find your audience grows when you produce that commercial fare, but I doubt very much that it will be the same audience that follows your experimental work. And in fact, while short term you may benefit from an influx of money at the box office, in the long run your base audience's commitment will be weakened by your venture into the world of commercial fare. You would have been better off sticking with what you do and focusing on growing that audience.

This is why I argue that an ongoing relationship between artist and audience is so crucial to the success of a theatre tribe (or any theatre, for that matter): you need to develop and audience that is committed to what you offer. Don's attempts to push the envelope for the South Side Community Theatre resembles the Christian missionaries who invaded native communities and tried to persuade them to abandon their own gods in favor of the "real" god. Don said, in essence, "I know what's best, and you need a good dose of raw language and bawdy situations." And the committed audience looked at him and said, "Actually, no we don't." And his choice, as a latecomer to the scene, was to either get with the program or get out. He got out -- probably a good thing. But because of his missionary zeal, he took the wrong message from that experience. What he should have learned is that you don't change long-standing organizations in one fell swoop, but you do it over time and through the relationship; outsiders do not change cultures easily or quickly. If you want easy and quick, you start your own organization and develop your own audience. That's may takeaway.

Don then goes on to chase a red herring: that my rejection of Nylachi and promotion of the theatre tribe is based in a desire for more government funding for non-Nylachi theatres. Nope. The theatre tribe model is being designed to rely as little as possible on donations and grants. How is that possible when ticket income accounts for 35% - 65% of a non-profit theatre's budget? Well, that's the challenge, isn't it? But the short answer is there is two ways to lower the percentage of a budget being provided by grants and donations: reduce the budget or increase the earned income. The theatre tribe model will explore each.

Don then chases a second red herring: that my development of the theatre tribe model is about what kind of theatre is going to be done. It's all about banishing experimental theatre. Again, wrong. He is mixing my own aesthetic preferences in with the model itself. The theatre tribe is an empty box to be filled by specific, individual artists. I have no opinion at all about what kind of theatre an individual tribe produces. Whether it is DADA Soiree or The Music Man makes absolutely no difference to me. It is entirely between the artists and their audience as they engage in a continuing conversation. A conversation involves give and take, open-minded listening and sharing; it isn't a monologue. Because a theatre tribe cannot successfully dictate to a community and force them to buy tickets, they can do one of two things: consistently offer a certain type of theatre and wait for an audience to develop who wants that type of theatre, or engage in conversation and open-minded listening and talking. Both approaches can be successful, and both require time.

In conclusion, I must confess to bafflement at this continuing attempt to figure out what my development of the theatre tribe model is "really about." It is simple, really, and I don't hink I have been hiding anything. The goals are:
  • To spread theatre to non-metropolitan areas.
  • To provide an alternative to the New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles theatre scenes.
  • To create a model that has the greatest possibility of providing a livable income for those who participate.
  • To create a model that is ecologically sustainable.
It's right there on the surface. Those are challenging goals, and I have never contended that the model will be easy or foolproof. But those are the goals. I don't happen to think that the current business model gives anyone a good chance of fulfilling those goals, and so I am trying to imagine something new.

In the book Worldchanging: A User's Guide to the 21st Century, editor Alex Steffen writes: "When no one believes in a better future, despair is a logical choice -- and people in despair almost never change anything. When no one believes there might be a better solution, those who benefit from the status quo are safe. When no one believes in the possibility of action, apathy becomes an insurmountable obstacle to reform. But when people have some intelligent reasons to believe that a better solution can be built, that better solutions are available, and that action is possible, their power to act out their highest principles is unleashed. Shared belief in a better future is the strongest glue there is."

I am trying to provide "intelligent reasons to believe."

Monday, April 28, 2008

On Small Town Audiences (A Reply to Don Hall)

Over the weekend, Don Hall responded to my post entitle "Lot Full," which was a response to his post "Why Nylachi (dc)." My initial reaction was to do what Jess did in reaction and write a post that said, in essence, "That is the kind of provincial bullshit that makes my blood boil." But because it was Don, whose thoughts I often admire, I decided to step away from the keyboard and think about what was behind his comments.
(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.

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.
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.

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.
The former idea is an old one, based less in contemporary reality than in history. Up until the 1930s or so, to live in rural America meant a high degree of isolation. Access to information and ideas from around the world was restricted, and so small towns tended to be self-contained. This led to the reputation for provincialism. However, today we live in a world where no matter where you live you have access 24/7 to the same television shows, the same films, the same books, the same newspapers, the same NPR programs, the same internet information as anyone in Nylachi. But old ideas die hard, and when newspaper reporters are forced by a national presidential campaign to venture outside the Beltway or away from the metropolitan areas, they do their best to seek out images that will reinforce their preconceptions. But those preconceptions are old fashioned and uninformed. What they are actually reporting is not about geography, but rather about class. As the economic policies of the US have increasingly emphasized cities and de-emphasized small town America, as the mainstream media have repeated and repeated the idea that big city life is exciting and the place for smart people, and small town life is boring and for the backward, the nation's young have fled small town America for the cities. This is the source of what has been called the rural "brain drain." Who is left behind are the poor and under-educated, and those are the people that the reporters seek out as representative of small town America. But here's an interesting trend: older college educated workers have been returning to small town America in droves, either for retirement or to raise families (exchanging a long commute for a lower cost of living and better schools) or to pursue high-tech businesses that need only a high-speed internet connection to be successful. Also, environmentally-conscious people have also begun moving back to the country in search of a healthier, more natural, and more self-sufficient lifestyle. All of this means that the options for theatre people are not as constrained as Don would imply.
(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.