Monday, March 09, 2009

Thoughts on SETC and Birmingham

I arrived home from SETC in Birmingham Saturday night at 11:30, then promptly lost another hour in the time change, so it is not until today that I've had an opportunity to write about Tom Loughlin's and my big adventure in Birmingham. While I was there, the laptop I had borrowed from the library crashed due to what Tom called some "damaged sectors," leaving me unable to blog my thoughts when they were fresh. In the meantime, Tom has provided some excellent posts entitled "Drinking the Theatrical KoolAid" and "Conference Workshops? Not!"

Let me begin with a personal note: I had a blast hanging out with Tom, and within about 5 minutes it was as if we had known each other all our lives. However, he was not at all what I expected at all. When I looked at the picture he included on his blog, especially the one in the banner where he is in Shakespeare garb, I expected a slow baritone. Instead, what I encountered was a snappy tenor with an easy laugh, incredible energy (we walked all over downtown Birmingham), and a quick wit. Not only was he a pleasure to be around, but he had a GPS which, for someone as geographically-challenged as I am, cemented our friendship instantly.

Tom alludes in "Conference Workshops? Not!" to an improv workshop he attended that went awry. I had gone to another session about writing for "Southern Theatre" magazine, and afterwards when I arrived at our designated meeting place I found Tom with his head sunk in his hands, a picture of despair. That workshop, following the keynote by Beth Leavel ominously entitled "Beth Leavel: From SETC Auditions to a Tony Award," had sent him over the edge, and he had taken up residence in the Pit of Despond. It took some excellent Thai food in the Five Points District to revive him.

Tom has already written about the atmosphere at SETC, which he has called theatrical KoolAid, but which I see as more akin to crack with Beth Leavel as the primary pusher. As Tom noted, she had the assembled college and high school students eating from her hand -- she was quite impressive. The crack she peddled was pontent: she had only had to work two weeks in her entire career at anything outside the theatre. I could see young girls texting their parents with this fact, proof that their choice of a major in theatre wasn't foolhardy in the least.

When during the Q & A session, she was asked a question that had a preamble something like "In college, we're often encouraged to go to Chicago or New York after graduation..." she cut the young man off with "Really? Chicago? I mean, I don't know much about Chicago, except there are some important rep theatres there. I suppose you can make a living there. All I know is that if I want to work in Chicago, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in Seattle, which is a great theatre town, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in my home town of Raleigh, I have to be in New York." I started to think she was working on commission for the NYC Tourist Bureau. It was like a drumbeat. And these kids were eating this up, getting that imaginative high that eventually leads to the kind of addiction characterized by narrowed vision and lowered standards.

Not surprisingly, nobody ever asked, and clearly Beth Leavel never considered, the utter insanity of such an arrangement. Nope, it was all about New York, and Beth had made the leap from SETC to Broadway, and you can too. You just have to want it badly enough. Because we are so lucky to do what we do. Why, she burbled, I've never worked a day in my life, and I mean that. Had Tom and I set up a theatrical cliche drinking game, they would have found us passed out in our seats with barf covering our shoes.

As I walked to another session following the keynote, I heard a group of young girls working themselves into a frenzy about how WONderful Beth Leavel was, how she sang all of "Stumble Along" acapella, and how she was so FUNny and SO nice... I wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them, but my frustration seemed misplaced. I really wanted to have a word with the head of SETC to ask her what the hell she was thinking! It seemed so appallingly irresponsible. To look at all these young, hopeful people with numbers pinned to their chests, I kept thinking of Biff Loman's pathetic plea at the end of Death of a Salesman: "Will you let me go, for Christ's sake? Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?" I knew that many, many of these kids were very talented, and that for most of them those talents will go unused and unappreciated in the theatrical Oz to which Ms Leavel had pointed them. And they will limp home thereafter and, like Mr Tanner in Harry Chapin's heart-breaking ballad of the same name, they'll never sing again, or dance again, or act again.

It isn't that no young artists should think about NYC (as if that were possible), but rather the fact that Ms. Leavel and the SETC organizers are so fixated on that place as the one and only worthy destination that all other alternatives are ignored entirely. From an early age, young theatre geeks are fed a steady diet of Broadway musicals, Tony(tm) Award broadcasts, and musical cast albums so that they emerge with brains addled and critical thinking abilities impaired to such an extent that 4-1/2 years in 42nd Street sounds like heaven rather than the hellish nightmare it truly is. To understand how creatively numbing such a thing is, imagine Picasso painting Guernica for that amount of time -- you can't; it is unimaginable in any other art form, doing the same thing over and over again eight times a week. I shudder just thinking about it.

Ms Leavel's presentation was filled with instrumental thinking. She clearly feels a great deal of ambivalence about television (she had just finished shooting a couple segments of ER), and yet she was tempted by the thought of her own sit com, not because she wants to do TV, but because it makes getting roles in Broadwayu musicals so much easier. Doesn't anybody acre about the work itself? These kids were being taught not that theatre is an end in itself, a way of sharing truth and beauty with an an assembled group of people wishing to have an experience together, but rather that each "job" is a rung on the ladder toward "success" as symbolized by a Tony (tm) Award on the mantle. It is a destructive message, a corruption of young talent as heinous as physical abuse.

Tom and my session, "What Are We DOING? Reimagining the Theatre Major" had tried to counter that deceptive and destructive message by facing the brutal facts: 86% Actor's Equity unemployment, a median income in AEA of zero (55% of AEA members didn't work at all in the year being reported, which makes the median income zero), and any number of other facts that paint the ridiculous picture that is the contemporary theatre scene. We urged teachers to " take that phony dream and burn it before something happens" and replace it with something important, something rooted, something that would enrich our towns and cities and states. We urged theatre teachers (and had we not presented before she did, Beth Leavel) to get out of the export business, in which our purpose is to ship off "goods" to New York City.

Ultimately, Tom and I couldn't take it for more than a day. We had to escape to the relative sanity of the Civil Rights Movement's fight against segregation and brutalization, another cause that seemed foolhardy at the time and that decades later sees an African-American president in the White House. Perhaos some day we will come to our senses and recognize how much of theatre's power we are giving away, or worse destroying, in this wrong-headed NYC-centric insanity. Until then, we will continue to send wave after wave of young, talented people, like doughboys going over the top of the trenches to certain death in World War I, to NYC. It is such a wasteful exercise, such a shameful waste of talent. In a world that would benefit from more imaginative empathy, how can we continue to justify this?


Lindsay Price said...

Holy smokes. I just read Tom's post as well and it sounds like quite the kool-aid.

If I was an actor, I'd choose Chicago over New York in a heartbeat. As a playwright I'd doubly choose Chicago over New York.

Scott Walters said...

I'd prefer they chose neither, but rather created art for their home town!

RLewis said...

It's probably unfair to blame Beth. The SETC organizers are another story though.

I remember Beth from Raleigh and UNC-G, and whereever she went folks knew she was gonna be a star one day. Some folks, maybe most, can just tell who's got talent. She did and does. Just a sign to young students: if others don't know you've got it before you hit college, it's probably best to consider a business degree.

I think what is important to remember is that Beth came to nyc prior to 1980 - that's almost 30 years ago. So, it seems the question is, "how has getting a career in the theater changed since you started out?"

Now, I doubt she'd even know the anwser, but certainly the students at SETC would have been much better served by someone who does. Those in charge should have known better.