I was a little puzzled by Leonard Jacobs' rejoinder ("From the Blogroll XI," scroll to the bottom) to my previous post "The Wal-Marting of American Theatre" (see below). Jacobs takes issue with the following line, which end my post: "And like the business leaders and legislators who promote Wal-Mart as an economic engine bringing jobs to depressed ares despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, theatre artists and educators who continue to promote this system are promoting a lie." Characterizing this sentence as a "sucker punch" and "facile anti-New York hogwash," he asserts that the "primacy...of Mew York theatre isn't a lie."
Jacobs is arguing against a point I wasn't making. Only a fool would assert that New York City isn't currently the dominant city of the American theatre, in the same way that Wal-Mart is the dominant retailer in America. What I am saying is that neither situation is good for American communities. More specifically, I am arguing that Wal-Mart and its theatrical equivalent leads to the homogenization of offerings, the weakening of the local economy, and a net decrease in local jobs.
Nor am I particularly interested in blaming New York for its success at "branding itself as the nation's theater capital," in the same way that I do not blame Wal-Mart for its success in building an effective supply chain that has made it a retail behemoth. All of us, New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike, are responsible for maintaining the strength of this brand, which was the point I was trying to make about SETC, an organization theoretically devoted to the promotion of theatre in the southeast. And my belief is that it is time to resist the Wal-Mart model of theatre, in the same way that Wal-Mart itself is being resisted in communities across America.
I am a believer in a local economy: local food, local businesses, local idenity, and local entertainment. I think that a centralized, specialized, homogenized, globalized world makes our lives poorer and less interesting, and does untold damage to our natural, social, and cultural environment. Theatre by definition is a local art form, not a mass medium; a performance exists only in one place at one time.
Let me give a specific example of this homogenization in action, one that is reinforced by educators as well as so-called conventional wisdom. Beth Leavel, who was born in Raleigh NC and got her undergraduate degree at Meredith College in her home town and her graduate degree at UNC Greensboro, recounted what anyone who has ever been through an acting program will instantly recognize as a common practice: she was told that in order to work in NYC, she had to get rid of her NC accent. More than anything else I can think of, the way a person speaks reflects their background, the place where the were raised, their past and their people. To erase this in favor of a "neutral," so-called "standard American" accent that has the flavor of no place, no background, no history, no class is to erase a person's uniqueness in favor of generic blandness.
This saddens me. There are few things more beautiful, in my opinion, than a regional accent with its musicality, vowels, consonants and dipthongs, and special vocabulary. There are certain sentences that soar when said in the elongated sounds of the south (listen to the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr for an example of this), other sentences crackle when said in the staccato nasality of Chicago or Boston, and still others that resonate with the rounded vowels of the upper midwest. But we sacrifce all that richness in order to provide the neutrality necessary for a centralized system with no roots.
Stories, like speech, are enriched by a regional flavor that gives them the juice of life. This is reflected not only in the rhythms and vocabulary used, but in their very subject matter, moral values, ways of portraying emotion. When a story is put through the filter of a non-localized system, it is neutralizes as certainly as Beth Leavel's lost accent, and it becomes "standard American." It loses a sense of place, its specificity. In the late 1950s, the English theatre was reinvigorated by an influx of playwrights and actors who were no longer speaking in the heretofore enforced English of Oxbridge, but were instead claiming with pride their own regional sounds. American has yet to do so.
Returning to the sentence that Mr. Jacobs found problematic, the reason given for the necessity of this neutralization, as Ms. Leavel noted, is employment, which is the same reason that young theatre artists are encouraged to migrate to New York, and the same reason given for accepting the invasion of Wal-Mart into a community. New York, conventional wisdom says, is "where the jobs are." This is the lie of which I was speaking.
The fact is that at any particular moment in time, 86% of Actors Equity members are out of work. The fact is that 55% of AEA members do not work at all during the course of a year. The fact is that the median income for working AEA members is $7340, which isn't even rent in NYC. And the fact is that the true median income for all AEA members is zero. When college teachers cling to the idea that they are training young people for the profession, they fail to note that, in fact, there is no profession. What we are training them for is unemployment, for like Wal-Mart NYC provides only marginal employment at best.
So I am failing to see the advantage of this system, which leads to unemployment and homogenization, and I am failing to see why an organization such as SETC or the collective university professors of America would promote this system to young artists. It seems to me to be highly irresponsible, and to lead to the tragic waste of a great deal of creative talent that could be bringing joy to many, many people.
I am not saying that Beth Leavel should not have done exactly what she did -- as one of my commenters noted, it was clear while Leavel was in grad school that she was going to be a "star." There are some people for whom New York is a haven, a place of rich opportunity and great personal growth and inspiration. They should go there. But there are others for whom this is not the case, others who are just as talented but whose focus is on another place, or whose gifts are unique and unable to be neutralized without loss, or who wish to lead a life close to family or in a place other than a metropolis. Those people ought to take another path, so that their talents are not lost.
Theatre professors and orgainzations like SETC need to balance out the dominant myth of NYC, giving equal time to alternative career paths. For instance, in addition to Beth Leavel, SETC might invite a keynote from one of the actors at Commonweal Theatre Company in Lanesboro MN (pop 788), or Dudley Cocke the fiery and brilliant leader of Roadside Theatre in Whiteburg KY.
There is another way that theatre can be done, has been done in the past, and is being done in the present, and it is time that that way be acknowledged and given its due. We cannot continue to turn so many young people into theatrical cannon fodder. We must start behaving responsibly before we lose our most precious gifts: our young talent.