Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Wal-Marting of American Theatre (Part 2)

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.

13 comments:

Christopher Ashworth said...

Amen. A thousand times amen.

Andy said...

There's an inherent problem with comparing Wal*Mart's business model to the state of US theater (or anywhere else for that matter.)
No matter what happens on Broadway, they are not setting up shop in any other town. Wal*Mart's business model is predicated on driving out all local competition by enormously undercutting prices due to their scale. Certainly Broadway is not undercutting anyone's prices, nor are they moving into every town with a "competing" theater company. For the "Wal*Martization" of theater to be accurate, Broadway tours would have to sit down in every town long enough to drive all the other local theaters out of business. As far as the aspect of living in NYC in order to work elsewhere, that's only true for the leads. Local theater companies will still hire supporting actors, crew, ushers, box office, business,creative and administrative staff locally.

There is indeed an increasing problem in sustaining local theater companies, but I don't think you can lay that at Broadway's feet. There are many factors involved, not the least of which is the increased competition for entertainment hours provided by the internet or almost universal access to 500+ television stations. There's also the unfortunate trend to cutting arts education in both public and private schools, thereby sending the message that the arts are neither important enough to attend or fund in any reasonable way.

There tremendous cost of producing live theater has a stifling effect on originality as backers are more likely to put money into a brand name they recognize (hence the reworking of so many movies, comic books and 70s pop songs onto the Broadway stage) than take a substantial financial risk on a new project/product.

You see this trend happening everywhere - when I was a kid (60s - 70s) there were local television shows other than the news. Saturday afternoons were old movies presented by some local character in a silly costume and bad makeup, but it was a locally produced show. There were local farm reports, and a smattering of local entertainment broadcasts. None of that exists any more, not even in the largest of markets. even television has been "Wal*Martized".

Across the spectrum the trend is towards consolidation of products and services into conglomerates, national and international companies have gone from the oddity to the norm, in virtually every aspect of our economy. For good or bad, I don't see this reversing itself any time soon.

Scott Walters said...

Well, analogies are, of course, inexact. That said, while Broadway tours may not be sitting down in a town long enough to drive out a local theatre, if what Beth Leavel said is true (and I believe it is) young people are being told that if they wish to work they must go to NYC, even if they wish to work in their home town. Thus, actors and directors are drained out of the regions, and especially out of the smaller towns, which has the same effect as sitting down in a town to drive out a local theatre.

You are, of course, correct that this drive toward centralization is seen in the mass media as well -- I remember those TV shows, too. I would, however, beg to differ regarding whether this will reverse itself any time soon. I believe that ultimately this model is unsustainable throughout the economy. And I see the counter-movement happening is the upsurge in local produce, local identity, and local businesses. I sincerely believe that theatre, which is a local art form, ought to be part of that movement. And I believe it needs to be for the sake of the arts in general, because the more centralized the arts become, the more focused on themetropolitan areas, the more rural pushback will increase regarding public arts funding. For the sake of the established metropolitan theatres, it would behoove us to spread the arts throughout this country.

Andy said...

I tend to view this as the predictable (and predicted) consequences of our general choices towards immediate gratification (lower taxes) over the long term investment in our society and culture (actually supporting education, not just paying lip service). We have a general coarsening of society, a lessening of the importance of the arts, and sciences to be honest. The anti-intellectual drift may be easy, but it's foolish in the long run (I guess that's why it is anti-intellectual.)

FWIW - I started doing small regional theater, moved up to LORT, then regional opera, finally touring internationally with ballet & opera co.s before ending up on B'way. While certainly no expert, I have been management, labor and creative - though never performer.

I see the "lesson" of having to go to NYC in order to work in your own town as multi-fold.

1) Frankly - there is more work to be had in larger cities. If you want to hone your craft as an actor (singer, dancer), what better way than to get cast in a large number of varying roles?
2) Hand in hand with the above - many more opportunities for formal training - Obviously NYU, New School, NY Film Academy, Stella Adler Studio, and a host of Conservatories, acting classes, workshops - etc. (I found 14,400,000 hits in 0.41 seconds for the google search "Acting lessons NYC".)
3) There is certainly a cachet to being a New York (or Hollywood) actor that helps you get cast in regional theaters, for better or worse. Whether or not this is to the detriment of local theater companies, I have no idea. There are definitely some regional companies that offer training unsurpassed (Guthrie, Goodman, ACTF, etc.) not to mention the 100s of MFA programs all over.

One can certainly be self supporting in regional theater, but even then I submit you need to live in or near one of the larger cities, or have another job, and therein lies the rub. In my home town, for example, (current pop. 300,000) there are probably fewer than 40 people who can live on their theater earnings - the rest either have other jobs or understanding spouses/partners.

How much does this really drain local talent pools? Is this what is really hurting the local companies? I'm asking this genuinely, not rhetorically. In my days working regionally in WI, most of our company actors had gone elsewhere for training, and either returned to their home towns or settled into the smaller city living after experiencing NYC or LA. But that is only my very limited experience.

I agree with your conclusions that decentralization is better for the general health of the industry, and certainly society in general. I believe that the push towards local goods and services (and what are we other than a service industry?) will increase, but I suspect that will be due more to the increasing costs of transportation as the fossil fuel economy becomes more and more unsustainable.

Scott Walters said...

I think other business models are necessary for the arts to thrive in non-metropolitan areas, which is what my <100K Project is focused on creating. I think we have allowed ourselves to conceive of theatre in very narrow, and very expensive terms, but alternatives are possible. I also don't think that being a full-time artist is a good idea -- that there must be some interaction with the non-artistic working world. I prefer the models of Wendell Berry and Williams Carlos Williams. I think that artists need to be actively involved in their communities in a variety of ways -- thus my suspicion of specialization. This needs to be fully developed in a later post.

You're right, the fossil fuel economy, and the increasing awareness of environmental issues, will help to strengthen the focus on all things local, including the arts.

Your comments 1, 2, and 3 above are exactly the "conventional wisdom" that I am committed to fighting. I don't think they are quite as strong as most believe.

Andy said...

Certainly the current business model is not helping the creative future of theater. Even though Broadway has posted its 2nd $billion year in a row - what new pieces will become part of the classic repertoire? Unfortunately, the MBAs who are putting together productions these days are not as interested in the art as the profit potential.

There are several regional theater companies that have carved out their own niches, doing outstandingly good work way out in the boonies. Off the top of my head I can think of Stratford (Canada) Shakespeare Festival, American Players Theater, Oregon Shakespeare, Chautauqua Theater Co.
Although I think the ideal of being a part-time artist is admirable, perhaps even ideal, it's a very difficult status to achieve in a collaborative art form. If you're a painter, writer, sculptor, you can create your art in your non-work time. But as theater requires strictly scheduled participation, the other job must be very flexible for one to participate in the theatrical arts.

I'm in no way trying to shoot down your ideas, I think they're admirable. Perhaps an entirely new model is what theater needs. We certainly need a renaissance in theater, something to draw us away from this fixation in big budget "crap-taculars."
(though they have been very lucrative for me - my life in the established commercial theater is what allows my wife to live her life as a classical singer. The regular paychecks that I earn allow her to pick and choose her gigs carefully, and she keeps her artistic needs fulfilled.)

My guess is that even with a strong regional resurgence, there will still be a place for big B'way musicals - There's a reason why gigantic spectacular films do so well, even when they're poorly written, horribly acted and abusively over saturated with senseless violence - people like to sit back and be wowed - whether it's by the Death Star being blown up, a tire rising up to the Wintergarden's ceiling, or 50 long legged chorus girls doing unison kick lines.

This has been interesting - thanks for indulging my drivel.

Scott Walters said...

It has indeed been interesting. Thank you for engaging.

I entertain no illusions that a more community-based approach will unseat Broadway in any way. It is my hope, however, that it might provide an alternative for those who are so inclined.

Your list of theatres is admirable. I would add Appalshop in Whitesburg KY and Dell Arte in Blue Lake CA as additional examples of healthy organizations in small towns doing admirable work. There are many, many more.

The time constraint you note is an interesting issue. Historically speaking, it wasn't until the last 150 years that productions were rehearsed as an ensemble. Rather, actors behaved more like contemporary musicians, doing their primary rehearsal alone and gathering as a group only a few times before performance. While I'm not certain we need to revive that model completely, I wonder if there is a way to cut down on the number of hours that everyone spends in the same room at the same time. It is something to ponder...

Obviously, at this stage I don't have all the answers -- I'm in the early stages of developing this business model. Right now, I can say for sure that the current business model is leaving a lot of talented people outside and frustrated, and it is my hope that another path can be blazed. Right now, I'm just sharpening my blade...

Tony Adams said...

I wonder if walmart is the right analogy? Walmart's supply chain is so strong that they price all small businesses out of the market they've moved into. No one can offer prices as low.

That's clearly not the case with regional theatres. (low prices that is.)

Is there another model with a strong centralized supply chain that consistently charges the highest prices they can?

Scott Walters said...

I think you're focusing on the wrong part of the analogy, which was about the supply chain, not pricing.

Tony Adams said...

I don't know, I've been thinking about this more, but the pricing (and convenience)is what drives out local competition in retail.

Walmart has more shoppers because it is cheaper and easier for the shoppers. Yes, that is due to the supply chain.

In retail there are people who will pay a premium (to a certain level) for local products, and there is a growing market for them.

But with the LORT Theatres, they're mostly already charging lots of money for tickets. It's almost liek walmart's supply chain and sales model inverted. Would the big three automakers be a better analogy?

Just something I'm thinking about.

Scott Walters said...

Indeed, the pricing is what drives out local retail competition, and the pricing is lower because of the supply chain. But I don't see Broadway shows are driving out regional shows. Rather, I see New York as buying up local products (i.e., artists) and then exporting them to the rest of the country.

Let's think in terms of tomatoes. Tomato Town is known for its tomatoes, so Wal-Mart buys them all up for a low price but the volume makes up for it, and then ships those tomatoes throughout the country. There are no longer local tomatoes available in Tomato Town, because they have all been shipped to Bentonville. Further, Wal-Mart advertises how wonderful their tomatoes are, so that what few local tomatoes are left in Tomato Town are seen as inferior, the tomatoes that weren't good enough to be chosen by Wal-Mart.

Jonathan Jovel said...

Scott, you insightfully write, “Theatre by definition is a local art form, not a mass medium; a performance exists only in one place at one time.” I could not agree more. Actually, it would be impossible for me to disagree since the fact is ingrained in the basic definition of theatre. More importantly, I agree that this fact must be embraced. It was one of the key characteristics that truly sets the theatre apart as a unique art form. Quite simply, theatre is not film. A theatrical performance will never reach as many people as a cinematic one and thus, theatre actors should not try to be movie stars. They should strive to serve communities with this gift of localized art. Contrary to popular belief, New York City is definitely not the only community that needs or is worth serving.

Thus, the only way to reach more people with the power of theatre is to decentralize. But what is our first step? It seems to me that education would be a good place to start. As a soon to be graduating theatre student I can offer some insight from my personal experience that it has long since been ingrained in my mind that the only places to seriously pursue a career in the theatre are New York City and Chicago. It has recently dawned on me that this train of thought is not very fair to the thousands of other communities in our country. Perhaps if our theatrical education systems made a point to equally encourage alternate, nation-wide career paths in the theatre, then we can begin to reverse the this harmful trend of centralization, and, like you wrote, minimize the loss of young talent.

However, wherever the performance happens to take place, I believe what must be served first and foremost is the community of our humanity – that is, the universal human condition. It is a localized system in itself, and an equal “sense of place” that we should strive to represent – while of course respecting and honoring the natural and specific location of a particular production. In doing so, and in order to bring out the truths of a script, it may be necessary for an actor to transform him or herself by the dictates of the truthful excavation of the text – and if this is best done by switching to “neutral” or changing a particular accent then so be it. As you wrote, it is by no means necessary to erase an accent completely. After all, the wonder of regional dialects is an equal part of our humanity and it is thus profoundly beautiful.

Scott Walters said...

Indeed, you are right: we must start with the university theatre programs. That is why the <100K Project, recently funded by the NEA, has part of its focus on creating a curriculum more suited to a truly regional theatre located outside the major metropolitan areas. Tom Loughlin and I recently did a presentation about this at the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and I have been invited to do another at University of Florida. If that interests you, email me and I'll get you signed into the super-secret private website... ;-)