Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Wal-Marting of the American Theatre

[Note: Welcome to those of you referred here by and Leonard Jacobs' "The Clyde Fitch Report." I hope that you will explore the archives, where you will find many other posts conerning the need to decentralize the American theatre. In response of Leonard Jacobs' post, I have elaborated on the ideas contained in this one in "The Wal-Marting of American Theatre (Part 2)" above. Again, welcome.]

In Chapter 2 of The World Is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman's celebration of the global economy, he lists as "Flattener #7" what he calls "supply-chaining." He writes:
"I had never seen what a supply chain looked like in action until I visited Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. My Wal-Mart hosts took me over to the 1.2-million-square-foot distribution center, where we climbed up to a viewing perch and watched the show. On one side of the building, scores of white Wal-Mart trailer trucks were dropping off boxes of merchandise from thousands of different suppliers. Boxes large and small were fed up a conveyor belt at each loading dock. These little conveyor belts fed into a bigger conveyor belt, like streams feeding into a powerful river. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the suppliers trucks feed the twelve miles of conveyor streams, and the conveyor streams feed into a huge Wal-Mart river of boxed products. But that is just half the show. As the Wal-Mart river flows along, an electric eye reads the bar codes on each box on its way to the other side of the building. There, the river parts again into a hundred streams. Electric arms from each stream reach out and guide the boxes -- ordered by particular Wal-Mart stores -- off the main river and down its stream, where another conveyor belt sweeps them into a waiting Wal-Mart truck, which will rush these particular products onto the shelves of a particular Wal-Mart store somewhere in the country. There, a consumer will lift one of these products off the shelf, and the cashier will scan it in, and the moment that happens, a signal will be generated. That signal will go out across the Wal-Mart network to the supplier of that product -- whether that supplier's factory is in coastal China or coastal Maine. That signal will pop up on the supplier's computer screen and prompt him to make another of that item and ship it via the Wal-Mart supply chain, and the whole cycle will start anew." (151)

I was reminded of Friedman's chillingly gee-whiz paragraph when I was listening to Beth Leavel's keynote speech (or, as Tom Loughlin calls it, "performance") at the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) last Friday, specifically when she responded to a question about Chicago with the following corrective: "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."

It occurred to me, as I watched a sea of youthful heads register her implicit advice about what their career destination should be, that New York City is the Bentonville of the theatre world. As in Friedman's description above, theatre educators across America, from high school teachers to undergraduate departments to grad schools, represent the "thousands of different suppliers" who ship their "products" (i.e., their students) from all parts of the nation to New York where they feed the theatrical conveyor belt "like streams into a powerful river." The business of theatre educators is to export a "quality product" that will be accepted by New York headquarters. Once there, if the product is "lucky," it is plucked from the big conveyor belt and shipped to the specific theatre that needs that particular product, wherever those theatres are. Once that product is plucked and successfully consumed at its final destination, the call is communicated back to the student's originating theatre department to create another one like him or her, and as Friedman says "the whole cycle will start anew." Advertisements will appear in American Theatre Magazine crowing "our graduates work," with a picture of the successful product prominently displayed as proof. If we did it once, the ad implies, we can do it again.

The effect of the Wal-Mart supply chain on commerce is well-documented: local businesses are destroyed, money is taken out of the local economy to flow back to headquarters, wages are depressed, and unique cultural products are replaced by homogeneous national brands. Go to any Wal-Mart in America and you will find basically the same products displayed in the same way and at the same low price. The Wal-Marted theatre scene is no different.

Instead of local arts organizations run by and staffed by artists whose lives are made within a specific community and whose artistic vision is informed by that community, Wal-Mart Regional Theatre and Touring House imports generic artists from NYC to do generic plays for a short run after which they depart never to be seen again, taking the community's money with them. This is the system being celebrated by Beth Leavel and every theatre instructor who dazzles their young charges with visions of Tony(tm) Awards.

Wal-Mart isn't good for America, nor is Wal-Mart Theatre. And like the business leaders and legislators who promote Wal-Mart as an economic engine bringing jobs to depressed areas despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, theatre artists and educators who continue to promote this system are promoting a lie.

Seth Godin, in his latest book Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us, draws a distinction between faith and religion. Faith is an inner quality, a belief in certain values that is held in the heart and "leads to hope" and "overcomes fear." "Faith is critical to all innovation," Godin writes, because it is only through faith that one has the courage to step into the unknown.

Religion, on the other hand, "represents a strict set of rules that our fellow humans have overlaid on top of our faith. Religion supports the status quo and encourages us to fit in, not to stand out." Godin goes on to point out that there are "countless religions in our lives" beyond those normally considered when that word is used. "There's the IBM religion of the 1960s, for example, which included workplace protocols, dress codes, and even a precise method for presenting ideas (on an overhead projector). There's the religion of Broadway, which determines what a musical is supposed to look and feel like. There's the religion of the MBA, right down to the standard curriculum and perceptions of what is successful (a job at Bain & Company) and what's sort of flaky (going to work for a brewery)." While religion at its best "is a sort of mantra, a subtle but consistent reminder that belief is okay, and that faith is the way to get where you're going," religion at its worst "reinforces the status quo, often at the expense of our faith." It isn't insignificant that the metaphor Tom Loughlin used to describe what we had both seen at SETC was "drinking the theatrical KoolAid," a reference, of course, to a horrible example of religion at its worst.

Godin promotes the heretic, the individual who opposes a specific religion without losing his basic faith. Martin Luther, for instance, is an example of a heretic who opposed the religious system of the Catholic Church without losing his faith in Biblical Christian ideals. But as Godin notes in the title of one section of the book, "Challenge Religion and People Wonder If You're Challenging Their Faith." This was certainly the case for Luther, and it is also the case for those who would challenge the religion of Wal-Mart Theatre.

Theatre people have a lot of faith. You can see it powerfully whenever someone writes on their blog about the power of theatre to imagine a different future, to express a deeper truth, to tap a deeper joy, to release a flight of fancy. Such faith is the cornerstone of our actions in the face of the barriers to creativity and imagination that our society erects.

But it is the religion of theatre that must be challenged, the rituals and irrationalities that support a destructive system that ultimately robs people of their faith. Theatre-religion schools and organizations, such as most theatre departments and organizations such as SETC, serve the same function as fundamentalist "Jesus Camps" documented in the film by the same name. They are places where the young are brainwashed and indoctrinated with the New York Myth. Like the young people in that film, the young people at SETC seemed happy and content -- they have a clear and simple-minded worldview to which they whole-heartedly subscribe and which provides a "heaven" to aspire to (Broadway) and a mantra that they are encouraged to cling to that all it takes to "make it" is "passion" and "commitment," and that the talented will inevitably rise to "the top." Theatre done in areas other than New York will be described instrumentally (Leavel referred to a year spent doing dinner theatre in Pennsylvania as "paying dues"), and those who fall by the wayside are characterized as "not wanting it enough." It is a horrifying fundamentalism.

"When you fall in love with a system," Godin writes, "you lose the ability to grow." That has certainly been the case in the theatre, which has lapsed into a state of repetitive motion that leads to creative carpal tunnel syndrome. We are in desperate need of a theatrical Reformation that will shatter the indoctrination of the young and awaken a creative Renaissance by returning artists to their foundational faith and the arts to their roots in community. The theatre, like Friedman's world, has become flat -- lacking in effervescence. There is no future for the American arts in Wal-Mart.


Jay said...

YES! You're back, baby!

Scott Walters said...

*snort* I'm on spring break and have time to think.

Tony Adams said...

Question for you. Most institutions follow the leadership (or lack of) of the AD and MD/ED when making decisions to import people for productions. The Boards have the responsibility to oversee, hire and fire the AD and MD/ED.

But boards are almost always local citizens (typically of a certain hue and affluence). When the local citizens in charge of governance are complicit in they system, how much is it groups like SETC that push students to NYC, and how much of it is the boards for their complicity?

I mean I can pretty much guarantee if the boards demanded hiring local artists, you would see that happen. But that is not the case as of yet.

Scott Walters said...

Indeed, the theatrical KoolAid has been distributed far and wide. However, when it comes to art, as you noted, boards tend to follow the artistic leadership of their organization. Here in Asheville, for instance, the AD of NCStage Co seems to have committed to local artists, despite having toyed earlier with importing, and the board has followed. Result: a group of actors who are excellent, and are developing a following.

Shifting the blame to the boards, while more comfortable for artists, is at best a way for artists with KoolAid stains on their lips to pretend they're not to blame. Time to step up and shoulder some responsibility.

Tony Adams said...

Scott, the abdication of a board's responsibility is just as easy to shrug off as drinking the kool-aid as a theater professorship is. We are all part of the problem, and hopefully many will be part of the solution.

The fact of the matter is right now there are folks who see the world as it is and those who see a hopefully better future.

Now I work in Chicago because I want to live in Chicago, not because someone told me I had to got there.

However, I have yet to see an idea (from anyone) for a solution for decentralization that included a proposal for funding. Even your idea for del-tec homes requires a pretty significant amount of start up cash.

Once things are up and running is a different story.

Starting out on something new takes money, something that many young (or old) artists do not have. That's where boards come into play.

Unless you're telling students to go not where there are few jobs and a ridiculous amount of competition for places with no competition and no jobs?

At the end of the day people will migrate to where jobs are. So either pioneers need to have the cash to start out, or those already outside of NYC need to hire locally.

But make no mistake, if the board of NC Stage hires a different AD who thinks differently, you'd probably see a change.

Scott Walters said...

Waiting for money is an excuse to not act. People go to NY or Chicago or LA with no money all the time (Don Hall is a good example), and then form theatres. The fact is that it takes far less money to start a theatre in a small town than a big one, because real estate prices and rent are cheaper. Ultimately, this isn't about jobs, but about entrepreneurship. You have to go to a new place with a plan to found your own theatre. This is not the path for someone who wants to be hired by someone else.

My <100K Project, by the way, should it get off the ground (I will hear about my NEA grant by April 1st, which would start the planning process) is set up to provide seed money to cover the first few years of salary for people starting a theatre in a place with a population under 100,000. After those first years, the artists (and their boards or supporters) would take over.

Tony Adams said...

Good to hear about the >100k project. I'd love to hear more about how the planning is going.

Other than location how does that model differ from the ford foundation/regional theatre model way back when? (ie seed money to start that would then be followed up hopefully?)

I would disagree slightly about being cheaper to start up in rural areas. Most small companies (mine included) are itinerant. We're able to take advantage of the infrastructure and spaces that already exist so the initial start up costs are pretty small in comparison to having to build-out a dedicated space. One reason so many companies start up in Chicago every year is because you can do so for a couple hundred bucks.

I'm differentiating between starting a company and building a theatre which may be a negligible difference for you. or it may not.

I can't speak for NYC but a lot of young artists come to Chicago because they can get up and running cheaply due to the infrastructure in place.

Scott Walters said...

Tony -- Yes, you are certainly right that you can start a company with virtually no money at all pretty much anywhere -- good point! But the price tag increases once you plan a production. From what I can tell from bloggers, the cost of renting theatre spaces for rehearsal and performance can be prohibitive. As a result, the number of productions, especially early in a company's life, are necessarily limited.

I am trying to come up with a model where a young group of artists can do many different events of different kinds as a way of reaching different groups of people in a variety of ways. Some might be full productions with only company members, some might be readings of short stories ala "Selected Shorts," some might be projects that involve community members, or story circles, some might be educational, some might not be theatre at all but local bands or choirs or craftspeople. This requires a year-round space dedicated to the group. How to pay for it? In my mind of late, I keep coming back to health clubs where you pay an annual fee and can then partake of whatever is available. Or a church, where the events are free but you contribute money as a member.

The problem with Ford is that they wanted their money to be used to achieve scale -- the biggest disaster of that kind was what happened to the Oklahoma Mummers, the biggest success was the Guthrie. Unlike Ford, my idea of scale is to stay small, like small country churches. And it will likely involve the members of the company providing additional income through non-theatre undertakings (ideally, operating some sort of small business). I think it is good for artists to split their time between creating art, living a family life, and doing non-artistic work. For instance, I think it would be a good idea if the company committed some of its available land to a vegetable garden and possibly even a small flock of chickens, which would reduce living costs by providing food for the company.

Obviously, this is a different idea of how to live an artistic life, and is also why it is more suitable to a rural area or small town than a metropolis.

Parabasis said...

Hey scott,

Just wanted to say this essay is beautifully written and thought-provoking, and I agree with I think almost all of it (I'd have to reread it not on my blackberry to have more to say, which I hope to do later).

One of the things seldom talked about in all of this as a side note is how the current model is actually bad for new york theatre as well. Iknow, cry me a river, right? But its worth discussing.

I think part of my issue w/r/t all of this is that quite simply the idea that you would want sonething as localized as theatre to submit to any one-size model (particularluu one thought up by one dude at the ford foundation in the mid 20th century) is crazy. NYCs anf Asheville's needs, and resources and aesthetics are different, why would we assume the same model would work for both?

Scott Walters said...

Thank you, Isaac -- your generosity puts me to shame.

You are exactly right: NYC is a specific place just like Asheville or Whitesburg, and it should have a theatre scene that fits it. All theatre is local -- we all know that in our hearts. It is part of what makes us commit to theatre more fully than other media.

We may not be able to untangle the whole ball of string -- we may have to start a new ball, I don't know. But the first step is to recognize the ways things are isn't serving the current situation. After that, we have to figure out a different way -- which is both scary and exciting.

RLewis said...

This conversation always seems to skim the surface, eventually jumping from Actors to starting-company-people. From the Actors that I've met, most of them anyway, the last thing they want to do is start a company whether in NYC or Weaverville, NC.

It seems to me that Beth's point was that she knows where most of the Casting Directors work. They are the ones that regional theaters come in town for. And they are the ones who send Actors out to the rest of the world. I imagine that they played the biggest role in Beth's success, but in a town without commercial and film work to cover what they lose casting theater, I don't know how their businesses survive.

Instead of beatin' down ADs, EDs or Actors, how do you get beyond the ususal theorical bs and get Casting Directors to decentralize, so that Actors have to go somewhere other than NYC? Believe me, we have more than enough Actors here.

igarrett said...

If you want to work at the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, you live in New York. If you want to work at any of the 400+ other "professional" theaters in Los Angeles you live in Los Angeles.

Scott Walters said...

RLewis -- At the risk of sounding uncaring, the people who don't want to start companies aren't my problem, nor are casting directors. The whole idea of casting directors and rounds of auditions is the status quo, no matter where it is. And they aren't going to centralize, because it is to their advantage to have armies of actors in one place so they don't have to leave the office. No, I'm not talking about incremental change to an insane system -- that would be like putting hand cream on someone who has been hit by a truck. Wal-Mart is Wal-Mart, and thinking of yourself as a product to be sold is at the center of the problem. Actors who don't want to do anything but act ought to stay in the 86% unemployment and make the best of it. There are always lots and lots of people who prefer the known negative to the possible positive. Me? I'm looking for people who want to make art, and are intrepid enough to do whatever it takes to do that. The pioneer spirit.

DickieH said...

Hi Scott, really interesting article. I run a UK Theatre website called UK Theatre has many similarities with the USA. I completely agree with your Wall Mart assessment but is it not the case that actors have burning ambitions to achieve acclaim on the biggest stages? I believe the Artistic Directors are the key to generating and maintaining community theatres that can provide quality theatre and encourage and nurture local talent. The saturation of actors in both the UK and USA must surely force theatre creatives to be braver, bolder and more inventive on the Fringe circuit and Off Broadway, developing vision from an early stage. If faith in creativity is to be rewarded but everyone’s in the church is it a case of going in and getting the organ? Or maybe building a better one outside?

Scott Walters said...

DickieH -- Some actors certainly have such ambitions, and those should stay within the system. However, my experience is that most theatre artists -- actors, directors, designers, whatever -- begin with a desire to, well, create theatre. The joy of telling a story to people is then twisted by teachers and the media who propogate the myth of fame into this strange pursuit of acclaim that you mention. Anyone with any ability at all to step back and think clearly will immediately see that to perform, say, "Macbeth" in one place is not intrinsically superior to performing it in another. Doing the play for an audience ought to be an end in itself, not the means to attain acclaim. Such pursuit of fame is an illness that has infected the arts, and is destroying them at a horrifying pace. Further, it is built on another equally destructive contemporary belief: that the world requires "special people" to be artists, and those people will do all the artistic labor in our society and the audience will just buy it. The arts need to be reintegrated into daily living -- and I mean daily living everywhere. I have no interest at all in the Fringe circuit or Off-Broadway, but rather in the arts outside of the metropolis.

Alexander said...

Companies could just stop paying travel and per dium on equity contracts. That would save them some budget during these hard times an promote the development of local professional actors. Or they could commit to a true ensemble system and hire actors for the full season inside or outside the union. But don't forget that when actors directors and designers move from company to company and region to region it helps ideas and new discoveries, not to mention gossip, travel through the regional theatre cuircut. So it can be a good thing.


Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,

Thanks for a great post. I am in agreement with much of what you said, and am myself in favor of fiercely local theatre. I do have a question, though. You mention the problem of theatre programs/professors perpetuating the problems inherent in the system, even going so far to say:

"The joy of telling a story to people is then twisted by teachers and the media who propogate the myth of fame into this strange pursuit of acclaim that you mention."

Can you be more specific about the bad practices you are referring to within training programs? I'm trying to get a hold of exactly what kind of program would look bad to you, and what kind would look good. For you, what are the qualities of a good professorate when it comes to guiding the next generation of theatre artists? ...And I guess I'm asking because the critique feels fairly general at the moment, and I'd like to understand your argument more fully. (Perhaps I'd have more insight if I'd been at SETC.)

Cole Matson said...

I work for the Baltimore Theatre Alliance, which is a collection of approximately 70 theatres and about 250 theatre artists in the greater Baltimore area. Thankfully, Baltimore is a prime example of a home-grown theatre town. As a matter of fact, that's one of the reasons why the TCG chose Baltimore for their 2009 conference in June. Out of the dozens of theatres in the area (and I'll bet you didn't know Baltimore had so much theatre!), we have only one tour stop, and only one other theatre that hires out of New York. The rest of the theatres, including the Equity theatres, are comprised of local artists - actors, director, designers, stage managers, etc. We even have an annual summer playwrights' festival ( that produces about 8-10 world premieres of Maryland playwrights' work each year.

Regional theatre hasn't all been Walmart-ized, and sometimes the most vibrant home-grown theatre communities aren't where you'd expect. There is hope. One of our local Equity theatre has a resident company made up of solely local actors. We've had a few new theatre companies formed in the past couple years by 20-somethings that are really making names for themselves. We have many actors here who have chosen to work professionally and create art in their own community, and it's a joy to see.

Thanks for this post, which I'm going to link to on our newly-launched blog, And I've added your blog to my RSS feed.

Scott Walters said...

Cole -- Thank you for telling us about Baltimore. Sounds like an excellent source of inspiration. I wish that you had been at SETC to counter the NYC-as-only-place-to-be story. I sincerely wish I could be at TCG this year, but my stepson is getting married that weekend.

Anonymous -- I will endeavor to elaborate, perhaps in a full post; it is simultaneously a obvious and a subtle thing. Generally, it is communicated in the orientation toward auditioning instead of ensemble, NYC theatre history over regional (including the historically inaccurate idea that the "real" American theatre starts with O'Neill), teaching (and usually doing) only those American plays that have been done on Broadway (esp the American musical), taking spring break trips to New York, and so forth. Each element is partial in itself, but together they validate the idea of NYC as Mecca for theatre people.

Cole Matson said...


I actually moved to Baltimore 2.5 years ago after I got my BFA from NYU Tisch Drama. I'm not from here, but I moved here to do a doctoral degree in clinical psychology (which I later left to return to acting and study theology). When I moved here, I thought Baltimore was a po-dunk little town with very little going on. I had that NYC snobbery. Boy, was I wrong. The vibrant and supportive theatre community here quickly became my favorite part of Baltimore. I've been able to work constantly and make most of my money in the theatre, something which would have been much more difficult in the teeming barrel of fish that is New York.

It would have been great to meet you at TCG, but you've got good priorities. Congratulations to your stepson!

DramaticImpulse said...

Thank you for the thought-provoking post. I am from a small city in which our regional theatre hired from New York. Since it was the only major theatre in our town, I grew up not knowing there was any other option for theatre than New York City. Its sad that there weren't greater ties to the local community -- if there had been, I wonder if it would have folded so quickly (in January). People feel more ties to something that isn't shipped in from the Big City.

I'm currently in graduate school in New York City, and maybe will be here through a PhD. After that, though, I am sure I'll end up teaching in some small town. I'm beginning to think that at that point I am going to have to step up from dramaturgy to artistic direction, and found my own theatrical home. I love the rep company model, and think local theatre is vitally important.

vivien said...

This is an inappropriate format for this, I know, but I just read this after following a link on pdxbackstage, and I have to ask... is this the Scott Walters who was a directing instructor at ISU in 1995-6? If so, I doubt you remember me, but your directing class was so wonderful and really one of the best memories I have of theater school. Of course, at ISU, we were fed the myth of Chicago, not New York, and it was a slightly less damaging myth as it promoted starting your own company as opposed to sitting around waiting for the Goodman to hand you a career on a silver platter...

Vivien Lyon

Scott Walters said...

Vivien -- Yes, indeed, it is me -- and thank you for the kind words about my directing class. At the time, I think it caused a lot of pain for some people! *L* I have tried to teach directing that way where I teach now at UNC Asheville, but the students aren't as willing to take a risk as the ISU students were.
By the way, I do remember you, I believe. You were very intelligent with a quirky imagination, if I am remembering correctly. What are you doing these days?

Steve said...

Thanks for the post. Like Cole Matson I'd like to be an advocate for Minneapolis-St. Paul as a metro area with a thriving, albeit small, local professional community. I am one of nearly 100 local AEA actors who make their lives and livings in the Twin Cities. Along with the Guthrie, the TC community also features the Children's Theatre Company, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, Park Square Theater, the Jungle Theater, Ten Thousand Things Theatre, Illusion Theatre, Mixed Blood Theatre, Theatre Latté Da, Penumbra Theater, HIstory Theatre, Theatre Mu, Torch Theatre and a number of other venues which support and hire local actors, directors and designers. With the exception of the Guthrie and CTC, with rare exception all of these theatre hire exclusively local talent. Even our flagship, the Guthrie hires about 70% of its actors locally and as the economy worsens and the Guthrie's belt tightens this percentage is expected to increase.

This is not to deny the allure and power that NYC holds over much of the theatre world. But while a Minneapolis-based actor I have worked in Chicago, Cincinnati, San Diego, Boston and Palm Beach among others. It is possible to build a national career outside of the Big Apple. It takes time and effort to build relationships, but it can be done. Coraggio!

Scott Walters said...

Steve -- As a former member of the Twin Cities theatre scene (I worked several times at Park Square, for instance), I am glad to hear the theatre scene is healthy. I'd be curious where the 70% Guthrie figure comes from. My question about some of these theatres (e.g., Chanhassen or CTC) is the level of their commitment: are actors being hired for a season, or show by show? Are they being hired for leads, or supporting roles?

Generally, I don't take much comfort in your ability to work all over the US. I am in favor of local theatre with local actors who perform locally. Commitment to place.

Anonymous said...

I do agree with the argument, but I also think that the current economic situation may put an end to some of the 'imports' as Regional Theatres turn to local talent in an effort to save money. Maybe the need to contract closer to home will end the cycle?


Scott Walters said...

I agree, Justin -- or at least, I hope that will be the effect. That said, the economy will get better, and unless there is a change in philosophy, the whole thing will revert.

paigelyn said...

Thank you for a full and fascinating discussion. I'm a second year AD and am having a curious problem in that I can't FIND local actors. Granted, it's Aspen, CO, where a large talent pool does not exist. But after many outreach efforts, I held auditions and only 14 people came. There were 18 roles available for the rep season.
One play I chose with an entirely local cast in mind (yes, last season I brought about 50% actors in from both NY and LA). Only 1 local actor is cast for this season.
Our problem is also that we are only a summer theatre, so actors cannot survive on a 2 month contract and have other jobs they are unable to take leave from. (A local dinner theatre closed last year, forcing many of them to abandon performing).
I would welcome any input - during the upcoming season (which is costing me a bundle in travel and housing, as you can imagine), I would like to survey the small population to find out HOW they can make theatre part of their lives there and still make a living.
My board hired me with a mandate to reach out to the disenfranchised local arts community. But at what point does one assess what form our Local Theatre takes? We have a community theatre that produces one fall play each year and garners much local support.
Welcome discussion and curious to know if anyone else has this problem.

Scott Walters said...

Paigelyn -- That's a tough one. You are right to note that the problem is the 2-month contract. I am assuming that you want a full-time commitment during those months, but aside from educators that is a difficult sell. One might consider whether there is a way to schedule rehearsals so that locals working a day job can participate with professionals, playing roles that aren't onstage as much.

My preferred model is a theatre with a small group of full-time artist/facilitators who work year-round to both create work themselves and to facilitate creativity with and within the community. But that requires a different approach to theatre (and the other arts) and a different conception of the role of the artist.

Alisha said...

I know this is an old post, but Cole recently mentioned this blog to me and so I have been reading a number of entries. There are a few points I would like to address.

1) I think the whole faith vs. religion dichotomy is false because the characterizations you have made of them are not always true. Faith is not always incredibly solid - some people's ideas of faith are really no more than a flaky wishful thinking. And religion is not always dry, rules oriented, etc. It's as silly as asking the question whether passion is more important than technique. Technique (no matter how it is acquired or whether was perhaps even innate) should be a vehicle, a method, a means through which passion can be expressed in a specific, effective truthful way. You do not become a prima ballerina without showing up to the barre. Likewise, to develop a deep spiritual/faith life, you cannot do so without some means of practising it, i.e. religion. Religion poorly lived leads to a Wal Mart mentality, and faith poorly lived (without discipline) leads nothing more than sentimentality.
I am Catholic and my experience of that is belonging to something very big, unified in the content of faith that is in fact full of diversity in how it can be lived out. All that to say that I see nothing wrong with looking to, let's say, New York, as a desired destination, provided that there is an understanding of why that is and that diversity is not squashed in the meantime. In other words, schools should not be giving students false hopes and platitudes but encouraging true artistic development...but if that were the case, they wouldn't make any money. (Another reason your idea of self sustaining artistic communities is very interesting - perhaps you've written it somewhere but would that include a teaching/educational component for the artists?)
Personally, I want very much to go to New York because I will have access to opportunities, people, artistic inspiration that I will not have here in Montreal. I have no illusions of fame and do not believe the line that says that if you want something badly enough and have enough passion, you will make it. The reason I would like to go is because the level of musical theatre there is higher and that will be good for me to experience.

I am not one of those artists with a strong desire to start a theatre company. I definitely do not want to be an administrator; having seen my parents struggle greatly with entrepreneurship, I have no desire to go through the same thing. I am prepared to suffer and work hard for my art but I want to do it, naturally, in an area where I feel I excel, which is performing. Not only that, I simply don't feel that I have anything that compelling to say, creatively, in theatre form. There are no personal stories I particularly want to convey, no shows I have a desire to direct; I would much rather be an interpretive artist because that is my strength. Now, it may be that if so much of my energy wasn't devoted to just surviving every day life, paying off loans and bills, that perhaps I would have a greater interest in creating new theatre. But I could truly be happy working at playing already written roles very well. I don't think that makes me any less of a pioneer - it just means my environment is different. My job is to journey deep into my imagination, my heart, my relationships on stage, the text, to seek to make myself the most responsive instrument possible, to be a conduit for stories, as opposed to pioneering in a, shall we say, more outward manner. In committing to that, that is also how I will contribute to the community and how I will grow as an artist. Perhaps it is due to my classical voice training but I really feel that the modern day bias is towards the creative rather than interpretive artist, as though they are the more "true" artist, but many of the iconic performers whom we see as the greats were not creators at all - they just sang or acted or danced incredibly well.

Bethany Anntoinette said...

yes yes yes yes YES