Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Swimming for Shore

Over at A Poor Player, my friend Tom Loughlin describes his sense of being "theatrically depressed" (not personally depressed), and of struggling to stay afloat in the sea of Entertainment, Inc. As someone only a few years younger than Tom, I certainly recognize the issues with which he is wrestling. What's the old joke about middle age being the time when you've climbed to the top of the ladder only to find it is leaning against the wrong wall? Har har. It is particularly difficult to face these questions as a professor, because in order to do our jobs well we must, well, profess -- we must believe in what we do enough to set an example for our students. And given the state of the American theatre, this is difficult for anyone who is thoughtful.

But what I find poignant about Tom's musings is that he doesn't really seem to be saying "I made the wrong choice," but rather that theatre made the wrong choice. And that is a statement of anger and frustration, not depression. In the midst of all the blogs and workshops and speeches and conferences talking about marketing and social media and the press and audience surveys and diversity and tinkering around on the edges of the theatre, Tom is saying no, it's not good enough, we have been sucked into the quicksand that is Corporate America, and our struggles only make us sink deeper.

To a large degree, I agree with Tom, although I don't end up in quite the same place as he does -- perhaps it's only a different atoll, I don't know.

Tom reaches the following conclusion: "Theatre is culturally insignificant. You can put any sort of spin on it you’d like to make it appear this is not so and thus offer some hope, but at the end of the day the numbers bear out the reality that theatre is an insignificant art form in the 21st century, and will be for some time to come." Hard to disagree with this. For the vast majority, theatre doesn't even register on the radar.

Where Tom and I part company is that Tom cares about cultural significance, and I don't. I am not concerned with affecting the American culture at large, which has become so superficial, so materialistic, so disconnected that I can no longer stand it. I don't own a TV, because I can't take the corporate nonsense that passes for entertainment. I rarely go to movies for the same reason -- I find the younger bloggers' rhapsodic discussions of movies based on comic books beyond absurd. Music? Not so much. Bestselling books? Rarely. My level of disgust is almost complete. What John Stewart said about the media in his recent interview with Chris Wallace encapsulates my attitude about the culture as a whole: "The bias of the media is towards laziness, conflict, and sensationalism." Ditto the whole damn culture.

And so my response is not to despair, but rather to leave the national scene alone, focusing instead on small towns and rural areas where I believe there is still a chance of disconnecting from the corruption of the national scene. This is why I react (as Trisha Mead predicted on Twitter, calling it Walt828 bait") so strongly to Richard Florida's nonsense about the so-called "creative class" as it surfaces in conferences like one in Ontario described in an article called "Experts Herald Creative Sector as Key," which begins: "Attracting "a creative class of workers" will be key to future economic success of rural economies in eastern Ontario, a conference on rural economic development was told on Tuesday." The assembled experts opined that what rural Canada really needs are more city people to move to rural areas. I can't even bear to summarize the article, which makes me so angry I can hardly see straight. Here is the kind of nonsense these experts have to offer... with commentary:

While the creative class has traditionally lived in cities, [Jeff ]Dixon [assistant director at the Monieson Centre in Queen's University School of Business] said, technology and infrastructure are making it possible for them to relocate to rural places while remaining at the cutting edge of their medium.... [Cue the urban cavalry.]
Dixon also said the government is investing in and developing new programs in education, "because you do need more specialized education to do these jobs." [And we couldn't possibly imagine that people who actually already live in rural areas might be capable of such education.] 
Dan Taylor is an economic developer in Peterborough who worked in Prince Edward County for a decade, recruiting "a creative labour force" — culinary artists, masters students, doctors and starving artists....[Sheesh.]
Peter Kenyon is an Australian "social capitalist" who specializes in stimulating economic renewal in rural communities....He said small creative communities need leadership and organization from their artisan and business associations, which often act as a driving force above and beyond municipal governments, organizing events and forging working partnerships.
[The following story is incredible.]
He told the story of a Western Australian community of 5,000 residents, called Margaret River.It was established by 100 European families after the First World War, he said, recruited to clear the land and set up a dairy farming community.The settlers didn't know much about farming, and the community more or less failed after the Great Depression. Many families, he said, were simply forced to walk away from the land, and those who stayed lived for the most part in poverty, into the 1960s. 
It was then that a young generation of surfers and "alternative lifestylists" moved to Margaret River, he said, taking advantage of the white sand beach and cheap property values. [You've got to be kidding.]
They were soon followed by a group of wealthy doctors, who Kenyon said realized the wine-making potential of the area, and established its first vineyards.
The artistic youngsters and the vineyard owners developed partnerships, Kenyon said, co-developing their community to "offer a really exciting experience."
Today, Margaret River attracts two million visitors a year, he said — people drawn to the cultural hub of artisans, culinary experts and wine connoisseurs.
Famous niche artists live there now, he said, including cabinet designer JahRoc, which sells $35,000 custom dining room suites, and violin maker Scott Wise, whose clients wait 18 months for his service...
Argh! Really? the goal is to become a community for rip-off cabinet makers who service the upper class robber barons???

Let me make this very clear: rural and small communities don't need your stinking advice. It's experts such as these that recommended that what was needed was industrial agriculture -- as Earl Butz said in the 1970s, "get big or get out" -- and the result is that you can't buy a vegetable or a fruit in a grocery store that has any taste or nutrition, that isn't soaked in oil and chemicals, and hasn't come into existence by destroying the land from which it has been untimely ripped. And now a new generation of "experts" want to deliver the coup de grace and turn small and rual communities into mini-cities with trees, filled with upper-middle-class refugees from the city.

 I say no. Patrick Overton, in his inspiring book Rebuilding the Front Porch of America, writes powerfully about what he calls "rural genius."
"We need to realize the deep hunger people have to become 'makers' again. We have become a nation of consumers, a people defined by the consumption of things made by others. As a result, we have littl erelationship between the things we use/consume and the people who make them. This has created a market-place, commodity-based society. We have also lost our contact with the earth and the environment around us. Someone else does the farming, the growing. We have become disconnected from the agricultural tradition that historically defined many of our rural and small communities. Some believe this is one of the reasons we are facing the current ecological crisis. When we moved from an agrarian society to an industrial age, we set in motion an alienation from that which has provided sustenance and meaning for centuries -- the land. We are now beginning to experience the full impact of this loss of relationship with our environment. People are beginning to realize they miss growing things, they miss making things.
 I have lost interest in trying to change our national culture. I am disconnecting from it as much as possible, and planning to move to a town with a population of 357 where people still have a connection to the land, still know how to make things and not just buy them, still know each other. And while I am moving from a larger town of 75,000 or so, and have a doctorate, I do not come with the attitude that I am coming to show them how to do things "right," but rather to relearn how to do things more organically. And while I am there, and while I am working with other small communities through CRADLE, I will continue to promote the importance of "rural genius" as an alternative to our abysmal national culture.

Tom, I feel you, my friend, but I can't just wait to be pulled down by the undertow. I'm swimming for shore.


Tony Adams said...

So what about people who grew up in rural areas and had to move to get a job. Should they not be able to move back if they can take their jobs with them?

Scott Walters said...

Of course, Tony. The point is that bringing urban attitudes to rural areas is not the answer. That there really is a difference, and rural values and approaches to life are valuable and don't need to be colonized by the urban.

Trisha Mead said...


I couldn't agree more about how patronizing Richard Florida's assumption is that creative values and creative class jobs will need to be planted in rural communities like some gentrification project.

And I also deeply agree that there is a rising movement towards becoming makers again, at all levels.

But I would argue that that return to creative, do it yourself values is happening at both the rural and urban levels. And that the flight to the cities that characterized the 20th century was a structural need, one that has largely been eliminated by the ubiquity of the internet.

So I suspect that there will be a process of city dwellers re-ruralizing as they realize they can have a rural quality of life and still have access to the education, people and culture that drew them to the city.

But there will also (hopefully!) be less incentive for those born and raised in rural environments to leave to seek jobs, as Tony suggests. When geography is no longer a barrier to economics, why couldn't a rancher's son make his living as a programmer or graphic designer while still raising his kids near their grandparents?

The curious facet of this trend from the theatermaker's point of view is that theater is still a fundamentally geography bound activity. It needs enough real people, in a real place, to pay money to experience it in order for theater artists to earn the paltry living they make now. Theaters NEED urbanity. Don't they? Or do you envision a rural model for the theater that can capitalize on the small and stretched out populations and make it a feature, rather than a challenge?