The New York City problem?

In what he’s said will be the first in a series of follow-ups to our recent interview with him (and some of the comments that followed), University of North Carolina theatre professor Scott Walters has elaborated on the “centralization of theatre” issue.

In this post, he argues that the centralization of American theatre is sapping regional, non-NYC theatre of its vitality.

A sample:

“Over the course of the 20th century, the devotees of modernism have successfully stereotyped all non-urban, not Eastern, non-Northern people of the US as unsophisticated hicks, and it has all the characteristics of most bigotry – a stubborn refusal to respect ways of being that differ from one’s own. This extends to class issues as well, as most theatre artists are college educated beyond their class (I know this is true of me) and often have a great disdain for their roots (something I have had to work through as well).”

And later in the post . . .

“When young actors graduate from college and feel that they must go to NYC if they want to work, even though they would prefer to live elsewhere, there is something wrong. Why can’t they live where they want to live? Because the regional theatres who might offer a living wage are all casting out of NYC. I freelanced in Minneapolis for a number of years, and it was just an accepted fact that no local actor was ever going to get cast in a decent role at the Guthrie, because they cast in NYC. And that’s centralization, and that is wrong.”

Interesting stuff. Check out the full post at his blog, Theatre Ideas. And if anyone has any related thoughts on the Canadian condition, the floor is yours . . .

7 thoughts on “The New York City problem?

  1. where to start….okay first my experience:
    as a graduate of a theatre program at a “regional” US theatre (that casts both locally and in NYC) I felt along with my 17 other classmates that NYC was the only place to be to start a career.

    it was of course the best of times and the blah blah blah of times. highlights included an awesome affordable (relatively speaking) loft in willamsburg, a good rent job working as a writer for a travel guide, and finding a mediocre agent whose big claim to fame was at one point representing hulk hogan.

    regardless of all this good fortune, it became clear, (even while i was performong at respectable LES theatre) that NYC was a terrible place to be an artist. cost of living was so high, renumeration so poor, and opportunities so limited, that survival superceeded artistry almost immediately. the paradox became apparent: it’s hard to make art when you’re hungry, it’s also hard to make when you;’re working 65 hours a week. this knowledge made moving back to the t dot a lot less difficult than i imagined. 2 years after graduation, only one of my classmates who did not recieve parental income supplements remained in NYC.

    i will say this though, i had always wanted to live there. it had been a goal of mine since high school. even on my worst days, coming over the bridge to manhattan, being a part in some way of this most famous of human experiments, was incredibly rewarding. i have no regrets. i wouldn’t be so content doing my own “regional” theatre thing in toronto if i didn’t already have the experience that makin it in th big apple wasn’t necessarily all it was cracked up to be. a million people coulda lined up to tell me this, but i still woulda have to have gone there and figured it out myself.

  2. Hey Mike,

    So, the siren song of NYC reaches north across the Canadian border and drains the blood from our own theatre industry. Sounds about right.

    Where does that leave Toronto – which by many accounts has a similar effect of the theatre communities it pulls from? Are big cities somehow fundamentally better suited to supporting theatre?


  3. If you asked the arts councils they would answer your last question: yes. As a matter of protocol if 2 projects are considered equal thety will fun the rural one over the urban to encourage theatre to be put on where actors and directors (the vast majority of whom are urbanites) don’t want to live.

    this is not a bad thing, just pointing out that it is a notion which is actually institutionalized in the way theatre is funded in ontario anyhow. i think there’s another point that isn’t being raised on any of these blogs yet which really cuts to the heart of the matter and will of course also make me seem solipsistic and eliteist:

    the decision to make a career in theatre is a big brave risk. people who tale the plunge do it because they like the excitement, uncertainty, and adrenalin of the profession. almost anyone who is operating under this m.o. is not going to be happy for long making theatre in Regina (sorry Regina). unless you’re a playwright, the way of life that theatre in north america provides is antithetical to long period of sleepy slowpaced small town life.

  4. Mike — While obviously I don’t know anything about Regina, I would beg to differ about your generalization. I suppose some people go into theatre because of the adrenaline, but I think just as many go into it (or would go into it, or stay in it once they were in it) because they want to make a difference, because they want to touch an audience. This can be done anywhere. Many artists are performing in 99-seat theatres in MYC — well, hell, you can fill a 99-seat theatre anywhere in the country. Is a NYC audience, or a Toronto audience, THAT much more exhilarating than one in Regina? I think if you are focused on the art, then it can be done anywhere and it will be fulfilling. If you are focused on the Cindarella dream of fame, then only the central theatre town will do. As it is now, with really only one option, there is a level of self-selction involved — only those who desire the fame buzz go to NYC, and the rest…get a job doing something else somewhere else. I think we are losing a lot of very talented, committed people by only mythologizing this one track.

  5. P.S. I don’t mean to imply that people who go to NYC or Toronto ONLY go for the fame thing — many go because NYC or Toronto are the place they want to live. For my part, if I had to either live in NYC or give up theatre, I’d struggle but I’m pretty sure I’d give up theatre. It just is not a place that feeds my soul, and is not a place I can imagine my wife thriving. And that is important to me.

  6. hmmm, i’m not implying toronto or NYC audiences are any more rewarding to perform for than one in regina. i am implying that once the show is over, and you have to go out in the world, the vast majority of people who choose the theatre as a career would prefer a bustling metropolis.

    i think it is correct though that we lose many talented artists to the mytholigization on NYC as the only place to “make it”. many people who arrive end up caught up in a struggle to survive, let alone thrive.

    there is one more practical reality to be considered that hasn’t been addressed yet though:
    for actors, it is virtually impossible to make a living off theatre alone. the current economic system forces them to also be in a location where they can audition for film and tv. 1 colgate commercial is six more months of being free to audition. this is of course not an option in regina. so in the states it becomes a choice between doing theatre in NYC or LA.

    Related to this is the current trend for many toronto based actors to be in vancouver for at least part of the year. there are more film and tv projects shooting there, and as in any economy the key players must follow the money.

  7. But Mike, every blog I read written by Toronto or especially NYC bloggers, we find that nobody is making a living from the theatre. Everybody is working a day job of some kind. Sure, the occasional commercial allows some freedom, but how much time and energy is spent hunting those down? How much money is spent on headshots and postcards and audition clothes and classes? And how much time is spent working a job to support those things? And how much time is spent working jobs to pay the outrageous rents for apartments in big cities, not to mention the rents on theatre spaces to perform? No, I’m not convinced that bog cities are any more economically viable for the artist than a smaller one. Now, personal preference — fine, that’s cool (although I think you overestimate the amount of love for big cities among artists — I think this is the result of self-selection rather than some innate artistic preference for concrete and crowds).

    The question for me is whether there might be another model for doing theatre that would make smaller towns just as viable as the metropolis. I think there might be, but theatre artists are so committed to making the current system work that they can’t imagine another one might be possible. Sort of like asking a fish to imagine a place that isn’t wet!

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