Friday, September 22, 2006

New York Centrism

It is the very error of the moon;
She comes more near the earth than she was wont,
And makes men mad.

Othello, The Moor of Venice, V.ii 133-135

There is a small blip of blogging activity around the Post by Buffalo Theatre Professor on the New York Centrism of Theatre Practice:

As an educator and also as a theatre artist, I have fought for years against this NewYorkCentrism, the notion that all good things in theatre happen only in New York, and therefore one must go to New York City to become successful and do theatre well. I have tried to convince my students and some fellow artists that practicing their art in other cities might be a viable alternative. But so often I get that blank stare back, as if someone is questioning in their minds whether or not I am serious.

Tangentially, he also talks about the New York Centrism of the blogosphere. I suspect that if his observations were posted back in the doldrums of the summer we would have a much more spirited discussion brewing. But here we are, in the thick of the fall theatre season. Those of us in the blogosphere, (New York or not,) who aren't consumed with make last minute changes to scripts, (Me, George, James, etc.) are either preoccupied with concepts for staging them,(Isaac, Matt, Don, etc.) diligently trying to memorize them, (Dorothy,) studiously trying to light them, (Lucas,) or tenaciously trying to mold young actors to be in them in the future, (Scott Walters.)

We are busy, that makes us happy. How hard it is to keep focused on larger things. But then that really important for us? Subjects like an independent theatre movement and breaking down walls seem extremely important when we are not in the midst of the work, but then, suddenly, seem so metaphysical and distant, almost quaint.

A number of years ago, I remember making the very concious decision about not moving to New York. I returned to Boston from the Army, inspired greatly by the Seattle theatre scene I experienced while stationed at Fort Lewis. I was on fire with enthusiasm and created a theatre company with a number of talented and ambitious people. Our first official show we did was not in Boston, but at the Seattle Fringe Festival.

After traveling with shows, we finally started doing work here in town at the small spaces like the Leland Center at the Boston Center for the Arts. We have always kept with our guideline of "original works created by members of the company." Actors direct. Writers act. Directors act. Writers direct.

(I will say that we probably would not have had near as much success if I did not lock in with extremely ambitious and talented tech people in the beginning and over the years.)

It has been a blast so far, and I wouldn't change it for the world. But working here in Boston the gravitational pull of New York works like the moon: It affects your tides... even as you sleep. It pulls at the fabric of matter around you, and can make you hold your breath in instances where an actor you have cast and rehearsed with lets you know sheepishly that she might have to go down to New York for an audition on the day your play is opening.

Every year our mainstream critics file retrospectives on the season and hit Boston theatres over the head for not being like New York. For not doing the plays that were hits off-broadway during that season. (Or worse... they go on a London Theatre junket.)

I never blame New York, and rarely get frustrated at New York. My wife, a graduate of the Actors Studio, is a New York transplant has a great affinity for the city and we visit her friends there quite a bit.

We are stabilizing though. We are slowly equalizing the forces. Though the ART goes on to get booed in Edinburg, the Actors Shakespeare Project picked up accolades in New York for their King Lear.

Over the last decade there is one thing that has steadily improved: the Imported New York Lead. Boston actors have continuously shown their skills to be perfectly in line with Lort B standards, and have impressively made the Fly-By-Lead the exception rather than the rule.

You always hear of an actor who is trying to do work in both cities, but said actor seems to basically get work here.

Boston Playwrights have garnered success beyond our city. Melinda Lopez and Ronan Noone have been produced as far away as Los Angeles. There are many small, new companies here in Boston, shuttling about like hermit crabs to the few affordable spaces still available, but even more important, they are doing new plays.

Things will change, but it will be a while. Maybe we need to think 50 years down the line, not next month.

When I think of the new companies, (Whistler in the Dark, Company One, 11:11, and AYTB,) when I think of young people like that, who decide to move here and start a theatre company, suddenly, the pull doesn't seem so strong.

If I can state a personal observation about people going on to other places: Friends and actors who have gone on to Chicago and DC seem to have had far more success than those who have decamped to New York. This is recent, and I think perhaps instructive if not indicative.

These are positive developments, but more and more I am trying to keep focused on the fact that we are long way from home.

John Clancy has an oft-quoted wall analogy:

Most generations divide into two camps. One camp recognizes the wall, measures it, and begins to climb it. Some may actually get over to the other side, who knows? Most of the first camp, however, settle on finding a position somewhere on the wall and begin to jealously guard it.

The other camp, standing at the wall, not climbing, divides as well. Half spend their lives standing at the foot of the wall, shaking their fists and shouting. The other half grows bored and walks away.

That's what most generations do, upon finding themselves at the wall.

The exceptional generations, the historical generations, tear down the fucking wall.

This analogy, I have always felt, leaves out one important camp:

Those who don't believe there is a wall.

I think that at some point, we have all found ourselves in that camp.

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