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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"We'd all like to flee to the Cleve..."

When I was in 7th grade, my math class learned about the stock market. My teacher handed out newspaper pages with that day's NYSE quotes (quotes? Is that the proper term? Obviously, this lesson really stuck), and, after explaining how the stock market worked and how to read the information before us, he gave us each a few hundred imaginary dollars and told us to go invest.

Microsoft stuck out from the rest like a shiny penny. It was by far the most valuable stock on the page and, in 1996 during Microsoft's peak years, even a twelve year old like me could look at the brand Microsoft and recognize success. My - and many others' - first impulse was to take our fake money straight to Microsoft. Our teacher cautioned against it.

Micrsoft was already played out, he told us. The time to buy Microsoft stock was before it had blown up. Sure, the stock might keep rising, but it won't double or triple in value, not from here, not like a smaller company has the potential to. The real money's not to be made there.

I'm pretty sure this is Investment 101 (hey, we were in 7th grade), but the lesson keeps coming back to me. I've wondered a lot to myself recently: is New York theater's stock like Microsoft's in 1996? Played out, too expensive and, while unquestionably representing the utmost pinnacle of success, not necessarily going to give you the best bang for your buck?

Of course, New York will always be the epicenter of professional theater. I can't imagine somewhere in America that would have a place for a beast like Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark besides The Great White Way. But when it comes to the indie, the experimental, the cutting edge - the stuff that goes on in dilapidated black boxes, basements and loft apartments - for this stuff, New York as a base of operations is becoming less and less logical.

Real estate mostly, but also a meager audience base stretched thin across a mammoth arts scene concentrated within a relatively small geographical area, makes creating - and maintaining - great theater more and more difficult. Even for the big guys, so let's not even mention the smaller fish.

But we theater folk, we stay. And we pay out the nose for a falling-in space with a diminutive house that we would nevertheless pretty much sell our souls to fill. That is, if we're lucky. If we get a space, a chance. Why? Because this is highest point of the theater world, that's why. Because nowhere else, nowhere else are you going to get to see and maybe even work with so many creative geniuses.

And that's the truth. That's why I stay at least. Sometimes - like when I saw Van Hove's jaw-dropping Little Foxes a few weeks ago, for example - I think about living somewhere else and it feels me with deep sorrow. Nowhere else, on this continent, at least, would I get to see something like that.

I read a quote today that got me thinking about this all over again:

There was a generation of people who really deeply believed that the future of every American city had to involve a vibrant arts scene... The question we’re facing now is what happens to that dream.

In full disclosure, this quote was taken from the Clyde Fitch Report, where it was discussed within a different context. A context which, itself, was slightly different from when it was originally spoken by Marc Masterson, the artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. So the quote is now thrice removed from the original intention of the statement. But it resonated with me nonetheless.


Yes! I do believe the future of every American city must involve a vibrant arts scene. Every American city. Not just New York. Or even Chicago or Boston or LA. Cleveland needs a theater scene just as vibrant as New York. Minneapolis. Denver.

Can you imagine? Amazing theater, everywhere! It would be beautiful.

It's the only way theater as an art form will continue to thrive. If it's relegated to a strange and novel diversion found on the streets of the Big Apple, like the Naked Cowboy or cartoon artists in Times Square then what audience will we have left? Tourists, coming to see the latest spectacle, jukebox, or movie musical and then New York theater people, going to see other New York theater people's shows.

And then not even that, maybe, if real estate continues to soar. The price of experimenting, taking risks, trying something new will become too costly. And theater is going to suffer.

Maybe we can take risks in Cleveland that we couldn't take in New York.

The remedy must be to head to the 'burbs. They need a vibrant theater scene. Every American city needs a vibrant theater scene. They need us and we, I'm convinced, need them.


  1. I agree that every city should have an arts scene. And all the cities you mentioned (Cleveland, Denver, Minneapolis) do. Thriving ones. And I'm no expert, being that I've spent the entirety of my professional life in New York, but I think that these major regional theatre scenes are no less vibrant than New York's, they're just smaller. And the communities are smaller, and thus the audience has a more defined demand, so the work produced is more minute in scope.

    The theatre in New York is as diverse as its community...which is why I disagree with your statement that it's becoming a less logical place for indie/experimental theatre. If the audience base is "meager" here, what do you think it's going to be like in Cleveland?

  2. I don't mean to suggest that there are not thriving art scenes in any of these cities. Of course there are. I know there is in Denver, I'll assume as much for the other two as well.

    But when it comes to the depth and breadth of the work coming out of NYC - it just can't be matched. I think this is what you mean when you say that the scenes in these cities are smaller and more defined. But I also think to attribute this to a simple lack of diversity is to sell these cities rather short. Even the most apparently homogenous of communities has an incredible diversity of human spirit when you look a little closer. And isn't that the point of art in general? To look a little closer?

    Maybe it's naive of me, but I think you *would* find an audience for a broader spectrum of theater even in these less diverse areas.

    And I may be biased here, but I think it's worth pointing out that I come from an incredibly diverse and rather artsy city. And while it, also, has a wonderful, thriving theater scene, it is by no means New York. But lack of diversity is certainly not to blame there, nor is a lack of a willing or enthusiastic audience.

    As for finding that audience - I do think you would have an easier time finding it in many cities other than New York City. Simply because there's less going on. For every show that I see in NYC, there are probably a dozen that pass me by. Shows that I really wanted to see and couldn't because there was simply too much. So I chose one of the twelve, someone else like me another, and someone else another. And each of these twelve exciting and well-deserving hypothetical shows got one attendee, whereas if one had happened somewhere other than New York where it had less competitors for the same relatively fixed audience base, it would have gotten all twelve.

    And yes. I am aware of the fact that I'm exalting the very quality (ie, less going on) that I *just* identified as a wall we need to break through. :-) But I think the thing is, there's a tipping point - a point where the sheer volume of work being created stops being a boon and starts being a liability - everything, even really good things, just get lost in the din. I'm putting forth the hypothesis that New York has reached that tipping point.

  3. Oh and PS. Thank you for reading and commenting. It means a lot to me.