I am an avid reader of Bitch Magazine — I’ve even subscribed for the past 5 years. I skim their Twitter feed, I’m Facebook friends with them … but I rarely read the blogs. I read the magazine cover to cover every quarter, but I haven’t kept up with the company as it launched itself into Web 2.0.
But, as I mentioned, I do skim their Twitter and Facebook feeds, so I did stumble across this article, which talks candidly about one musical theatre lover’s life in a small Canadian city.
This in particularly caught me:
The assumption that everyone has access to the same resources is a really common one, and one really bound up in classism and privilege. I have seen two shows—one musical and one play—on Broadway, ever, and even that puts me at an advantage over many, many theater fans. Live theater is by its nature a transient medium—no show (with the possible exception of The Phantom of the Opera) will stay open forever. Very few are ever professionally recorded for commercial release. Very few of those are widely available, especially for those like me who rely primarily on the local library. Most of the stage shows I have and will be writing about in this column are no longer open on Broadway, and in many cases have been closed for something like ten years.
This is not okay. First, I think the obvious thing, which I’ve complained about before, is no one should idolize Broadway so much. Not because I think musical theatre is stupid, but because looking to Broadway is too centralized. What about other places that produce good theatre? Here in the greater Seattle area, we have 5th Avenue Theatre and Village Theatre, both of which have become big enough and popular enough that they develop new works (good) then ship them off to Broadway (okay), but then when the successful musicals eventually go back out on national tour to large cities (Chicago, LA, Seattle, Atlanta), they’re called “Broadway musicals” (bad). They aren’t Broadway musicals. They’re musicals that were exported to make more money, but actually they reflect the brilliance of artists from all over the country, not just NYC.
The deeper problem, though, is access. Small towns don’t get musical theatre tours — if the people who live in small towns are lucky, the musical they want to see will be on tour in the nearest larger city, and they will have the financial ability to travel to see the shows, pay for the tickets, buy a meal while they’re there (travel takes a long time), and still pay rent and bills.
Our economy being what it is, that is expecting a lot. I don’t think most people could even open up a new credit card in order to afford all of that.
So what do you do if you want art? You either get what you can locally, or you move to a city.
I moved to Seattle, from Columbia, SC, in 2006. I left Columbia for many reasons — the religiosity and neo-conservatism and ancient classism and racism and sexism were the biggest reasons, but the second highest priority I had was to move to a city where I would have career prospects. There’s one professional theatre in the city. I had the great good fortune of working with the other major theatre company in the city, Theatre South Carolina (the university theatre). There are several theatres there, actually, and they do good work, but none of them pay a living wage, and there wasn’t much of a professional ladder to move up. So I left.
I moved to a much bigger city, and I’ve done fairly well here, but here’s the problem with big cities: over-saturation. Not only do city-dwellers have access to all kinds of art, but they have access to so much that few people really bother to keep up with it. There’s lots of artists.
And once they get situated in a big city, they never leave. They try to play to the audiences in their city, instead of finding a place that would appreciate their work. I’m not talking about a pity-party for the “poor, ignorant rural folk,” because that’s condescending, and I don’t think it would encourage the audiences of smaller towns to see your work. But obviously there are places where artists would get a good reception. And going there means a tour, not necessarily moving from a city if living in a city benefits you. I know living in a large, mostly-liberal city works for me.
But what is the point of being a non-profit if said non-profit is not serving a community? Why run a business that isn’t reaching a decent audience? Why make art if no one sees it? Why work exclusively in a place that doesn’t support you?
Shouldn’t you reach out to audiences that want your work?
Now, admittedly, it is hard to find places that want certain shows. For example, I think there are some adventurous theatre people in Columbia, SC, but for the most part, audiences wanted lighter fair, reasonably family friendly, or something educational like Shakespeare. Seattle has a similar focus, actually, but the fringe theatre here is more active.
But, people outside cities want art. They want theatre. So what is my responsibility as a theatre artist? It’s to create what I want, and take it to a variety of audiences, unpretentiously. The Wild Plan is doing it. Why not more of us?