Theater and the importance of being local: Part one (Trisha Mead)

By Trisha Mead

Recently, Carey Perloff, the artistic director for the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, posting on her Huffington Post blog, posited a new potential mission for her regional theater — stop trying to be a New York pipeline and start becoming a theater by and for San Franciscans. This notion of a “locavore theatre” is hugely appealing on the big-picture level, but it had the San Franciscan theater community a bit riled up.

Their concern: Can ACT champion “local culture” — plays about San Francisco in this case — if it is not hiring local artists to do the work? The flourishing indie theater community in San Francisco defines itself very deliberately in opposition to the big companies (ACT especially, but also Berkeley Rep and the like), while at the same time clearly craving acknowledgement from and inclusion by those larger organizations.

This is a very familiar conversation — it is nearly verbatim the conversation that happens in the Portland theater community about Portland Center Stage. In fact, if you checked in with any regional market I suspect you would find a similar conversation going on between the main “regional theater” house and the broader indie theater community.

A little backstory

Artistic directors naturally want to work with the highest caliber of artist they can find and afford. Historically, highly qualified artists who wanted careers, worked out of New York by definition. There was no other place from which to piece together a career. So for most artistic directors at the regional theater level, the most efficient way to find the largest pool of qualified artists was to commission, cast and hire out of New York (even if the artist they hired from there ended up being a native of their own region). It was a simple function of geography and concentration of the talent pool. If you were serious about your career, you moved to New York.

By extension the conventional wisdom was: if you weren’t available through New York, you weren’t serious. Of course this is not accurate now, if it ever was — there are highly talented actors, playwrights, composers and artists in every regional theater market in the country. They just aren’t all pooled in one giant pile for maximum, one-stop-shopping, convenience.

This means that many regional artistic directors (who are typically hired from a national pool, not locally) are slow to build relationships within the local performance community (see Kate Whoriskey’s plight at Intiman for an extreme example of how this can turn out badly, even for a highly competent artistic director [Editor’s note: the Intiman case was discussed at length here]).  But often when artistic directors do start looking closer to home for theater artists to work with, they find a treasure trove of qualified artists with whom they can build successful long-term artistic relationships. It just takes more time, and in some cases, more deliberate cultivation of the available talent pool and a willingness to tailor the work presented to suit the talents available in the local pool.

So, should large companies develop local artist relationships? Absolutely. Will the local community always be a reliable place to find the best person for the artistic task at hand? Not as long as there is still intense pressure for talented regional artists to move to New York if they are serious about their career. The “brain drain” from regional markets is real, and unfortunately artists who choose to remain in a regional market because of values or lifestyle considerations are hampered in their own careers by the weakened arts ecology that’s left when most of the big fish routinely leap into the big pond of New York as soon as they can.

How does this relate to Perloff’s recent move towards sharing more San Francisco-centric stories?

Perloff seems to be addressing the giant pink elephant in the room of every regional arts market: that all major regional theater artistic directors experience the same pressure to look to New York, if they are serious about their own personal careers. This affects their hiring decisions and what seasons they choose to program. A local focus, while perhaps satisfying to their audience, will not help them market themselves or their institution nationally. If by “nationally, you mean “New York,” that is.

Can a regional theater operate at odds with the personal career goals of its leader? Unlikely.

So how should artistic directors define their mission on behalf of their art form, their audience and the general culture? Should their role be to steward their institution well in order to ultimately “earn” a New York career? Should they position themselves as the research and development arm for the New York stage (a la Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., or the Goodman in Chicago), thereby burnishing the national reputation of themselves and their institution in the process? Or should regional artistic directors see their role as tastemaker — a kind of conduit between the best New York work and a regional audience that would have no way to experience it otherwise?

Perloff seems to be suggesting that there could be a future when the answer is “none of the above.” She’s positing a regional theater mission that might look more like this:

Reflect and shape the culture of the region by developing work that celebrates the unique vision and voices of the community in which the theater is resident. When appropriate, find opportunities to share the values and aesthetics of your community with a national audience, thereby adding a region-specific perspective to the national artistic conversation.

Reflect, challenge, and be of value to your own community. Represent your community to the nation, rather than representing the national theater within your region.

This is a total inversion of the founding values of the regional theater system and an implicit rejection of the implied goals and hierarchy at the heart of the regional theater system itself.

Not surprisingly, I find a declaration of this sort from a major West Coast theater producer hugely invigorating (after all, that mission statement I’ve just ascribed to Perloff is an exact fit for the goals and values of Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival.) [Editor’s note: Mead was central to the invention of this January new-performance festival.]

Stop Importing New York Culture and Start Investing in, and Exporting, Portland (or San Francisco) Culture. I love it.

And let’s be clear — Perloff has been granted the freedom to declare for a fiercely regional theater by the technological evolutions of the last several years and the sweeping changes that have happened in the New York commercial theater as a result. In brief: Since most Broadway shows are now either adaptations of films (The Full Monty, Mary Poppins) or guaranteed to be coming soon to a cinema or iPad near you (Frost/Nixon, Chicago, The Producers, Doubt, Proof, Closer, The Shape of Things, etc) the need for regional theaters to act as importers of the best of NY (and by implication, national) culture has faded.

Average audience members can, at a moment’s notice, get up to date on the latest in high culture through their computers or through the cinema. Even live theater from the major capitals is no longer out of reach — look at the recent successes of the National Theatre Live broadcasts, for example.

On a deeper level, though, the rise of the Internet and social media is rapidly evolving the audience itself, and this is where Perloff’s recent revelations have the potential to bear the most fruit.

An audience that can carry all the world’s knowledge and visual culture in its pocket, and share anything it experiences with its own personal fan base through social media in real time, is a whole different beast than the audience of yore.

For one thing, audience members have become accustomed to seeing themselves, their lives, their culture and their perspective of the world reflected back to them through the media they create and consume. Have you noticed you can’t read a newspaper article online anymore without literally seeing your own face reflected back to you through the little Facebook comment widget that most websites now have? Audiences are no longer content to be passive receivers of culture from a higher source. They want to see their own choices validated.

One choice they particularly want to see validated is their decision to live in a specific place. Talk to any group of Portlanders (or any San Franciscan for that matter) and you’ll discover that they’ve made a deliberate choice not to live in L.A. or New York. Not because they can’t “hack it” there. Because they value something different than what those metropolises offer. Their choice of where to live comes bundled with a specific set of values, aesthetics and perspectives.

Imagine how they must feel then when they support their local regional theater only to have the value systems of the places they have rejected thrown back in their faces.

So yes, I absolutely applaud Ms. Perloff’s insight that a theater by and for San Franciscans could be of more value to San Francisco (and possibly the art form as a whole) than a theater that acts as passive conduit between New York and the “flyover states.”

Does it make sense that a shift towards a local aesthetic in the stories being told would also give rise to a theatrical culture where local artists are being used to tell those stories? Absolutely. After all, the vast majority of theater consumed in New York is by New Yorkers, about New York places and values, for an audience of New Yorkers uniquely positioned to get all the jokes. New York has already embraced a “local culture” model. It’s time for the other regions of the country to do the same. I suspect that one will naturally follow the other. Once you value local produce, it’s a natural next step to get to know and choose to support the people who create that local produce.

Does this run the risk of becoming insular or “parochial?” Perhaps it would have 20 years ago, when the danger of becoming “out of touch” was a genuine concern for people who valued culture and could not access it. But in a world where we can follow the unfolding of the #londonriots in real time on Twitter…and where I can watch a live stream of the latest National Theatre production at my local cineplex, perhaps “parochial” is less of a concern than “redundant.”

These days, being a card-carrying Portland locavore foodie, I tend to think heirloom tomatoes from my own backyard taste better than ones imported from Argentina. I prefer the burger crafted by my neighborhood bistro from Oregon-raised beef to the one served up by that national chain. And, in a perfect world, I’d like to feel that MY theater is something I can experience only in MY town, teaching me things I don’t already know about my own community, my own values, my own experiences.

Of course, I am still a cultural omnivore. I have the luxury to be one thanks to the hyper-connected world we live in. I can get real New York or San Francisco stories told by real New Yorkers and San Franciscans, delivered to my inbox in real time, any time. At MY theater, I want stories I can’t get anywhere else. Stories with the power to create and transform the community in which I want to live. The community in which I already live.

It is said that the decade we are living in will come to be defined as the decade that killed the middle man, permanently eliminating the gatekeepers and flattening the hierarchies through which information and culture flow. It is said that Andy Warhol’s “15 Minutes of Fame” is out of date — instead, everyone on the planet will be famous to 15 people. How theater positions itself in this transition will be the key to its survival.

So what can the theater do that our iPads cannot? It can bring us face to face, in real time, with the unique stories and perspectives of our own unique place and time. It can connect us, not only with the stories that define our geography and culture, but to the artists who share a common passion for this place we call home.

There was a time when Quality was something that had to be imported from somewhere richer and better resourced. These days Quality can and should be cultivated on our home turf.

LINK to Mead Hunter’s essay: Theater and the importance of being local: Part two

Trisha Mead is the director of marketing and communications at Oregon Ballet Theatre.

11 Responses.

  1. Natalie Genter-Gilmore says:

    First to comment! Hooray!
    I love the idea of keeping locally tied work on our stages. Theater is real, live and exists in certain cultural space. I think the work we cultivate should reflect a sense of the place we;re creating it in. The Missing Pieces at Portland Playhouse last season was as good as a ripe Oregon strawberry! As I savored it, it made me love being part of this region.

    But at the same time, I think we need to retain a balance. I want to see and do work that’s just plain good, no matter where it comes from. I still want my local theaters to produce plays like Opus and God of Carnage.

    In my mind our seasons at the local theaters should be like the produce section of New Seasons. They feature those amazing local heirloom tomatoes, but they also have Florida oranges. For my diet I want both.

  2. admin says:

    Natalie,

    I agree — the programming for a successful regional company is probably going to have to be a mix of some sort. Perloff’s point, elaborated by Mead and Hunter, is that the audience is likely to engage most deeply with its own stories, and that geography is part of that.

    For me, being local also involves plays produced elsewhere originally that have some local resonance for one reason or another. That’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to PCS’s African-American ‘Oklahoma!’ — a forgotten part of Oregon’s past will be resurrected a bit (Jess Stahhl was one of the great saddle bronc riders at Pendleton in the early 20th century, for example).

    Thanks for being first!

  3. Linda says:

    I love this! Here at ASU, we call it “leveraging place,” and it is the reason why most of our season this year consists of plays not just for Arizonans, but by and about Arizonans. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s the state centenary in February). Ironically, the large LORT theatre in the area, Arizona Theatre Company, which calls itself “the state theatre of Arizona,” rarely hires directing, acting, or design talent locally.

    My one quibble with your article is that you may too easily dismiss the dangers of parochialism or, more problematic, insularity. While I think its critical to tell the locavore story, it’s equally critical to maintain a level of cross-pollination — not only with NY, but across the whole of the nation. There is culture in those “fly-over” states that can enrich the culture in my own or in yours.

  4. Barry Johnson says:

    Linda,

    That sounds great. To combat the insularity, how about exchanges: You send us some Arizona stories, we send you some Oregon stories? Meanwhile, I don’t think anyone is going to abandon the best plays out of London or New York — those are some darn good plays! (I’d also like to see the best from Paris and Tokyo, in fact.)

  5. Zillah Glory says:

    Thank you for such an elegantly phrased and logically beautiful article. As an actor/director who keeps fighting the interior battle over why I keep chosing places to live other than LA or NY when it is true that mainstream perception deciphers this (and therefor my talent) as less than “serious” – I was heartened by your words.

  6. Thank you SO much for this really thought-provoking response, Trisha Mead! In particular, the question about the relationship of local artists to the large local theaters is constantly worth investigating– at A.C.T., we find that even our own recently minted MFA graduates IMMEDIATELY decamp to NYC unless we actively find a way to keep them in San Francisco. So this eyar we have hired two of them to be in our company and put another 6 onstage in our opening production- and lots of our fellow theaters in SF are hiring them as wll. We will see if over time that helps deepen and strengthen the local acting pool as well. At any rate, I appreciate your keeping the questions alive.

  7. Trisha Mead says:

    Carey,

    I am stoked to hear that ACT is starting to address what systems need to be in place in San Francisco to stop the brain drain, better balance the hiring ecosystem there, and make it more feasible for artists who choose to live and work in the region to make a living.

    My hope is, that as the value systems in regional markets continue to shift toward cultivating high quality distinct local talent pools, the collective resources of the various arts organizations in the community will bend towards efforts that serve to cultivate and support the entire local talent pool, incentivizing the best and brightest to stay in the market while also cultivating the existing talent pool to grow their own skill sets and have opportunities to hone and share their craft.

    To speak also to Natalie’s point (hi Natalie!) I agree that in this new value system there should still be a place for work generated from without a specific region.To champion local quality is in no way an assertion that non-local means lower quality.

    It’s the ratio of work, and the specifics of where it gets generated that I think could stand to change. Right now we have one regional market (NY) sucking in and spitting out artists and plays after running them through a mill that all too frequently homogenizes them to the value systems of that particular market. We import 90% of our work from that market.

    In the future, I personally would like to see that ratio shift and expand so that we might see, say, 30%-50% of our work be generated by and for our own region, with the remaining being generated by several other regional markets (including, but not limited to, NY). In a perfect world, our artistic leaders would have the freedom to select from a national bounty of well-honed new work, bearing the distinct flavor of the region in which it was generated. A given curator could then select from that bounty the shows that address themes and concerns of maximum relevance to their own region.

    Excited to continue this conversation!

    • Way to go, you.

      I agree that a higher percentage is warranted. We’re at roughly 5% in DC now, and I want to get us to 50%, personally, if not a touch higher. (Will be hard, given the prevalence of Shakespeare.) It will take significant time, though. Very significant. Patience is probably warranted…

  8. Taylor Mac says:

    I applaud this and want to emphasize that a lot of us in New York want to see your plays as well. As the Lunt’s would say, you don’t know how good a theater artist you can be until you hit the road. It’d be great if a bunch of theaters across the country got together and created a festival of work that could tour nationally and abroad. Also, to me, watching a performance livestreamed feels like research and is fairly void of any emotional connection to the work. I’ve invested in theater because it’s live. And livestreaming, though interesting and useful, is not as good as watching something specifically made for 2-dimensional screen. If I want to watch television I’ll watch television. Bring me your plays.

    • Trisha Mead says:

      Taylor,

      I love the idea of creating a tour of region specific work.

      Thanks for contributing to the conversation and thanks for the support.

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