Tuesday, March 9, 2010

White Flight

Via the good ol' Prof, Tom Loughlin highlights some of the findings from this study and concludes:
If you connect the dots, a pattern appears which could be considered…well, controversial. It seems as if white people, about 2 out of 3 of whom were born outside the metropolitan area, have migrated to NYC and created a theatrical ghetto, producing theatre primarily for white people while being surrounded primarily by non-whites. In other words, in a city where people of color are in the majority, the theatre being produced appears primarily to be for the minority whites.
I talked a bit about this same study here. Tom asked for and got some additional information. Honestly, I'm loathe to get into a whole "damned statistics" situation here. It's not really my bailiwick. I do think it's worth noting that this study is about participants, not audiences. I don't really quibble with his leap, since it's been documented for other segments and discussed here, there and, well, everywhere.

Honestly, I think Tom (and Scott) are missing the forest for the trees here and looking at the situation from a kind of privilege. This study covers a certain segment of the Off-Off-Broadway theatre, is by no means comprehensive or complete (as the authors state here) and, as someone closer to the ground (though not fully of that world) can tell you, is already a bit self-selected. Reading his post put me in mind of this post by Ta-Nehisi Coates and this part, in particular:
But that said, I think that people passing this data around need to be really careful about using this study to draw inferences about the dating world of black women. One significant problem is that, as any black person will tell you, when black folks date online they don't go to OKcupid. They go to blacksingles. They go to soulsingles. Or if they're truly high post, they go to EliteNoire. (Dig the sensuous piano riffs and candelabra.)
In case you don't click through the link, he's talking about this study about the poor response rate black women get on the dating site, OKCupid. What both of these studies don't take into account is self-selection and the segregated nature of our society.

Even amongst the forward thinking world of Off-Off-Broadway theatre in New York, there is a significant level of segregation. And what that winds up meaning is that the black theatre remains off the radar. I don't mean to fault the fine folks at the Innovative Theatre Foundation, who are doing good things and did a good thing. We need more studies like this. But there are networks and connections for black theatre artists that don't connect to the community of indie theatre in any visible way. A young black theatre artist, coming to New York from an HBCU, say, isn't necessarily going to find a home at one of these theatres. They might at the New Federal or the Negro Ensemble Company or Urban Bush Women. They might find the Frank Silvera Workshop. They might find a group at a larger theatre like Going to The River.

Tom and Scott are exactly right: a lot of the indie theatre community is formed from college students flocking to New York after graduation and then working with their friends and peers. Which necessarily leads away from diversity. You work with people you know. And if all you know are other young, white kids, that's who you work with.

Where Tom and Scott and I part ways, of course, is in the question of what to do about it. They prefer to attack the NYLACHI mindset, to encourage artists to head to rural areas, or back to where they came from. I want to encourage the artists here to look around and actually write and create for the New York around them.

I've actually been thinking about this a lot lately, for a variety of reasons. One, I'm currently reading The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead and falling in love with New York again. Recently, I've gone to see quite a few shows, and, for all of the talk about the New York bias and whatnot, I've actually seen very, very few by either New York natives or even set in New York. I've seen plays set in rural Pennsylvania and suburban California and rural Texas (granted, that one was set at the turn of the century, but still...). In the last month or so, I've seen three plays actually set in New York and they were all set amongst the upper classes.

When I write, especially lately, I'm trying to write for the New York I know, the people I see on the subway and on the street. That's the audience I want to reach. I don't want to turn this into a big, chest-thumping roar about how Scott doesn't know what he's talking about; I don' think that's particularly productive. But...it's one thing to live here, to know this city and another to read about, or listen to how others talk about it.

Most of our indie theatres are pretty white, that's for sure. But that's not all of the independent theatre going on. Hell, look at the blogosphere: as far as I can tell, there are only two black playwrights in New York, apparently. But I know that's not true. We're just the ones you can see. The same is true for black theatre. What we don't have is integrated theatres. That's another matter.

22 comments:

Scott Walters said...

"Where Tom and Scott and I part ways, of course, is in the question of what to do about it. They prefer to attack the NYLACHI mindset, to encourage artists to head to rural areas, or back to where they came from. I want to encourage the artists here to look around and actually write and create for the New York around them."

I don't think Tom or I would disagree with you in the least. Or rather, we'd say that BOTH ought to happen.

Also, just a note in the interest of transparency: Tom is a Native New Yorker, and I have lived there twice in my life time for a total of 3 years. I worked for PAJ Publications on Houston St, a hub of the avant garde theatre scene. So we're not exactly just forming our opinions from reading studies.

No chest thumping,
Scott

99 said...

I think we're definitely in agreement on BOTH happening, but the matter of tactics to get that happening is still, uh, shall we say, open?

Like I said, I'm feeling some love for my city right now, so I'm a bit more pugnacious about it than usual, but I don't know if ragging the NYC (or LA or Chicago) theatre communities is the way to get them to change.

I don't mean to suggest that you need credentials to have an opinion, or that any opinion isn't valuable, but there's certainly a different perspective to be had from someone here on the ground, watching what's going on and someone who's not. I also don't mean to make this about "academia" or whatever, but being around young artists who haven't fully formed is different than being around artists who are working. The concerns and attitudes are different. There's overlap, to be sure, and I'm not professing to fully understand the minds of late adolescents, but when we're talking about artists, we're not really talking about the same sample.

99 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott Walters said...

I'm only going to speak for myself, but I have no interest at all in making the Nylachi communities "change." It's not about you as an artist, and it's not about getting Nylachi artists to change. It is about the way Nylachi theatre is represented, the myth that is belied by the data. Nylachi is not the Emerald City. The idea that you can "make a living" doing theatre in Nylachi is a myth belied by the employment data, that Nylachi theatre is a mecca of liberal multiculturalism is belied by this study that shows that the artists, even in the most "avant garde" parts of the scene, are disproportionately white. I am all for people loving where they live, and your love for NYC is admirable and wonderful, and I wouldn't change it for the world, nor encourage you to head to a rural area. I just want a little bit of reality attached to the image of NYC theatre.

99 said...

That's just where our missions differ and overlap. I agree that theatre should reflect its surroundings, the world that it lives in and that we need more theatre in more places that does that. And I think the NYLACHI myth does a disservice to both rural areas AND urban areas, since it promotes a kind of theatre that doesn't reflect its surroundings. I see my mission as trying to change that, here. If people want to move to New York, for whatever reasons, they should move to New York. But they should make theatre FOR New York. I don't think we need to undo the NYLACHI mindset to achieve that.

Scott Walters said...

Well, I guess we disagree, then. Because with that mindset being spread nationally to the young at events like SETC, at high schools and conservatories and colleges and grad programs, the young have no idea what their options are. They are told over and over throughout their formative years that if they are serious about their career, then they need to go to NYC. This is simply not true -- it is what I call an ideology and Tom calls a mindset. And I see our mission to undermine it so that young people recognize that NYC is just one of many possible career paths, not the only one and not necessarily the best one. Just an option. I want a lower unemployment rate in NYC because fewer people are going there, and a higher employment rate throughout the nation because more people are taking advantage of a wider range of options. I fail to see why Nylachians get so bent out of shape about this -- I really do.

99 said...

It's okay for us to disagree. I can live with that.

As for getting bent out of shape...I can't really speak for anyone else, but I get bent out of shape when I feel like the work I do is being delegitimized or treated like navel gazing and wankery just because I do it in New York. I get bent out of shape when, in the interest of counter-acting the NYLACHI mindset, it becomes more about saying that NYC is full of poncey fakes. Or that community, happiness and support are impossible here. They aren't. I get bent out of shape when I feel like you're saying the ONLY reason people move to New York is to "make it big" or "get rich" when there are a lot of reasons to move here and pursue the arts that actually have more noble underpinnings. Like it or not, NYC provides a huge stage and a big microphone and access to the attention of the world. If you want to make a statement that people will hear across the country, this is where you go. You want to change that. I understand that and accept that.

But understand and accept that this is my home, my home base, and when I feel like you (or anyone else for that matter) mischaracterizes it, I get hot under the collar. That's me.

But whether we get hot under the collar or not, I feel like it kind of shouldn't matter. You have your mission. Your mission isn't my mission. Do they have to be the same missions or we can't get along?

Scott Walters said...

Not at all (although there are some who would disagree with that).

But I only ask one thing: if you can find where I said anything like what you've attributed to me, I will stand corrected. Find where I said it, not where somebody decided that I had said it.

99 said...

Scott, please don't misunderstand me, or my intent, but I'm not actually trying to correct you. I don't have the desire or patience to go back through a thousand blog posts and comments to pull out individual sentences. But even here, in this thread: the first thing you throw out is about "making a living" in New York, which is true for some, but not true for others. Some people don't actually come to New York to make a living in the arts. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. The off-hand comment that started all of this about how in New York, we're not performing for our community, but just our friends. The dismissal of Naomi Wallace as an artist-specialist. These are the comments that get under my (and others) skins. But I'm not saying don't say them. You believe them and believe there's value in saying it. Keep saying it, if it serves your purpose. But don't be surprised when urban artists who don't see themselves that way, who don't conduct their lives that way get their dander up. We're not all 18-year old singer-dancer-actors eager to play on Broadway. We have our faults and our failings, but lumping us all in the same "artist-specialist with an advanced degree" whose "formal experimentation" alienates and insults ALL rural audiences who just want a good story is as unfair as the times when I and others say all 60 year old rural white guys are racists. If we're calling a moratorium on tarring whole swaths of the country with the same brush, then we're calling a moratorium.

But, really, Scott, I don't feel the need to prove to you that's how I feel sometimes when I read your writing.

Scott Walters said...

OK, that's fine. I'm not going to argue that you don't feel the way I feel, but only that many project an attack when facts they dislike are raised, or interpretations of something are not to their liking.

Anyway, this is my last comment, and then I'll leave you alone.

1. Anyone who has been trained is an "artist-specialist." The term is not mine, but G. S. Evans in "Art Alienated." It is used to make a distinction between "artist-specialists" who sell an arts product and participatory artists who create without thought of sales. Naomi Wallace IS an artist-specialist, so are you, and so was I when I freelanced in Minneapolis. What comes with that training are certain values that are reinforced through education and environment -- values that inform what is considered "excellence" and "quality," for instance. And they are values that may alienate an artist from the non-specialist public who DON'T have that background.

2. Some people make a living doing theatre in NYC, that is true. But the median annual income for working AEA members was about $7700 and Outrageous Fortune puts the annual income for working playwrights from their plays at about $7000. That's before federal, state, and local taxes and union dues. That's not a living. Titus Burgess said at SETC that his Equity minimum salary for his Broadway chorus work was about $1600 a week, but that once taxes, union dues, and agent fees were deducted, it was about $800 a week. That's OK, not horrible, you can eat and have a roof, but as a representation of having "made it," it is pretty skimpy. What young people are told is that the only place they can "make a living doing theatre" is in NYC, and I am arguing that except for a precious few, this isn't true. And there are people elsewhere who are making as good or better of a living doing theatre.

3. I did not write that people in NYC don't write for their community. In fact, I believe I mentioned Classical Theatre of Harlem as one who, in fact, does -- and that is one of many. What I said was that writing for one's friends, a self-chosen community is not the same as writing for a community that exists due to proximity. That is a clear distinction. And the fact that it is heard as an attack on NYC just isn't accurate. So often I find that what I actually say is rewritten into what someone thinks I said, and that interpretation gets repeated as truth. It doesn't take an academic to see that this is not fair attribution.

4. I have never, ever, in any discussion, said something about ALL anything. Again, that is something that is attributed to me through interpretation.

So while you may not want to go back through my blog to find out what I actually said and didn't say, it might be generous to given more credence to my actual words than the unfair interpretations that my critics attribute to me.

I'm not sure why, but I thought we were at a different place than this. I'm really sorry that we're not.

99 said...

Scott, we're back at the "debate" place and I'm not trying to debate you. Period. And I'm saying "what your critics say." I'm telling you what I think and feel when I read your words. You want to say you don't mean them that way, that's fine. But that's how I actually read them and what they make me feel. It's not about disputing your facts or trying to undermine your conclusions or mission or whatever. I really wish you could see that. We're not all out to get you or attack your priorities. I am simply trying to engage with your ideas and show you the places where we overlap. Okay?

I hope you are listening: I GIVE FULL CREDENCE TO YOUR WORDS EXACTLY AS YOU HAVE WRITTEN THEM. But they have impact and results that you don't always intend and they have meanings.

And you know what? You do the same thing. Read what people wrote, react, draw inferences. I don't know a single NYLACHI-based artist who has boasted about performing just for their friends. I know I haven't. I know I have read a lot of posts about trying to reach out and engage other audiences. Some of us say, "I can't care about how the audience will react when I'm working," and you (apparently) hear, "I don't care about the audience at all." Which isn't the same thing. You say, "NYLACHI shouldn't be so important to everyone," and I hear, "What you're doing shouldn't be important." And I react. If you can't acknowledge that there is more to this than point/counter-point, maybe there isn't much reason to continue talking about it.

Right here is another example: In my previous comment, I say, "Some people don't actually come to New York to make a living in the arts." You respond with "What young people are told is that the only place they can "make a living doing theatre" is in NYC, and I am arguing that except for a precious few, this isn't true. And there are people elsewhere who are making as good or better of a living doing theatre." Which isn't the point I'm making at all. The point I'm trying to make is that, for some people, it's about more than money. I've never written or said "New York is the only place where an artist can make a living." It isn't and it shouldn't be. But it has draws and attractions that are maybe, for some, worth the trade-off. But when you reduce it to, "Well, you can't make a living there, so we shouldn't encourage people to go," you miss my actual point.

For whatever reason, we're not actually talking to each other. I feel like I'm trying to talk to you. Maybe I'm not doing it right.

99 said...

Argh. In that second sentence there, I meant "I'm NOT saying "what your critics say.""

Scott Walters said...

OK, I'm going to do one more, even though I said I wouldn't, because of your last sentence.

When you tell me what you feel when you read my ideas, I hear you echoing my critics, and it makes me feel defensive.

Perhaps something similar happens to you when I say something about, say, making a living in the theatre in NYC.

And so, instead of actually having a conversation and exchanging ideas, we both end up defending ourselves against what we think we are hearing. And round and round we go.

I wish I knew how to get out of that particular vicious cycle.

Here's something. Stage Directions magazine just came out with a story about URTA creating a NYC audition showcase calendar: "Each spring more than 70 schools with professional MFA and/or BFA programs in acting, performance and musical theatre produce showcases in theatres throughout the Big Apple. With some schools offering both BFA and MFA degrees, more than 80 showcases are presented over the months of March, April and early May. Each showcase seeks to introduce a graduating class of performers to casting directors, agents and other professionals in the nonprofit and commercial theatre, and in related industries from cruise line productions and corporate industrials to advertising, film and television.
Showcases allow training programs to provide invaluable assistance to graduates transitioning into an always challenging job market."

Do you see what I'm saying? Do the math: 70 universities times, what, 15 or 20 students? Are these programs giving their students entrepreneurial skills so they can explore other job markets? This just seems so narrowly focused. But if I said: "Is this really a good idea -- dragging a thousand youngsters to NYC and dumping them into the job market?" would you feel personally attacked?

99 said...

No! I don't think that's a good idea at all. I don't think it's good to have that many MFA and BFA programs. I don't think we should be churning out that many students for something that, no matter what, is always going to be limited in nature. I'm in complete agreement with you!

Part of how we break out of this cycle is stop trying to defend ourselves all the time. I'm not attacking you. That statement of fact doesn't attack me or my life choice.

Scott Walters said...

OK. I'm not attacking you either.

cgeye said...

One of the unspoken movements in all this is gentrification -- the deliberate opening up of real estate to people outside the community to make "culture"; Richard Florida wouldn't have a job, without his ongoing documentation and touting of this trend.

For generations we've had smart young people move into an older community to make something of themselves. Their friends move in, and we get good coffeehouses and cafes and boutiques... until the rents get too high, and people with cash settle in, and the gentrifiers' work is done -- until the next neighborhood downturn.

Would theatre happen in a planned community? In a suburb, in a house under foreclosure, under sponsorship of the mortgage bank? Isn't part of this process the post-adolescent rejection of where one grew up, for someplace just a touch alien and challenging?

Is the underlying "I remember walking past gangs to get to the theatre" machismo involved a substitution for going into the Army -- part of the growing up process?

Don Hall said...

"...many theatre people have a deep-seated contempt, or at least ambivalence, concerning their audience. They want to write and perform what they want, when they want it, and if you don't like it, then it is your fault for being so narrow-minded. After over 4 years of doing this, I have come to the conclusion that this is an intractable problem that will only change with the complete collapse of the system -- something that is coming faster than we think. As you say, audiences are voting with their feet, and every study tells us that the decline in attendance is precipitous. But nothing changes, except theatres start Twittering and Facebooking, and artists continue to beat their breasts and complain about how little money they make."
-- Scott Walters

Scott Walters said...

I'm sorry, j, but I have to respond briefly to Don. I'll keep it polite.

Don -- I am assuming that you are responding to my request that J find someplace where I actually say the things he seemed to be attributing to me. Let's do a matching exercise. Below, I have broken what he said into pieces. Please match the piece to the part of my quotation that applies. Note: there must be a clear connection, not an implication through interpretation.

A. I feel like the work I do is being delegitimized or treated like navel gazing and wankery just because I do it in New York.

B. I get bent out of shape when, in the interest of counter-acting the NYLACHI mindset, it becomes more about saying that NYC is full of poncey fakes.

C. Or that community, happiness and support are impossible here.

D. The ONLY reason people move to New York is to "make it big" or "get rich" when there are a lot of reasons to move here and pursue the arts that actually have more noble underpinnings.

My quotation:

""...many theatre people have a deep-seated contempt, or at least ambivalence, concerning their audience. They want to write and perform what they want, when they want it, and if you don't like it, then it is your fault for being so narrow-minded. After over 4 years of doing this, I have come to the conclusion that this is an intractable problem that will only change with the complete collapse of the system -- something that is coming faster than we think. As you say, audiences are voting with their feet, and every study tells us that the decline in attendance is precipitous. But nothing changes, except theatres start Twittering and Facebooking, and artists continue to beat their breasts and complain about how little money they make."

P.S.Extra credit:

2. Who else has written extensively about the collapse of the current system?

A. Don Hall B. Ken Davenport C. Thomas Garvey D. Leonard Jacobs

True/False

3. "Many" is the same as "all."

Anonymous said...

Scott,

I don't think Don is your student. None of us are.

Lonnie Sue

Anonymous said...

And Scott?

Your tone. It insults me. And that hurts.

Lori Sally

Scott Walters said...

Hahaha. Yup. Beats actually answering the question, Donny Ray.

99 said...

HEY. No one "has" to respond to anything, not here. I don't want your mudslinging here. That's why I didn't engage with it. I don't want to moderate comments or anything, but I will if I have to. This thread is now closed.