The first time I heard that one, I was sitting on a couch at a party full of theater people. An actor said it about somebody (Gabriel Baron?) who was leaving for New York to kick his career into high gear, like many former residents of Seattle: Heidi Schreck, Kristen Kosmas, Reggie Watts, Tom Smith, Mike Daisey, Kip Fagan, Lathrop Walker, et al.
Sometimes the move works, sometimes it doesn't, but it isn't limited to Seattle. In an interview in today's L.A. Times, Stew—the big black center of gravity of the fantastic musical Passing Strange—says he had the same problem in Los Angeles:
"When were we going through the classic L.A. club grind," he begins, speaking of his days this decade with the Negro Problem, "at a certain point, we were selling out Spaceland like you're supposed to do. But when we didn't get handed the brass ring of the major label deal and we didn't get handed the brass ring of the hip, indie label deal, it was like a lot of the powers that be were sort of looking at us like . . . 'what good are you guys?' "
He pauses. "You know, my solo record — which was just me and Heidi without a band — 'Guest Host,' it didn't even get reviewed in LA Weekly. . . . Then, we go to New York and next thing you know people are offering us musicals. We can't get an L.A. gig, and we're playing Lincoln Center?"
It's a condition that persists after success. When Mike Daisey was last in town working on his new show The Last Cargo Cult, he urged friends to come see the nascent, workshop version—not least because he wasn't sure they'd ever get a chance to see the finished version. By the time his tour is over, Daisey will have performed from the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles to the Sydney Opera House. But Seattle, as far as he can tell, will only see Cult's workshop version at the (perfectly respectable, but relatively small) Richard Hugo House.
Likewise, Implied Violence has been working on a massive Seattle project—but has said they needed to go meet with European programmers in order to get booked in NYC's New Island Festival (in September) in order to catch the attention of Seattle arts leaders.
Even after his Tony Awards and film by Spike Lee, Stew still can't get a break in L.A.:
And, it seems, the snub has continued. "We have gotten offers to do 'Passing Strange' from all over the country. I mean, I can name the places: Seattle, Atlanta, D.C., Philly, Boston — but not any calls from L.A. that I know of. . . . I don't know where the love is."
Hometown contempt is real, but it's not unique to Seattle (as local artists often think it is) and it isn't inevitable.
Seattle has plenty of counterexamples: Sheila Daniels moved from the fringe to an associate director job at Intiman—now, thanks to Bart Sher and his Tony magnet, it's one of the highest-profile regional theaters in the country—while living in Seattle. She even took one of her more successful fringe shows, a distilled three-person Crime and Punishment, with her.
Marya Sea Kaminski came from New York, helped found a fringe company, and went on to several gigs at the Rep.
On the Boards has been a launching pad for Seattle artists—locust, Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey, Allen Johnson, Maureen Whiting—who have subsequently toured around the country and around the world. (Notably, On the Boards has put Tom Smith and Reggie Watt's new show Transition in its Northwest Series, even though Smith and Watts both moved to NY years ago. A few artists who still live in the Northwest might be stewing over that decision.)
And helping artists who want to make work in Seattle—encouraging them to stay with cash as well as praise—was one of the original impulses behind the Stranger Genius Awards.
'Tis (almost) the season...