The Bash for Bart and the Fight over Local Theater


Sorry, but local artists need to get over themselves. If your plays are good here, they'll be good anywhere. The same if they suck.
The quote from Bart is typical of the kind of meaningless aphoristic faux-inspirational pablum that has been the stock-in-trade of artistic directors everywhere. There is no local? Hey Bart, check out the national coverage of our show IT'S NOT IN THE P-I. National coverage that we got BECAUSE we were telling Seattle stories to a Seattle audience written by Seattle playwrights about something that happened HERE and actually affected their lives.

But since Bart was never really here to begin with-- and his hand-picked successor seems to have even less commitment (if that's possible) to being a part of this community-- I suppose he can be forgiven for not understanding that there really is a here here.
And as for the anonymous sycophant's comments, let's be clear. My plays and the plays of several other nationally produced playwrights do just fine elsewhere. The problem isn't how well we do out in the big bad world. It's that we are literally overlooked by Seattle Big Houses BECAUSE we live here. Read OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE and you will learn that anonymously (you'll appreciate that) artistic directors cop to going after the same handful of marquee name playwrights, because they hope to hitch to their wagon and catch a ride back to New York. When we finally abandon the NYC-centric hub and spoke model, anonymous ignoramuses will understand just how valuable locally grown plays are, if only because they are then able to walk up to the playwright, shake his hand and make their ill-informed comments in person.
The whole local/national argument confuses two different things: One is a sort of absolute notion of quality, the idea that there is 'greatness' that stands above all other concerns, that there are works of art that are simply more profoundly moving (emotionally/intellectually/spritually) than others and performers who are simply more talented (and therefore naturally rise to national prominence).

The other is a completely different value system, wherein intimacy (of place, of sensibility) and a shared frame of reference create a different but just as powerful impact. That even though Scot Augustson (to use the example cited above) may not be obviously writing about Seattle, his work is shaped by the multitude of factors that shape my life (everything from city politics to the county's racial/cultural mix to regional cuisine to the affect of the weather on our moods) and therefore his writing addresses my life in a thousand tiny but significant ways that the work of, say, David Mamet cannot. Similarly, Marya Sea Kaminski is swimming in the same cultural water as I am, and so her performances have nuances that speak to me in a way that those of an actor jobbed in from New York cannot.

Saying "All that matters is working with the best people to produce greatness" is like saying that because Conan O'Brien and Craig Ferguson are smart, witty, and charming, I no longer need to talk with my friends. You can have both, but you need to value each for their own worth.

(And I'm not saying local artists can't be "great" -- Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Moliere were all, to their communities, local artists. "Greatness" is a dumb thing to pursue because really, you're talking about endurance over time, and you can't know what's going to hold up when you're in the moment. In Shakespeare's day, he wasn't considered any better than Beaumont and Fletcher, who are now forgotten by all but academics.)
Well, what do you expect from someone who has spent their entire career in the rather insulated world of regional theatre?

It's like every story everyone's ever heard of some explorer coming across an previously unknown indigenous people who assumed that, because they've never been anywhere else, that they must therefore live in the center of the universe.

And @1 completely misses the point: it's not whether "If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere", it's that Seattle theatre AD's, particularly at the big houses for the past 20 years or so, have been notoriously adverse to cultivating a local voice. August Wilson spent many years in Seattle, but his plays possess, without exception, a distinctive "Philadelphia Voice". Sam Shepard has a distinctive "Southwestern Voice"; Mamet a distinctive "Chicago Voice"; Stoppard, distinctively "British"; Fugard, distinctively "South African", and on and on. When you see works by these playwrights you HEAR those voices, and as a result you experience little slices of life that are about the places those plays inhabit.

It's not provincialism: every writer writes about what they know, or think they know. It is the distinctiveness of time, place and circumstance that makes good literature appeal to a broader audience, simply because they see within these specific examples reflections of their own lives, and with that comes a realization of the universality of the human condition. But, Seattle AD's simply have never spent much time concerning themselves about whether or not there is - or even should be - a similarly distinctive "Seattle Voice", one that addresses issues and events pertinent to our locale, but which present them in such a way that they can resonate with people who've never been here.
Ummm...Xanadu is at The Paramount, not The 5th...
@ 6. Right. Thanks for noticing that.
Bret, you put it so much better than I ever have or could. And Scot is a perfect example of the kind of Seattle playwright that has something to say to us HERE and beyond. We're lucky to have him, and thankfully, since he's a cussed coot, and likes things the way he likes them, we're unlikely to lose him.

Knock wood.
This conversation is so boring. Why don't you take the time you are spending rehashing this stupid argument over and over and use it to make great art. Yawnsville.
Dear @9:

Why don't you take the time you are spending reading this "boring" post AND commenting on it and use it to pleasantly fuck-off.
Ah Comte, how I love being on your side almost as much as being on the opposite. BTW: your points about local voice are extremely well taken too. That is happening here, as you know. Now it's time to get it on the larger radar of the community.
@9: In point of fact Chris, Bret, myself and a host of other Annex people -are- making the attempt. Tonight we'll be opening our third play in two weeks. And not that we planned it that way - but all three are by local playwrights and are new works.

I'd be the last person to claim that it makes them better works of art ... but I do take a certain personal pride in the fact.
Stephen, Bart's exhortation to stop talking about "local" and make "great things" and @9's anonymous (for all we know it could be Bart) shout-down to stop whining and make "great art" are essentially the same empty sentiment. This is what the established and failed system always trots out when people start speaking up for something different and more effective. They say, "just do it better" and "stop whining" because really, they just want us to shut up. They honestly don't care about how good the work we have been doing for decades is, because they have never seen it and have no intention of seeing it.

Me? I know Annex and love Annex. And I know how hard you guys work and think sometimes that hard work pans out to greatness. Sometimes not. But what I think about the quality of the work is just one man's opinion. The fact that you do it is remarkable and brilliant.

@9 I find it curious that those who feel comfortable anonymously telling artists to shut up don't take their own advice. In the theatre, there is no tradition of anonymity. You'll note that everyone of the theatre artist posted here proudly with their real name. That's because we're quite at home standing and delivering with our own voices in public and in person. Frankly, I believe that gives our words more weight. But then, I am biased that way. At least everyone knows who's being biased when I, or Bret, or Comte or Stephen speaks. You, you're the wind, and not a very convincing one.
You missed one of the best lines of the night: "Ten years ago, who would have thought the Theatres would still be here and the Banks out of business?"

Don't forget that whining is the crinkly cellophane packaging of nativism. Any actor working within the broken system of regional theatre will tell you every out-of-town contract comes at the expense of some local actor, somewhere. Like Mr. Mullin's feelings toward Annex, casting of non-locals also boils down to one-person's opinion. A decision often larded with Trustee mandates and agenda. Too many nonprofit boards are packed with the clueless; too many of these same clueless souls view art through the lens of a merchant, not as an act of creation.
I swear, Larry. I just posted this at my blog and then came here and saw your comment:…
The home of American playwriting is New York, and it's sort of foolish to think otherwise.

As soon as I got over this misconception, my life as a playwright became much easier. Coincidentally, this is when I moved to New York, the only place aside from London that a playwright can actually make a career with their work. It's true that occasionally good playwrights can spring up outside of NYC, but they are about as common as a good Philly cheesesteak joint run by a non-Philly native.

My frustration with Seattle is this "big britches" attitude on the part of the artists there, as if just being from Seattle entitled you to rule the stage. (I was the worst offender of this, once claiming that I'd never go to New York, ever, those phonies). But if you want to spend the rest of your life in the theater, know that it behooves you to make a connection to NYC and get rid of your soggy connection to a local mindset. As it stands, I am neither a New York nor a Seattle playwright, but I use my connections to both places to create more work for myself. It's just good business - on any given night in New York, there are at least 200 live theatre performances, compared to maybe 12 in Seattle. Just on a financial level, why on Earth would you thumb your nose at NYC?

At the end of the day, though, it's the individuals that I gravitate toward, not cities/places. I'm happy to report that many of my collaborators who I worked with in Seattle rode with me in my Trojan Horse to New York - actor Mary Jane Gibson, singer/comedian Reggie Watts, dancer Amy O'Neal, director Joby Emmons and many others regularly appear in my work in NYC. Work is work; do it wherever you are, and make friends with everybody.

(Tommy Smith;