Theatre: Local & Responsive or a Commodity via the “WalMart” model

Several theatre manager-friends and I have met up about every month, some of us for 7-8 years, for a glass of wine (pint of stout, margarita or…) and some lively chats. Often a topic returns for our monthly rant: the seemingly brainless actions of theatre boards and leadership to redraft their theatre’s mission and “brand”. The effect is usually another theatre with a mission and repertoire that looks like several other theatres in town, and the hiring of artistic leadership, designers, directors and actors from someplace else (usually New York City), or depending on non-resident artistic leadership to care about the fate and hopes of Seattle audiences and Seattle-based theatre artists. Ta-daa: another theatre is re-born with zero-uniqueness, and a rapidly diminishing distinction (call it “Love” or loyalty) in the hearts and minds of their own ticket buyers and donors!

I’m linking to a blog here that calls this for what it is: “The Wal-Marting of the American Theatre.” In Scott Waters’ blog, he aptly draws the parallel between Wal-Mart’s Benton Arkansas headquarters as the brain trust of the nation’s consumer choices, and NYC’s unfortunate effects on what it means to be a professional theatre actor/director/designer etc. He writes:

“Instead of local arts organizations run by and staffed by artists whose lives are made within a specific community and whose artistic vision is informed by that community, Wal-Mart Regional Theatre and Touring House imports generic artists from NYC to do generic plays for a short run after which they depart never to be seen again, taking the community’s money with them.”

Seattle, Denver or Atlanta…I’ll go out on a limb and proclaim that resident theatre artists have stayed in their communities because they care, because they have loyalty to their neighbors and because they want to be a part of the local conversation between theatres and audiences. In cities like Seattle, where the market for film or television work is slight, the mid-sized theatres and the freelance actor/designer/director community display a profound loyalty to one another. And, to our audiences who “get it” about each theatre’s mission, attend our plays and support us with their donations.

My money is on theatres needing to get smart very fast in this economy and mobilizing the very capable talent in their backyards. Audiences will also rally – not for a guest appearance by a soap actor – but for their local, prized and normal theatre artists.

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