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Theatre: Can theater be localvore?

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES January/ February 2013

I recently saw a blog post by Scott Walter in which he protests the “Wal-Mart-ization” of the American theater. In his almost necrotic vision, New York City is the “central warehouse;” programs, particularly colleges and universities, are the suppliers who ship their “products” to the central warehouse, and theater companies and touring operations all over the country are the “customers” who receive their “products” shipped directly to the them from the “central warehouse.”
I can hear some struggling young artists working their heads off in New York City trying to get a little attention paid to their work throwing themselves at an overhead door, screaming “Box me up! Ship me out! Please!” Well, not really. But you get the idea – an idea developed with perhaps a bit more fervor than reality-testing involved.

What Mr. Walters seems to want could be called a localvore theater – one in which a wide scattering of local theater companies, employing locally grown and developed artists, deliver locally-flavored productions to local audiences. His vision has a wonderfully 16th-century feel; one could imagine an artistic director in Brother Cadfael mode, paterfamilias to a healthy brood of artistic souls; perhaps, in the spirit of Ellis Peters, secretly plotting to murder one another in some cranny backstage.

I can certainly understand why. I can imagine nothing more incestuously, stiflingly conducive to felonious intentions than being cooped up for your career with the same group of your fellow artists, production after production. I recall, some years ago, a director, whose career had been spent, at least to that point, entirely in the confines of a small regional company, declaring forthrightly, “I hate theater people!” The said declaration rang out in the midst of a gathering of the object of his feelings at the favorite hangout of, you guessed it, the local “theater people.” His manner was vehement, and yet at the same time confused, as though he knew what he felt but could not for the life of him grasp why he felt it.

Many of the greatest periods in theater history could very readily be described as “localvore.” Shakespeare’s London was a metropolis of only about 200,000 people. Moliere’s Paris was about twice that size. Lope de Vega’s Madrid was about half that size. The population of Sophocles’ Athens was about midway between those two. Great theater does not require a mammoth audience. But does that mean that any area with a population of about 100,000 – the size of the average county in the United States – could produce great localvore theater?

I doubt it. As we survey cultural history, we don’t see lots of high-quality work coming out of the quiet of the backwoods. What we see, when we look at places and times that produce lots of lasting stuff, is ferment. The pot is boiling and bubbling, people and ideas are meeting and clashing, boundaries are being crossed, new techniques, new attitudes, new objectives, new desires are foaming and roiling. That kind of cultural ferment is really just not the stuff of epidemics. It tends to be more like a volcano, an intense, and intensely local, phenomenon that erupts somewhere, has its way with the place for a while and then dies away until it happens to erupt again somewhere else.

Very well then. The problem is obvious enough – what do we do until Popocatepetl pops? How can we get some good stuff in the meantime?

We trap ourselves here. We want good work to be the norm. It can’t be the norm. Normal isn’t good enough. Good is more than just not bad. Good is exceptional. So it can’t be the norm. We have to produce quite a lot of work in order to get a small amount of good work. The bottom line is, except in places where Popocatepetl is popping, the size of the fermenting mass is just not big enough. It has to be reinforced from outside, from places where Popocatepetl is popping, or at least burbling a bit.

In the end, localvore art – whether theater or any other art – will always have the same problem as localvore food: sometimes you go to the farmer’s market and all they have is winter lettuce. The good stuff is just not growing just then. When that happens, until the growing season returns, if you want the good stuff, you either import it, or do without. Doing without can produce a healthier body. It will not produce a healthier theater scene.

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