All roads lead to… New York?

To make it as a performing artist, you have to end up in New York or Hollywood. We know this is true because many important people have said it’s so, and aspiring actors accept this fate and are herded into mass auditions for the chance to make it (as Tom Loughlin observed at last year’s Southeastern Theatre Conference) in the big city.

“All the questions and all the talk was about how to succeed on Broadway and be like [keynote speaker Beth Leavel]. As I walked through the halls of the hotel complex during the afternoon I grew more and more sad watching all these young dressed-up kids with their audition numbers pinned to their chests waiting for their turn to show everyone what they could do and begin their climb up the great Broadway ladder. They know nothing else at all about theatre except this professional business model, and they have no sense of independent thought in terms of thinking about how to push back against it. They’re just buying it hook, line and sinker. And we, the educators, are tossing them the baited hook.”

Image credit: Tomás Fano via Flickr

Teachers, professors and acting coaches tell us it’s so. We tell each other it’s so. It’s just one of those things that we know it true because it’s been repeated so many times.

Except it isn’t true. Economically, trying to “make it” in New York or Los Angeles makes no sense. You’re more likely to be out of work than not (less than half of Equity actors have any income in a typical year, making the median income zero). So it can’t be for the money, at least not if you’ve actually given any thought to the subject.

Celebrity? Fame? Possibly. Certainly your chances of being the Next Big Thing are greater on the coasts, where the star-making machinery is. But are you looking to be a star or are you hoping to be a working artist? It’s possible for both to happen, but not if being a star is what you’re reaching for first.

And, as Scott Walters discusses today on Theatre Ideas, the strip mining of young performing artists to send them to N.Y. and L.A. deprives their home towns of much of their artistic soul:

“[Michael] Kaiser [mentions] Leontyne Price because she didn’t stay in the south, but traveled north to become the first African-American prima donna for the Metropolitan Opera in…New York. Ethan Stiefel was the principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre in…New York. Twyla Tharp began with the Paul Taylor Dance Company and also worked with the American Ballet Theatre in…New York. Terrence McNally moved to…New York in 1956 where he became known for his productions on and off Broadway in…New York.

“These are not artists who stayed in their community, or even in the states or regions where they were from. They are artists who were extracted from their communities in the same way that coal is extracted from the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia and transported elsewhere for consumption. And what Kaiser wants us to do is applaud all the warmth that that coal is bringing to New York while the originating communities shiver.”

There are opportunities for performing artists all over the country. They don’t all pay a lot, but that’s the reality of our business, regardless of where you’re trying to work… especially the big cities. We’re going to have to create many of these opportunities ourselves, and it won’t be easy and it won’t be handed to us.

We have to stop shipping our students away to the fairy tale lands of opportunity. We need to show them how to be self-sufficient and self-starting (and not just as meaningless terms at the top of a resume), and teach them to stop waiting for permission from those they think are “in charge,” and who can give them the magic money to do what they want. If we want to be artists, it’s within our power to do so at home, and now, not later.

Our communities deserve better. In fact, they deserve us.

Author: Tom Kephart

Actor, director, writer. Social media guy. Higher ed drone. Sings for beer in karaoke bars.