Dear Holler readers,
Thank you for all your excitement and support for this new column! As you know, every month I will respond to your questions about any and all things personal/professional/not-sure-which-one-anymore-but-she-won’t-call-me-back. (You can check out last month’s inaugural column here.) Chances are, whatever is eating you is eating at someone else, too (that didn’t sound right), so drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll respond to as many as I can (gotta leave time to get out there and make my own mistakes, you know). I may edit your letters for length or clarity, but I promise to leave your anonymity (like mine) intact.
This month’s letter comes from Big City Blues, asking an eternal question we’ve surely all asked at some point: Do I have to live in New York to work in theater?
I'm a nearly 30-year-old interdisciplinary theater artist with a quandary. In my career I've prided myself on never falling victim to the wiles of New York City and have been a huge advocate of theater in the so-called provinces, but now I find myself lining up paying gigs in the Big Apple and for the first time I'm considering moving there. My concerns are numerous, but I'll try and limit this to the ones I can't identify as crazy just yet.
I've been fortunate enough to have my hard work pay off and allow me to work exclusively in theater, and I'm concerned about getting a day job. I say no to that. I recognize that this sounds a bit entitled, but why not? Are dentists forced into second careers because they have to start out doing root canal showcases? Nope. True or false: I would have to get a day job to survive in NYC.
I love to work with other artists in various capacities, but my primary interest is my own work. While I've produced in various Midwestern cities, I realize that NYC is a whole different enchilada. New York is expensive. Space is hard to come by. I don't know what kind of cheese to use. I would only imagine that collaborators are also hard to come by. True or false: producing work in New York is impossible for a newbie.
Aaaaaaaaaaanddd... Here comes the crazy: No matter how well I've done in other cities a little piece of me feels that I haven't really done everything I can to build a great career if I don't at least try NYC. Why is there such a prevailing "NYC is superior" attitude and why am I being seduced/brainwashed by it?
Is now the right time? I feel like it could be an enriching experience, but then again it could be a disaster. True or false: I should move to NYC.
Big City Blues
We’ve all been there. If not about moving from the Midwest to NYC, then we’ve struggled about moving from Waukegan to Chicago, or Tucson to Los Angeles, or Saxapahaw to Raleigh. The lure of the Big City—Bright lights! Fame! Glory! Artisanal cupcakes! —Will sooner or later make us question the worth of our piddling little small-town lives. Some of us will resist that temptation, others will dip our toes in “just so that we can say we did,” and still others will dive head-first and never look back. Many before me, from EB White to Jay-Z to PrettyLady, have opined on the psychology (or psychosis) of choosing New York. I’ll keep my response focused on the questions you raise from the perspective of a mid-career theater artist who has started to build a professional presence in the city.
Would You Need a Day Job? (And So What If You Did?)
Obviously, everyone comes to New York (or any new place) with a different amount of money in the bank as well as a different desired lifestyle. Your sense of “entitlement” that you should be able to work solely in theater, as you have been, and as dentists do, is both a very big issue and a very small one. But what is it you think you’re entitled to, exactly? Better get specific about that before you start weighing pros and cons. Can you manage without health insurance? Cable? New clothes? Do you mind living in a roach-infested railroad apartment two hours from Midtown? How many flavors of Maruchan Instant Lunch can you stomach? What you are willing to put up with largely will determine how much, if any, supplemental income you need. More broadly, this also depends on what you define as a “day job.” You could be a teaching artist in public schools and earn a decent supplementary income, practicing your craft in an enriching way while networking with fellow artists. You could work in a box office, which at the very least usually scores you free tickets. You could work for a theater industry union, affinity group, service organization, etc., enabling you to learn about your field while helping make it a better place to work. Sure, none of these things is exactly “acting in a play,” but they might be more satisfying than answering phones at Company Unlimited, Incorporated. However, there are just as many out there who would rather go hungry than work an administrative job within our field. Some don’t want to be seen by potential employers as anything but their artist-selves. Others would just rather have a day job they can quit (or get fired from) without worrying about any consequences.
Is Self-Producing Hard for a NYewbie?
Well, who isn’t a newbie in New York, really? Even after ten years here, or fifty, you might have trouble getting a project off the ground. The nice thing about New York is that, even though there is more competition for resources, there are also more resources. And by “resources,” I don’t just mean space and money, but also support systems, classes, fellowships, grants, residencies, etc.—the kind of things that can drive you crazy with deadline-itis, but can also make your next project possible. Programs from ELNYA, NYFA, the Foundation Center, LMCC, New Dramatists, SDC, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and each borough’s arts council specifically serve Big Apple-based artists. Sure, anywhere you might go has its share of local offerings, but the breadth of what you’ll find in New York is hard to beat. But beyond that, the best reason to self-produce in NY is the seemingly limitless supply of fellow newbies, even fresher off the boat then you, who are always willing to intern, apprentice, assist, and/or gaze at you admiringly. Which reminds me, your stated preference for doing your own thing over collaborating with others may be tough to maintain in NYC. I’ve found that the best way to get someone to help out with your show is to offer to help out with theirs. (This, by the way, is essentially 13P’s model, the success of which has been much discussed in recent months.)
But these issues are easy compared to your larger dilemma—not can you make it in NYC, but should you even try? If you believe that “real” success only happens on a 13-by-2-mile island in the Hudson River, then nothing anyone or I can say will disavow you of that belief. You’ll have to conquer New York or else retreat once New York has conquered you. But I’m intrigued by your question as to why we are “seduced/brainwashed” into believing we must do whatever we do in New York. New York has a bizarre, parasitic relationship with the rest of the national theater scene. On one hand, it gobbles it up: hit productions from regional nonprofits, talented artists, great teachers, even whole theater companies wind up here. On the other hand, it spits it all back out: just as a regional theater producer may dream of transferring to Broadway, a Broadway producer dreams of sending a show out on endless national tours. And regional theaters and training programs often choose new leaders from among prominent NYC-based artists. And any actor will tell you that she has to maintain an address in the Empire City in order to book a job in her hometown. Perhaps it’s collective masochism, or perhaps (and on my better days this is what I choose to believe) we truly benefit from having a “town square”—a shared place where all the brightest minds and biggest talents of our field collect, even briefly, to exchange ideas, see each other’s work, and get a taste of the kind of mainstream success we all either crave or abhor.
Choosing to live somewhere, remember, involves far more aspects of your life than simply where you’ll file your state tax return. If all that’s keeping you someplace is a string of gigs, then when those gigs slow down, you’ll pine for home. Living somewhere means that you want to spend your “down time” there as well—it means you’ll choose a neighborhood, find a place for all your stuff, invest in local friendships or romantic relationships, pick a local bar—you know, live. And no matter what field you’re in, living in New York has (more than) its share of lifestyle challenges. If you’re considering moving to NYC, not just dropping in for gigs whenever you land them, then you’d better consider all the other factors that go into choosing a ZIP code. Especially if you work in theater, you better find a way to love your city during the low-tide moments as well.
In the end, BCB, it sounds like your curiosity will outweigh any logical argument against trying your luck in NYC. And ultimately, I bet that’s a good thing. Whether you stay for six months, six years, or six minutes, you’ll learn something valuable about yourself as an artist and a professional. Bajillions of people come to New York every day, and a significant number head straight for the nearest Backstage classifieds. In the way that all professional fields pyramid off as you reach the top (however you define it), many of those folks choose for whatever reason that it doesn’t suit them. Fortunately, wherever you came from is likely to be forgiving and will welcome you back with open arms (barring a request for political asylum). And, better yet, always remember that there is incredibly valuable work happening in every corner of the country, and, to paraphrase Danny Hoch, part of the problem is that all the theater artists tend to congregate in New York and bitch about why the theater sucks everywhere else. Part of our mission, as Danny reminds us, is to go back to where we came from and make it better. But the nicest thing, and perhaps the best argument to give New York a try, is that after you leave, practically any other city in the country will feel like a walk in Central Park.
The Bottom Line: Trying something always trumps not trying it, and the only lasting negative effect of moving to New York is the chance you’ll become insatiably addicted to these.
Got issues? Of course you do. Holler at me at email@example.com.