Monday, April 15, 2013

Opinion: Travis Bedard on Austin as a 'Maker Town' -- Why You Might Want to Make Theatre Here,, April 14

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Call a Thing by Its Proper Name

April 14, 2013

Travis BedardWhen opening up a line of conversation about a field as fractured and pasted together as the American theater the first challenge is finding a vocabulary, a framework, a context to hold the conversation together. Artists resist labels at all costs. Terms of art like “devised work” or “immersive theater” get derided as cliché and meaningless before the general population has even become aware of them. Cross-contamination of grant application and business jargon leads to word salad. Trying to define anything is like cleaning up a mercury spill on the tilt-a-whirl.

Add the feral competitiveness of a population believing that they are in a dog-eat-dog zero-sum industry and trying to get a spin-free picture of any location as an “arts city” would seem to be a lost cause. Producing such a snapshot would seem to be a fool’s errand.

I’ll be playing the fool.

The hidden piece though is the audiences. They are surprisingly resilient. They'll show for anything. Not necessarily thousands of them. Not enough to quit your day job. But they're game.

There are basic pitfalls for any fool attempting to assay a city’s arts climate or character. The easiest to fall into is finding and using the first common denominator between yourself and the audience…in theater that first denominator is always the industrial theater of New York. The trap of course is that there is no gestalt level commonality between any city and New York—not in terms of scale, industry or intent. So let’s dispense with the New York mad libs, the idea that somehow East Austin is like Williamsburg with fewer strollers and better boots. Hyde Park isn’t [Name of neighborhood] with [hokey Texas metaphor]. The exercise attempts to borrow big brother’s clothes and just sort of demeans everyone involved.

The second trap is one I am particularly prone to. Austin is every inch a college town with every college town’s native transience. When you try to describe such a place you grab a moment in time out of that river of people and ideas, hold it up to the light and then try to make the truth of that moment and those people the truth for a place rather than a moment.

When you hold yourself out as an advocate for a place, folks come to you when they’re thinking of moving to that town. I get asked a lot about the pros and cons of moving to Austin. As someone who was supposed to leave five years ago but got caught up making things—I am decidedly pro-Austin, but when trying to put together a viewbook of why artists should join your community the impulse is to showcase finished product, big name artists, and world class resources and I have a hard time doing that. I have a list of folks I want you to work with several miles long and shows I’ve loved with my whole being. Shows that have changed my whole being. But you don’t know them, they’re not going to bring you here and moving to Austin isn’t going to get you any more paid than where you are.

For years I‘ve held Austin up as a hothouse for new plays and as a node of the #newplay network. I took what I saw in my first four years in town and extrapolated what was produced as being the environment that produced it. As my tenure lengthened, I began to be a little confused when the new plays started slowing down and classics began to proliferate. Devised work companies went on hiatus or focused on other things and the product no longer fit the narrative. I was, as it turned out, a little shortsighted and frankly selling the town short.

Because well, here's the thing—Austin isn’t a theater town.

So why in the world would I recommend you move to Austin, or extended-visit Austin, or not leave Austin?

Because Austin is a maker town.

If you are interested in making inroads into the existing theater industry this isn’t a straight-line stop on your journey. If you would like to figure out what you want to make, learn how to make it yourself, or if you want to work outside the industry, pull up a chair—there’s plenty of table.

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