Anchor or Albatross? New York’s Cultural Capital

New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?

Chew on that image a while: “the cultural capital of America”. With the diversity of regional influences – cultural heritage, geography, job markets, educational opportunities, to name a few – it’s hard to say that any one location earns that title and can be truly representative. I prefer to revere New York City as a national duality, both cultural anchor and albatross.

Cultural anchor? New York City sports the press, the pedigree and the resume. Mention Broadway to just about anyone over age 7 in the United States, they will know “that’s where the big plays are.” For more than 100 years live stage theatre productions of multiple traditions and quality have played venues large and small to attentive, or bored, or combative, or socially conscious, or escapist audiences with widely divergent expectations and knowledge of the art form. Every year since 1947 the American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards ceremony has honored select artists and productions for “achievement in Broadway theatre”, considered by many to represent the best of the arts form in the nation, comparable to film’s Academy Awards (and widely promoted as such). Every year since 1955 the Drama Desk Awards have honored New York productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway and are praised, prized and promoted as much as the Tonys by publicists across the land. Then there are the Pulitzer Prizes, administered in twenty-one categories by New York City’s Columbia University as the behest of publisher Joseph Pulitzer since 1917. For drama, a partial list of winners: Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, David Mamet, not all based in New York City but all anointed worthy and handed hefty cash ‘bouquets’ by NYC cognoscenti.  Who can blame regional venues and companies hoping to fill seats and sell subscription series “in the boonies” for filling their slots with the easy promotion-worthy “Tony, Drama Desk and Pulitzer winner(s) of last season!” New York City can certainly claim the title Cultural Competition Capital of a nation obsessed with winners. Anybody’s work that can draw notice, survive and thrive under that intense, relentless scrutiny has undoubtedly got something going for it (and not just due to buckets of money, celebrity and political connections and well-orchestrated PR, either, although those elements sure help). I would never slight the achievements or glorious work of those artists whose work has been recognized and honored by some of the stiffest evaluators in the Biz. The New York performing arts scene sure does keep everyone’s creative motor fired up and roaring along. But here’s where the albatross concept creeps in, too.

Cultural albatross: If we, as artists, arts producers and presenters, directors, designers, dramaturges, theatre critics, publicists and booking agents, etc., and audiences, keep our glances of adoration and thoughts of emulation firmly affixed on New York City’s cultural milieu and its honorees like devout Muslims facing Mecca, how will we ever grow our own regions’ arts and cultivate the audiences to support them? I understand that only 9% of all adults who seek entertainment attend live stage productions in the US, a disgraceful statistic, itself. Of that 9%, what percentage only attends national touring shows at large commercial venues? I don’t have the answer to that, but it scares me. In the Dallas-Fort Worth region over the past several years, I have watched the much publicized “Dallas Arts District” explode with huge, expensive, glass and concrete edifices that have sucked the region dry as far as region-wide arts donations and audiences go. Why donate anything to some small independent nonprofit company with 125 (or 40) reconditioned seats that produces original art and supports regional artists when you can give $10, 000 to Some Big Venue (paying a portion of one’s month’s rent in the building) and see your name emblazoned on a plaque when you attend their touring shows that support only touring artists? Ta-da! It’s “New York caliber!” Consider the Winspear Opera House, garish red flagship of the Dallas Arts District. I have reviewed touring shows there (maybe never again after this opinion piece). I have endured its elitist isolation from any city “life”, its confusing, ridiculous parking congestion (with discriminatory “special parking areas” for Lexus owners), its inadequate, crowded escalators like tight cattle chutes, the rudeness of some of its house management when attending in a wheelchair, its “preferential” treatment for “major print media reviewers” (how 1980’s), and almost always, its dismally awful sound if seated anywhere but center section in the house. It’s all “so Dallas”; one rolls the eyes and shrugs it off. What really disturbs me is the conversation I have had repeatedly with musical theatre patrons seated next to me at the Winspear. They are “so glad Dallas finally has a proper place to attend good musical theatre, just like New York.” Uh-huh. When asked if they have ever attended Lyric Stage’s musical theatre productions (all performed with full professional orchestras and fully restored scores), they tend to regard me like I just suggested they would enjoy nude sunbathing in Antarctica. Lyric Stage is c. 10 minutes from downtown Dallas, just off a major freeway. There is ample, well-lit, FREE parking and a portico for dropping off less mobile patrons during inclement weather. Tickets range from $25 to $50.

Lyric Stage photo from Gypsy

The company frequently brings in a lead with national credentials (Gypsy’s Mama Rose for instance in 2011: played by national and international cabaret artist and musical theatre star Sue Mathys); but the other performers, designers and orchestra members are regional. And first class artists. What a gift to regional arts! Yet the Winspear patrons would prefer to see the rush job, 3,000th performance of last year’s Broadway hit, a touring show with abysmal sound and non-regional artists, filling the coffers of some non-regional production entity and not benefiting the region’s arts in the least. “It’s from New York; it MUST be better….” How is this really different from outsourcing Chevy and Ford truck parts manufacture to China, or Malaysia, bankrupting the US working class?

There’s plenty of innovation, originality and dynamic leadership in regional arts. What we need more of is corporate and government support (like they support the sports industry) and community support.

Here’s a random sample of the energized diversity of regional theatre in the Dallas-Fort Worth region that deserves expanded support:

Second Thought Theatre:

Founded in 2003, Second Thought Theatre is composed of an experienced, youthful array of dedicated artists and arts supporters, focused on ensemble productions that can push the boundaries of human thought and emotion.

Barry Nash as Bob Birdnow. Photo by Karen Almond

“Old works done in new ways, new works done in old ways. Everything is possible when you take a second thought.” Now performing The Midwest Trilogy by Eric Steele through April 9, this multi-media production (produced in partnership with Aviation Cinemas, Inc.) combines two short suspenseful films written and directed by Steele, along with his riveting solo man’s survival piece Bob Birdnow, featuring regional professional actor Barry Nash. “Eric Steele is one of the most exciting artists in Dallas.  His voice is provocative, insightful and wildly entertaining.  This evening will be a unique opportunity for audiences to experience Eric’s voice as a playwright and film maker and to engage Eric in the beginning stages of making his play become a movie, and making that movie come to life.” (Second Thought’s Co-Artistic Director Steven Walters). Parking is ample, accessible and free. Tickets are $15. All performances take place in Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Theater Campus, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.  Their mantra: Think Big. Think Bold. Think Ahead. Just Think.

Theatre Too:

Founded in 1961 by Norma Young and Jac Alder, Theatre Three has a distinguished history in the Southwest and a tradition of performance in the “round” and of fostering local and regional artists, many of whom have national careers but come “home” for creative recharge.

Chris Piper & Van Quattro in Superior Donuts. Jeffery Schmidt photo

Located in Uptown Dallas’ Quadrangle it provides a second “downstairs” space for smaller, more intimate productions. Through April 15 Theatre Too features Tracy Letts’ Chicago-set 2009 comedy Superior Donuts with a superb regional cast, directed by regional director emeritus Bruce Coleman. On April 20 Lucinda McDermott’s one woman show O’Keeffe! opens in the space, featuring the incomparable, leading regional professional actress Carolyn Wickwire as artist Georgia O’Keeffe, directed by Ouida White. More info: Tickets $10-$30 214/871-3300 Parking is within easy access, much of it covered, and is FREE.

Stage West:

This Fort Worth landmark theater has entertained almost half a million patrons since its doors opened in 1979, in addition to serving tasty dinner and dessert at its Old Vic Café and offering a diverse, sophisticated season of shows to please many tastes and inspire the imagination, Stage West hosts an annual Southwest Playwriting Competition. They just closed Dallas playwright and former sports journalist Larry Herold’s The Sports Page, which won the company’s Competition in 2010.

Chuck Huber & Mark Fickert in Larry Herold's The Sports Page

The play is a comic and ironic look at the beginnings of the Superbowl and its emerging national television coverage in 1966, an unusual, high-spirited, effective blend of dramatic craft with a subject near and dear to many Texans’ hearts. For more about the playwriting competition: The meals at the Old Vic Café are affordable and healthy; the parking is FREE; Stage West owns its own theater space, absolutely gargantuan in New York City terms. Next up? Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.

That is just a teensy sample of what north Texas theatre offers that is creative, not elitist and supports the goals, interests and lives of regional arts and arts patrons. Beaucoup de “cultural capital”. Art thrives where the heart of community flourishes. Thank you very much, New York; I love y’all’s history and inspiration, awards ceremonies, and all that hyper-competitive hoopla. But give me regional art and its artists. They comprise the true “cultural capital” of our nation.

Submitted as an entry in Spring for Music’s “Arts Blogger” Competition:

3 thoughts on “Anchor or Albatross? New York’s Cultural Capital

  1. Gotta say, though, re. Lyric Stage, I miss very much their former mission of presenting world premieres and forgotten or overlooked gems. I wish they’d be able to do a good mix of the mostly splendid, full-orchestra productions in Carpenter Hall, and some smaller-scale pieces along the lines of Ed Dixon’s RICHARD CORY, Luigs & Warrender’s CINDERELLA, Kociolek & Racheff’s ABYSSINIA, and so many more over the years, especially if they found some local artists’ pieces that were worthwhile to produce. (Also, as much as I’ve loved the Carpenter Hall productions I’ve gotten to see, I’m still unhappy with them for leaving out the ball scene from MY FAIR LADY; if you’re going to sell your shows as being the real, full deal, you can’t get away with that kind of corner-cutting–at least not with me!)


  2. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear.

    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyway, just wanted to say wonderful blog!


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