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Broad the Way that Leads to New York

By Matthew C. Stone

This time next year I will almost certainly be in New York. As with most seniors going into the arts, my future holds little certainty—I have no set plans for post-graduation, no job, no apartment—yet when people ask me what I’m doing next year, I invariably reply with a matter-of-fact “I’m moving to New York.”

Though I routinely deliver these responses with a confident air, I’ve recently found my conviction colored by shades of self-doubt. There’s something inherently unsettling about the absolute certainty of my decision to move to New York. To be blunt, I scarcely even considered other cities—it just seemed like the only natural, logical destination. I never even questioned New York’s status as the unrivalled center of the American theater scene.

Granted, New York is a hotbed for the performing arts—no other city in America can compete with the multitude of opportunities for young actors, designers, and directors that New York offers. What disturbs me, however, is my subconscious compulsion to move there. It’s not that I simply see New York as the opportune place for pursuing theater—I’ve somehow been conditioned to believe that it’s the only city for theater.

This prejudice is by no means unique to me. It is, in fact, symptomatic of a situation that affects the entire theatrical community. I often wonder if it is sensible for American theater to revolve so exclusively around a single hegemonic center; and I’m not the first to feel uncomfortable with New York’s singular preeminence. This exact sentiment, in fact, is what led to the development of what we now know as regional theater.

In the 1960s, a small vanguard of directors began founding regional theater companies in cities across America—among them was Robert Brustein, the prominent director and theater critic who founded Yale Repertory Theater in 1966 and Harvard’s American Repertory Theater in 1980. In his 1988 essay “Reimagining the Process” Brustein discusses the proliferation of regional theaters as a movement “to decentralize American theatre in the belief that it was unhealthy to originate so much stage activity in one cultural capital (New York).”

These regional theaters were established in reaction to the prevailing practice of mounting Broadway “try-outs” in cities across America. Essentially, producers would put up shows intended for Broadway in smaller towns, refine them there, and then move the show to the Great White Way with the cast and staff in tow. Decrying this culture, Brustein deemed it “a McTheatre network resembling the franchising of McDonald’s.”

Beyond its drive toward geographical diversity, this burgeoning regionalist doctrine was grounded in the idea of theater as community. Often called “resident” theaters, these companies were conceived to be, according to Brustein, “permanent ensembles of actors, directors, designers, and administrative staff … [creating] a potentially more enduring theatrical art than pickup casts assembled for a single throw.”

Regional theater was intended to be a system of theater that fostered relationships between artists and local communities. Unfortunately, American theater has only become more entrenched in New York since the rise of the regional theater. In 2010, the Broadway League reported that 63% of Broadway audiences were tourists. For those who can’t make the pilgrimage to New York, Broadway Across America replicates those productions in over 40 cities across America and Canada. Instead of turning to their local communities for productions, theatergoers across the continent are consuming mass-produced spectacles like “Wicked” or “The Lion King”. These productions have both been mounted in various cities with countless casts and crews. Contrary to the goal of regional theater, they are divorced from any semblance of local or interpersonal connection.

Admittedly, New York always has been and probably always will be the capital of American theater. However, New York’s theatrical monopoly deeply concerns me. The consolidation of theatrical production in New York creates a stratified system of theater in which other cities are dominated by commodified spectacles dispatched from the Big Apple.

To that end, I have some reservations about admitting I’ll still most likely move there in August. Granted, I have no intention of working on Broadway, and the city is brimming with non-commercial theater much more suited to my tastes. However, I can’t help but equivocate about my choice to move there. I could argue that I’m simply pursuing my best career prospects, but I feel like I’m turning a blind eye to what my relocation implies in a broader sense. By going to New York, I might be unintentionally reinforcing New York’s dominance over theater in America. Perhaps I’m overestimating the impact of my own career choices. But deep down, I can’t help but wonder if I’d be better off as a resident of New York or working in a resident theater, cultivating a more diverse American theater.

—Columnist Matthew C. Stone can be reached at

mcstone@fas.harvard.edu.

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