The other day I spent my lunch chatting with a group of apprentices from Interact and then immediately went and had a meeting with a soon to be graduated student from a small liberal arts college. In both cases the conversation centered on navigating a career as a maker and producer of theater. In both cases I had plenty of concrete advice about resources to look for, things that I had tried in the past and either found successful or not, and how to keep a hold on the reasons one starts making art in the first place. I found myself repeating this phrase a whole lot:
“I’m not sure if it’s like this everywhere, but I know that here in Philadelphia…”
This combined with the recent discussions in relation to grad school and collaborators has me wondering how environment affects our work. A bad rehearsal space can hinder creation. An underwhelming performance locale can limit the scope of one’s imaginings. But what about a city? These smart young women I met last week have all had to weigh the question of context. They are all in the midst of deciding if this city is fertile ground from which to plant their artistic seed/selves. And I started thinking, “Why?”
Why Philly or why not? What does this city have to offer an artist and how does that offer change as they grow? I started to think about how I have been shaped by the place in which I now live and create my work. I started wondering how the daily backdrop of Philly and the people within it have made me the artist I am.
I’m interested in what questions a city can raise. What thoughts and ideas does it bring out of us? How does being here in particular color us as creators?
For the record, I didn’t intend to live here. I moved to the east coast for school and always thought that eventually I’d go back to Chicago. Somehow everything in the east coast cities I visited felt like it had a little less breathing room than back home. My family was there and at heart I felt like a Midwesterner. People here seemed a little harder, a little more closed off. I didn’t want the scale and exhausting competitiveness of New York. Boston seemed too small and insulated. And Philly was… a little off-putting.
I knew very little about this place before I came here. In college the entirety of my sense of the city was limited to taking the R3 from Swarthmore and bumming around South Street. I thought Olde City was cute but small. I had a few bewildering encounters with Fringe shows. I capped every expedition with a wait for the train in Market East. In short, my sense of the whole place was a bit gritty, a little dated and a lot dirty.
I see it differently now. That one-year gig after college turned into more. I grew up a lot while being here. I found a strong and supportive community. And something about this place now feels like a familiar if sometimes frustrating kind of home. So here I am. But going back to the initial questions – what influence does the city have on its artists? If it had gone another way, would I still be the same?
So for those new folks, looking to weigh the city on its artistic-potential inducing merits, here are a few observations:
Philadelphia feels like a small city, at least artistically. “Philadelphia County” is listed 5th most populace US city. We’re bigger than Dallas according to 2010 census data. But I don’t think most of us think of this place as having a big city feel. The areas of Philly you move within are likely rather confined. It feels like a city of neighborhoods and we tend to stay loyal to the areas we inhabit. The artistic community in particular feels small. This can be great to be so familiar, to watch people grow and change, but it can also be limiting, difficult to be honest in critique. With the web so interconnected each shake or tear carries more weight.
This place feels like a family in the best and worst ways. It is hard to define oneself entirely out of context of the artistic family members that one is surrounded by. Sometimes it feels like funders are like parents with only so much love to go around. As a second generation experimentalist there are times when I feel like a second sibling who will always be in the shadow of those who came on the cultural landscape earlier than myself. I can’t help but wonder about those that will come after me. Will they have any room?
Philly is a place of genuine artistic fraternity and support. The arts are where the real brotherly love lies. I have shared stories with friends of mine in other communities about the help and mentorship I have received here. They are often jealous or astonished. No one can believe me when I tell them that things like Artist U are free. I have been amazed at the kindness of those ahead of me in sharing their knowledge, skill sets and literal stuff. It makes me want to do the same. We are a familiar folk, we Philadelphians, and in general we pay it forward and want to love and support each other.
We are also a city with a lot of history and legacy. It creeps into works in small and big ways. We employ a lot of theater folk in our historic cultural centers. We make stuff in sites of history. We have stuff that’s older than most US cities. There have been lots of “Philadelphia”s – from Ben Franklin’s to Rocky’s. We are still figuring out how to blend them together both in life and our work.
We are a relatively cheap city that feels like it’s on an economic upswing. An artist can own a house here. Let me repeat that. An artist can own a house here. Do not underestimate how radical that is to people living elsewhere. You can get space for cheap or free. There’s a bit of breathing room in a city that isn’t so expensive. People are easier with giving things away. You hustle a lot less. Art is more of your actual income. And at the same time, it doesn’t feel like that is at the cost of the city falling apart. Even in the midst of the worst housing crisis, many neighborhoods (mine included) have not lost property value.
There’s that Quaker thing. Maybe it’s because of my Quaker college that I feel so aware of it, but I do think there’s something about the large presence of Quakerism in the early history of this city and the quiet witness it continues to bear here that raises a sense of consensus and social justice in its people.
In a similar vein, we are a city surrounding by academic institutions. There are those obviously in its borders (Temple, UPenn, Drexel, Jefferson, PCOM, UArts, St. Joe’s, Pierce, La Salle, University of the Sciences, PAFA, Curtis, Moore, Chestnut Hill, CCP) and all the ones within the city’s reach – Villanova, Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, Haverford, Arcadia, Rowan, Rutgers, Ursinus, Cabrini, Eastern (I know I’m forgetting some). This is an insane number of schools. And all these are places we create our work, teach, attend and learn from, make money at, borrow resources from, use the libraries of, connect with students from. Whether you personally work or study you are still the beneficiary of the many intersections of these institutions with the arts community.
Philly is dirty. What is up with all the trash? In both 2011 and 2012, TRAVEL & LEISURE put Philadelphia in near the top of “America’s Dirtiest City” list, for having the most unremoved, publicly visible litter, selected and voted for by both magazine readership and city residents. What does that do to our sense of aesthetic? How does it change our relationship to beauty in our work?
Philly has a higher than average rate of crime for a city our size. As sensitive people, we take in our environment. Ask most artists and they have multiple stories of witnessing or personally being the victim of crime. That stuff can’t help but come out in one’s creations and the more it happens, the larger it weighs in your work.
It takes a long time to get anywhere. “SEPTA. We’re getting there.” Is this the most unintentionally accurate slogan ever? And given the small size of the city and the high number of artists that use public transport, this matters a lot. I think it holds us back as a metropolitan community. I think makes our city seem less professional and unapproachable (as do we, its artists, by association). I once had to give an NYC playwright friend directions on taking a Philly bus. Just one, in a straight line from the north part of 4th street to the south. I had to make sure she had two dollars, exactly. I had to promise a bus would come to the directed corner even though no sign would indicate such. I had to tell her to go 10 minutes before the schedule said because you can’t trust what’s printed (but then it might be 10 minutes late, sorry it’s cold outside). Thank god she didn’t need to get from south Philly to the Museum district.
We are a city with a deep racial divide. Last April I was lucky enough to be sitting in the “grantee” section at a Knight Arts. As I flipped through the book of other winners I noticed another listing for Theater: $20,000 for GoKash Productions to expand the Philly Urban Theatre Festival. It amazed me that here was an award winning company creating original works and an ENTIRE FESTIVAL that I had no idea existed. I thought it amazing that such a company has survived without support from the traditional funding sources and, as far as I know, with little support so many other small companies enjoy from the larger theater community. There’s been a lot flying around the major theater blogs recently about how get people of color to the theater. I thought of GoKash. They’ve already done it. How many others companies like them are out there? Why are they disconnected from the community I am connected to? What is my responsibility in that? More recently, as I gathered data for my women in theater posts, I noticed a trend, especially among larger companies, to produce a single “diversity” play in a season with a relatively small (if existent) number of actors of color throughout the rest of the year. I thought a lot about how I feel about all women shows – incredibly protective of their importance but at the same time nervous about being set apart. Racial division is a backdrop to our lives. How can we become smart and aware about its influence in our art?
It’s not as easy as you’d think to be a solo creator. Though we have a lot of them, solo creator artists don’t have the easiest time. The funding structures in this city are pretty company (aka non-profit) oriented. Despite a few high profile grant programs, we are overwhelmingly deficient on residencies and grants for individuals. Most foundations won’t let you apply until you have the tax exempt status and a certain level of size. There are precious few folks past their 30’s still making their own work without having gotten the 501 c 3. Which means in general, if you want to make your own work in Philly you not only need to be a creator but a producer as well. This is not the case everywhere else. We are in desperate need of curatorial institutions. Yes, we have Fringe Arts. And they do a lot. But we need more than one voice. Where are our PS 122’s, La Mama’s, and HERE Arts spaces?
We have some crazily bizarre liquor laws. Alcohol, like it or not, is a huge part of how most people socialize. I’m going to guess that’s even more true for the coveted 20 – 30 something age range, one that theater in particular has a hard time reaching. Imagine a band in a place where no drinks were served. And while some people get around this, I think that it cuts out a huge social lubricant and money-making avenue for smaller theaters (who could never afford the insane liquor license fees) to access.
And finally, when I step back, I see that we are not actually one artistic community. We aren’t even just one kind of theater community. There is a dividing line in town between the generative artists and the interpretive ones. Between “straight” theater and devised. Between the experimenters and those who find meaning in tradition. But as different as we are, there’s an open curiosity that I see around me. What I like about Philly is that this division is, as the cell biologists say, a permeable membrane. I’ve found real growth in interacting with actors who have never written their own lines before or created a scene. It reminds you to questions your assumptions. I’ve learned a lot by jumping out of my usual role and ADing a super “play play.” And as I grow, I find that more and more useful, to seek out opportunities to watch how other people do what they do. And there’s a trust and respect that Philly fosters that allows that to happen. And if there’s anything that’s kept me in this place, that’s it.