Wednesday, March 30, 2011

As a counterpoint to Zev's thoughtful post over at On Chicago Theatre...

I suggest this article over at Slate, by Bill James trying to explain why we as a nation produce so many great athletes but don't produce very many great writers (or sub in actor/dancer/classically-trained musician/fine artist, etc.). Really... RTWT, I'll be waiting.

I don't disagree with Zev's post at all, btw. I think he points out that the best way to fix things is to actually try ways of fixing him.

I think what James points out that is useful is that, the reason we have so many great athletes is that we encourage them along every step of the way. We're all familiar with the cliche about schools building a new stadium while shutting down the arts departments. But it goes beyond that. The fact is, athletes who show promise are encouraged from a very early age and given the resources to develop their talents so that they can become superstars.

Whereas, in comparison, writers are told to go hone their craft by themselves, get really good, and then come back in 20-25 years.

Or actors are told to go act for free, pay for training, and generally pay their dues before they might start getting something approaching a salary.

I'm not trying to say that the arts don't require hard work, some thankless honing of craft. But athletes work hard too, in high school and college and when they turn pro, at least when it comes to training. And schools and pro/semi-pro teams give them incentives and rewards and acclaim as they develop.

This doesn't mean "support all theatre equally" or "don't criticize bad work". But it suggests that artists and their institutions need to recognize that artists take time to develop, along with mentoring and resources.

Sure, no one would say that America has no good writers or actors or etc etc. But Bill James points out that Shakespearean London was the size of Topeka, Kansas, and gave us Bacon, Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson (and that's just hitting the biggest names).

Even being conservative, that suggests that every small to mid-size metropolis should have a burgeoning literary community, at least two or three small theatre companies competing to out-do each other each season, a couple of chamber music groups or orchestras...

There should be the equivalent of at least a hundred Elizabethan Londons scattered across America. But there aren't. Maybe part of this is a difference in the national character or the modern temperament.

Or maybe part of it is that, from the highest to the lowest levels of the arts, we focus on short-term projects and goals, getting our thing done, raising our money, winning our company praise, just keeping the doors open, instead of thinking about who will join our company in the future, or create the new theatre company that.will replace ours.

Moving forward, that has to be both a subject for discussion and something to put into practice. Self-reliance isn't a bad thing to have, but community is certainly not a bad thing either.


Leigh Walton said...

I'm pretty sure the vast majority of theatrically-inclined people in Topeka don't stay in Topeka. New York or LA would be a better analogy for Elizabethan London.

Mr. K said...

James is trying to make the point that Topeka is the size of Elizabethan London. New York or LA, in those cases, should probably have at least 10x or 20x Shakespeares/Jonsons/Marlowes. Nothing against NYC or LA, but even at their best, they are not producing/outputting those numbers.

Mr. K said...

Also, the James article points out that the success w/ athletes relies on identifying potential ones early and training them early. Unless we start sending all potential writers/artists/actors to NYC & LA starting in middle school, Topeka & its equivalents are going to need to be involved in there somewhere.

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