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New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down

It’s been said time and time again, over and over, like a broken record. New York is over. New York is dead—you know, because Hip Hop is dead and Punk is dead and Times Square has been fully Disney-fied since a thorough clean-up effort began in 1980. New York is no longer the cultural capital of the world. Giuliani’s ruined New York. Bloomberg’s ruined New York. DiBlasio is “well on his way to ruining New York.” That’s a lot of ruin, huh!?

IT’S TRUE, RIGHT!?

What goes up must come down. New York is and has been an empire of culture, finance, metropolitan character, and influence for an eternity. The city’s cast a shadow over all others for so long. Changes have been weathered, and with each comes a new cry of, “New York is dead!” See, empires fall. And empires often fall simply because people say they do. In the game of history, no event garners more avid spectators than the fall of an empire. A precipitous fall from power is a humbling cautionary tale, a thrill to behold, for all who perceive themselves lacking in the power dynamic. So we call for it, we shout, “New York is dead,” and swiftly undress the emperor before a captive audience of his entire kingdom. There he stands, naked and exposed. We are vindicated, for one—the people are in power—and furthermore, we learn a valuable lesson about authority and responsibility. That’s how the narrative works, and it’s happened over and over for New York City.

And yet, there it stands—the East Coast Establishment, too big to fail. We still look to New York. Now, this may be shifting. A long process of change might still be occurring, and perhaps the day will come when we’ve called New York dead enough times to make it so. The scale of power will finally tip away from New York and towards regional centers—smaller, more modest and sustainable cities with newer, fresher, more innovative models and solutions for the way to be and the way to do. That may yet happen. But it hasn’t. Allow me to be the NY-Metropolitan area to Boston transplant to call a spade a spade. The Big Apple is still big and ripe and bright red and so appetizing to so many.

This week, our Dramaturgical Methods class had the pleasure of speaking with Diane Ragsdale, author of the dynamic theatrical diagnostic report In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector. I perceived a certain crystallization of a sentiment that has been forming all semester in class discussion: “New York is dead!” “There are too many people in New York!” “Too many theatre artists have sucked the teat of New York dry.” “New York is where the new play goes to die!” “If the theatre is dead, New York is the murderer!” “We need to build up urban centers that still have resources to tap.” “New York can save itself!” “FUCK NEW YORK I’M GOING HOME AND STARTING A SUSTAINABLE ECO-FARM TOWN BUILT ON STRONG INTERNAL COMMUNITY, OPEN DISCOURSE, AND DIALOGUE HELD PRIMARILY THROUGH THEATRICAL CONVENINGS—A VEGAN-FRIENDLY FESTIVAL OF DIONYSUS IN THE POST PILATES & WHOLE-FOODS ERA!”

Forgive my tone. Sometimes, I agree and that sounds pretty good to me, too.

However, I grew up in the shadow of monolithic Manhattan, across the river in North Jersey. I was raised with reverence for a city I could be part of with a mere 20-minute bus ride. When people ask me where I’m from, I answer, “right outside of Manhattan,” as if completely rejecting my small-town suburban upbringing. It’s become a bit of a running gag with my friends, and yeah, I have a bit of a submissive/elitist complex about ‘the City.’ I refuse to believe we’ve seen New York’s best days. I just think we’ve all gotten a little lost in an era of globalization and homogenization (of taste, desire, methodology, so on and so forth).

When our conversation with Diane began to go in on New York, the theatrical establishment, and where our future lies as theatre artists, I perceived a favor shown towards a sort of conservative model: go regional. Instead of New York as the big government power center, let’s work towards the idea of small theatrical governments all over the country. Let’s shift power to regional centers and build theatre for smaller communities. Use the concept of ‘universality through specificity’ to create theatre for specific local communities that will thus want to support it financially. This can sustain itself. This can make for dynamic, efficient art! Word! Cool!

I buy it, I do. I buy it so much that I want to apply the same model to New York. I think the Big Apple’s found itself in a serious identity crisis. It’s only natural, too, when the city possesses the ability to be so many different things because the city possesses so many different people. There are too many disparate communities with conflicting desires to codify any certain identity. However, if we’re talking about the theatre, I don’t think New York’s admitted this crisis as a theatre community.

I want to reconsider ‘universality through specificity,’ or, work so specifically wrought from the perspective of a certain people that relevance and reliability can be found by outsiders. I think New York’s gotten a bit too caught up in the universality part of the concept: will this show appeal only to the kids or the elderly? Will this show bring in tourist dollars? Can this show tour the country—hell, the world? To be fair, I think this way of thinking is emblematic of the American theatre at large, but I train my focus on New York for the sake of this blog.

New York doesn’t know its audience anymore, and New York doesn’t know itself anymore, because of the responsibility New York has to be everything to everyone all at once. That is exhausting. It is thoroughly tiring its audience and its community and causing some real problems.

Looking forward, if we’re all going to be so theatrically self-sufficient and manifest our own communities as sustainable theatrical ecosystems, we must do the same in New York.

If the result is a Warhol Economy—an artistic world created by and for artists—so be it. There will be crossover here and there. We need to be a little more selfish, because selflessness is a myth that leads to facelessness because we cannot please everyone. We do not and can not know everyone and what everyone wants and we can not guess aimlessly because that makes for boring alien theatre.

New York isn’t what it used to be. We’re not going to see more plays about the Golden Age of the Theatah, all backstage chatter and boas and rags-to-riches narratives. We’re not going to see more plays about elite Upper East Side families discovering just how dysfunctional they are over Christmas dinner. We’re not going to see more plays about the wild and crazy goings-on of the cutting-edge avant-garde Downtown bohemian types. For starters, we need to look at Brooklyn and its recent reinventions and transformations, however insufferable it all may or may not be. We need to look at the rise of the minority voice in Manhattan. We need to look at post-Sandy trauma. We need to look at shifts in crime and the political landscape. As long as we’re still talking about what the hell is going on in New York, there’s still interesting theatre to be made in and of New York.

It is impossible to work from anywhere else than where we are right now. We need to acknowledge where New York is now and work from there—make theatre from there.

That’s my big idea, and it seems I’ve written a sort of manifesto.

I don’t care to save New York. You can’t save something that doesn’t want to be saved, and God knows New York would never admit to any sort of trouble.

However, New York is a fascinating place—big and bold and messy. Period. Of that I am sure. There are stories to be told about that place, and I want to hear them and make them and tell them, and I think they are of worth. I think they have an audience.

I think there is much life left for the theatre of New York—a theatre and a New York that is alive and well and totally engaging.

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One comment on “New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down

  1. YES. It is very overwhelming, and a lot of not very specific stuff is happening BUT through the chaos of it, there is still growth! With so many eager hungry artists, how could there not? ‘Social Theatre’ is really beginning to root itself, and I am so excited to help water that little sprout! I also preach Brooklyn like the gospel, but for an artist looking for community it is a fantastic place to start.
    I took a backseat approach in my first year here. I observed. I did things for myself. I didn’t partake in a lot of theatre. And I am SO HAPPY that I didn’t. Because I know where to focus now. I know what I do NOT want to do. It took me the past year to specify my 10Year plan from “I’M HERE IN NEW YORK AND I AM GOING TO SUCCEED AT THEATRE!” (whatever that meant…) to answering questions like “These are the type of people I want to work with, this is where I find them, this is how i identify the qualities in them I respect, and this is how we can support each other to make the art we want to make.” If I had stayed with my first plan, I would believe theatre was dead. I needed to change how I was looking at what it meant for theatre to ‘be alive’.
    For anyone thinking of coming here: theatre isn’t dead. There are a lot of weeds to pluck through, disney musicals to push aside, and sometimes I pick dandelions and put them in jars too. You just need to allow yourself to take time to find the right thing for YOU to be doing.
    Love this post. Love to you for not giving up on your city when it looks bleak. xx

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