Some Thoughts About Theater Towns

Dad postcard

My dad sent this home in 1933 – when he went to London to work.

I’ve lived and worked in many cities and countries around the world. It’s interesting to me that some cities are more known for theater than others. The truth is there is theater everywhere, but it isn’t all equal.

When I first came to the US I faced a choice. Would I go to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film, or travel to New York to work in theater? I chose film. What I did not choose was to remain in a regional center, regardless of the local possibilities in either industry. I had designed for a pretty darn good community theater outside of Houston, and I had worked for a local direct-to-video film production company. However, I believed that neither could give me the long term career opportunities I wanted.

Getting your start in local theater is a great idea – with the usual cautions. You get experience and credits – but there is only so far you can go. I notice that for the larger productions at regional centers, the top creative positions are often filled by guests brought in from outside (often Broadway productions). Resident department head spots are held fast by a senior staffer – as is appropriate. My mother’s dear friend designs and teaches costume design at the University of Houston, and local pro theaters. But she used to travel to New York each summer to work as a stitcher in the wardrobe department for some Broadway costume designers.

Ashland, Oregon has made a name for itself because of its wonderful Shakespeare festival. People come from all over to work there – including invited artists whose home base is Broadway. That’s the thing about festivals – they temporarily turn any place into a fabulous analog of a theater town.

So to work in the big time, especially if you have aspirations for the top jobs, it seems an inevitable necessity to head to the Big Apple at some point. New York is the theater town in the US. London is the theater town in Europe. Sydney and Melbourne are competing theater towns in Australia. Good theater exists in other cities of course, but these places have the cream of the crop, a-number one, king of the hill and the top of the heap.

They also have a great deal of depth in their talent pool creating the kind of production quality for which you will always aim. Even an off-off Broadway production is likely to be very good. New York city is ringed by other smaller theater towns, filled with hungry aspirants.

They tell me there is “a lot” of live theater in Los Angeles. I know there is a strong music industry as well, but they still call Nashville “music city”. Los Angeles welcomes touring productions of Broadway shows. There are several good community theater companies (that is to say largely unpaid); there are music theater groups that tend to focus on revivals, improv companies, and small pro companies that are primarily where actors can practice, keep the spark, and perform.

But when you think of LA, you don’t think theater, you think Hollywood. Los Angeles is the movie town. I assert that actors performing in theater here hope to be seen by movie producers and casting agents. I notice when a big movie or tv star has something to prove, he or she goes to star in a Broadway show. Some precious few fluidly master both worlds with equal facility.

Neil Patrick Harris

But I’m not really here to help actors, but technical production and design workers. You can make a reasonable living as one of the department heads in a regional theater, especially if it is attached to a college where you teach your skill. You may never win a Tony, but you can have the terrific job satisfaction of a creative life, and be very eminent in your field, at least locally.

Sometimes the Artistic Director of a small regional company is a former Broadway or West End person, semi-retiring to a quieter but still creative life. Sometimes the Costume Designer or Technical Director is ambitious like I was – passing through on their way to higher hopes.

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