The Wal-Marting of American Theater

FILE - In this May 16, 2011 file photo, the Wal-Mart logo is displayed in Springfield, Ill. Since the start of the recession
FILE - In this May 16, 2011 file photo, the Wal-Mart logo is displayed in Springfield, Ill. Since the start of the recession in Dec. 2007, S&P 500 companies have borrowed an additional 40 cents for every dollar they've hoarded in cash. For many companies, debt has risen more than cash. Drugmaker Pfizer added $3.5 billion to cash from the start of the recession through June. But it added $28 billion of debt, according to FactSet. PepsiCo added $22 billion more debt than cash. Hewlett-Packard added $16 billion more, Wal-Mart $6.5 billion. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

I was recently struck by the juxtaposition of three news events: the Black Friday labor protests against Wal-Mart, Mac McCelland's horrific article about online shipping warehouses published in Mother Jones and the announcement the Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts was stepping down at the end of the year. While the connection between the first two events is probably obvious -- on the heels of the Mitt Romney campaign, throwing a spotlight on the brutality of our global economy is long overdue -- the link to the arts may be less so. Nevertheless, I would assert that over the past two decades we have seen the Wal-Marting of the American theater, and the resignation of Landesman presents an opportunity for President Obama to appoint someone who will address a level of centralization and homogenization that is killing the theatre in the United States.

In chapter two of Thomas Friedman's valentine to the global economy, The World Is Flat, Friedman lists as "Flattener #7" what he calls "supply-chaining," which he illustrates by describing his visit to Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, AR. He writes:

My Wal-Mart hosts took me over to the 1.2-million-square-foot distribution center, where we climbed up to a viewing perch and watched the show. On one side of the building, scores of white Wal-Mart trailer trucks were dropping off boxes of merchandise from thousands of different suppliers. Boxes large and small were fed up a conveyor belt at each loading dock. These little conveyor belts fed into a bigger conveyor belt, like streams feeding into a powerful river. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the suppliers trucks feed the twelve miles of conveyor streams, and the conveyor streams feed into a huge Wal-Mart river of boxed products. But that is just half the show. As the Wal-Mart river flows along, an electric eye reads the bar codes on each box on its way to the other side of the building. There, the river parts again into a hundred streams. Electric arms from each stream reach out and guide the boxes -- ordered by particular Wal-Mart stores -- off the main river and down its stream, where another conveyor belt sweeps them into a waiting Wal-Mart truck, which will rush these particular products onto the shelves of a particular Wal-Mart store somewhere in the country. There, a consumer will lift one of these products off the shelf, and the cashier will scan it in, and the moment that happens, a signal will be generated. That signal will go out across the Wal-Mart network to the supplier of that product -- whether that supplier's factory is in coastal China or coastal Maine. That signal will pop up on the supplier's computer screen and prompt him to make another of that item and ship it via the Wal-Mart supply chain, and the whole cycle will start anew.

I was reminded of Friedman's chillingly gee-whiz paragraph when I was listening to Tony Award-winning actress Beth Leavel's keynote speech at the 2009 Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) convention delivered to hundreds of adoring high school and college theater students from across the Southeast. During a Q and A session following her speech, she responded to a question from a young man who was wondering whether he ought to go to Chicago rather than New York to pursue his dreams. Leavis responded, "All I know is that if I want to work in Chicago, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in Seattle, which is a great theater town, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in my home town of Raleigh, I have to be in New York."

It occurred to me, as I watched a sea of attractive, youthful heads registering her implicit advice about what their career destination should be, that New York City is the Bentonville of the theater world. As in Friedman's description above, theater educators across America, from high school teachers to undergraduate departments to grad schools, represent the "thousands of different suppliers" who ship their "products" (i.e., their students) from all parts of the nation to New York where they feed the theatrical conveyor belt "like streams into a powerful river." The business of theater educators is to export a "quality product" that will be accepted by New York headquarters. Once there, if the "product" is "lucky" enough to be chosen, it is plucked from the big conveyor belt and shipped to the specific regional theater or touring production that needs that particular product. Once that product has been plucked and successfully consumed at its final destination, the call is communicated back to the student's originating theater department to create another one like him or her, and, as Friedman says glowingly, "the whole cycle will start anew." Advertisements by "prestigious" theater departments will appear in American Theatre Magazine crowing "our graduates work," showing a picture of the successful product prominently displayed with their credit as proof of the value of their training. If we did it once, the ad implies, we can do it again.

The effect of the Wal-Mart supply chain on commerce is well-documented: local businesses are destroyed, money is taken out of the local economy to flow back to headquarters, wages are depressed and unique cultural products are replaced by homogeneous national brands. Go to any Wal-Mart in America and you will find basically the same products displayed in the same way and at the same low price. The Wal-Marted theater scene is no different.

Instead of local arts organizations run by and staffed by artists whose lives are made within a specific community and whose artistic vision is informed by that community, Wal-Mart-style regional theaters and their big-box counterparts, the touring houses who sell Broadway remounts, import generic artists from NYC to do generic plays for a short run after which they depart never to be seen again, taking the community's money with them. This is the system being celebrated by Beth Leavel, as well as every theater instructor who dazzles their young charges with visions of Tony Awards. This is the system that monologist Mike Daisey dissected in How Theater Failed America.

Admittedly, only a fool would assert that New York City isn't currently the dominant city of the American theater, in the same way that Wal-Mart is the dominant retailer. But many would argue that Wal-Mart isn't good for America, and I would argue that neither is Wal-Mart theater. And like the business leaders and legislators who promote Wal-Mart as an economic engine bringing jobs to depressed areas despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, theater artists and educators who continue to promote this system are contributing to the homogenization of the American theater.

Let me give a specific example of this homogenization in action, one that is reinforced by educators as well as so-called conventional wisdom. Beth Leavel, who was born in Raleigh NC and got her undergraduate degree at Meredith College in her hometown and her graduate degree at UNC Greensboro, recounted how she was told by her teachers that in order to work in NYC, she had to get rid of her North Carolina accent. As anyone who had been through a theater program knows, this is common practice. Yet more than anything else I can think of, the way a person speaks reflects their background, the place where they were raised, their past and their people. To erase this in favor of a "neutral," so-called "standard American" accent that has the flavor of no place, no background, no history and no class is to erase a person's uniqueness in favor of generic blandness.

This saddens me. There are few things more beautiful than a regional accent with its musicality, vowels, consonants and diphthongs and special vocabulary. There are certain sentences that soar when said in the elongated sounds of the south (listen to the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. for an example of this), other sentences crackle when said in the staccato nasality of Chicago or Boston, and still others that resonate with the rounded vowels of the upper midwest. But we sacrifice all that richness in order to provide the neutrality necessary to work within a centralized system with no roots, no sense of place.

Like speech, stories are enriched by a regional flavor that gives them the juice of life. This is reflected not only in the rhythms and vocabulary used, but in their very subject matter, moral values and ways of portraying emotion. When a story is put through the filter of a non-localized system, it is neutralized as certainly as Beth Leavel's lost accent, and it becomes "standard American." It loses a sense of uniqueness, its specificity.

There is another way. For instance, there currently is a broad movement directed toward strengthening local economies which focuses on local food, local businesses and local identity. Advocates argue that a centralized, specialized, homogenized, globalized world makes our lives poorer and less interesting, and does untold damage to our natural, social and cultural environment. I would argue that entertainment should be added to that list. As author and farmer Wendell Berry once said in an interview, "In a truly grounded, locally adapted culture, the artists would be the rememberers. They would memorialize great occasions, preserve necessary insights and so on." To be a rememberer means to have roots in a place.

As the search for a replacement for Rocco Landesman begins, I call on those who will narrow the list of nominees to seek someone who will promote local over national in all of the arts and begin to restore the source of what is most vibrant in the arts -- the local flavors that reflect specific places in the American landscape. Let the mass media focus on creating homogenized products for mass consumption.

Bring the arts back home.