In Chapter 2 of The World Is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman’s celebration of the global economy, he lists as “Flattener #7″ what he calls “supply-chaining.” He writes:
“I had never seen what a supply chain looked like in action until I visited Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. 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.” (151)
I was reminded of Friedman’s chillingly gee-whiz paragraph when I was listening to Beth Leavel’s keynote speech (or, as Tom Loughlin calls it, “performance”) at the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) last Friday, specifically when she responded to a question about Chicago with the following corrective: “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 theatre 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 youthful heads register her implicit advice about what their career destination should be, that New York City is the Bentonville of the theatre world. As in Friedman’s description above, theatre 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 theatre educators is to export a “quality product” that will be accepted by New York headquarters. Once there, if the product is “lucky,” it is plucked from the big conveyor belt and shipped to the specific theatre that needs that particular product, wherever those theatres are. Once that product is plucked and successfully consumed at its final destination, the call is communicated back to the student’s originating theatre department to create another one like him or her, and as Friedman says “the whole cycle will start anew.” Advertisements will appear in American Theatre Magazine crowing “our graduates work,” with a picture of the successful product prominently displayed as proof. 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 theatre 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 Regional Theatre and Touring House imports 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 and every theatre instructor who dazzles their young charges with visions of Tony(tm) Awards.
Wal-Mart isn’t good for America, nor is Wal-Mart Theatre. 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, theatre artists and educators who continue to promote this system are promoting a lie.
Seth Godin, in his latest book Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us, draws a distinction between faith and religion. Faith is an inner quality, a belief in certain values that is held in the heart and “leads to hope” and “overcomes fear.” “Faith is critical to all innovation,” Godin writes, because it is only through faith that one has the courage to step into the unknown.
Religion, on the other hand, “represents a strict set of rules that our fellow humans have overlaid on top of our faith. Religion supports the status quo and encourages us to fit in, not to stand out.” Godin goes on to point out that there are “countless religions in our lives” beyond those normally considered when that word is used. “There’s the IBM religion of the 1960s, for example, which included workplace protocols, dress codes, and even a precise method for presenting ideas (on an overhead projector). There’s the religion of Broadway, which determines what a musical is supposed to look and feel like. There’s the religion of the MBA, right down to the standard curriculum and perceptions of what is successful (a job at Bain & Company) and what’s sort of flaky (going to work for a brewery).” While religion at its best “is a sort of mantra, a subtle but consistent reminder that belief is okay, and that faith is the way to get where you’re going,” religion at its worst “reinforces the status quo, often at the expense of our faith.” It isn’t insignificant that the metaphor Tom Loughlin used to describe what we had both seen at SETC was “drinking the theatrical KoolAid,” a reference, of course, to a horrible example of religion at its worst.
Godin promotes the heretic, the individual who opposes a specific religion without losing his basic faith. Martin Luther, for instance, is an example of a heretic who opposed the religious system of the Catholic Church without losing his faith in Biblical Christian ideals. But as Godin notes in the title of one section of the book, “Challenge Religion and People Wonder If You’re Challenging Their Faith.” This was certainly the case for Luther, and it is also the case for those who would challenge the religion of Wal-Mart Theatre.
Theatre people have a lot of faith. You can see it powerfully whenever someone writes on their blog about the power of theatre to imagine a different future, to express a deeper truth, to tap a deeper joy, to release a flight of fancy. Such faith is the cornerstone of our actions in the face of the barriers to creativity and imagination that our society erects.
But it is the religion of theatre that must be challenged, the rituals and irrationalities that support a destructive system that ultimately robs people of their faith. Theatre-religion schools and organizations, such as most theatre departments and organizations such as SETC, serve the same function as fundamentalist “Jesus Camps” documented in the film by the same name. They are places where the young are brainwashed and indoctrinated with the New York Myth. Like the young people in that film, the young people at SETC seemed happy and content — they have a clear and simple-minded worldview to which they whole-heartedly subscribe and which provides a “heaven” to aspire to (Broadway) and a mantra that they are encouraged to cling to that all it takes to “make it” is “passion” and “commitment,” and that the talented will inevitably rise to “the top.” Theatre done in areas other than New York will be described instrumentally (Leavel referred to a year spent doing dinner theatre in Pennsylvania as “paying dues”), and those who fall by the wayside are characterized as “not wanting it enough.” It is a horrifying fundamentalism.
“When you fall in love with a system,” Godin writes, “you lose the ability to grow.” That has certainly been the case in the theatre, which has lapsed into a state of repetitive motion that leads to creative carpal tunnel syndrome. We are in desperate need of a theatrical Reformation that will shatter the indoctrination of the young and awaken a creative Renaissance by returning artists to their foundational faith and the arts to their roots in community. The theatre, like Friedman’s world, has become flat — lacking in effervescence. There is no future for the American arts in Wal-Mart.