Art for All
What South Carolina Taught Me About Radical Theatermaking
Eight months ago, as I frantically tossed the last of my boxes at a UPS guy and almost missed my plane to Charlotte, North Carolina, I didn’t give a thought to what would happen when my six-month residency with HUB-BUB and the Spartanburg Little Theatre ended. As far as I was concerned, I would be hotfooting it straight from Spartanburg, South Carolina back to Brooklyn, ready to resume my seven-year career as an admittedly, even proudly, struggling indie theater artist.
Like many theater artists, I cut my teeth on the idea that New York is the place for theater—first as a drama undergraduate at New York University, then as an artistic director of a Brooklyn-based site-specific company, and then in my third life, as an actor/playwright privileged to do the work I wanted with the people I wanted, as long as we could scrape together the resources and space to make it happen. Sometimes it was cheap, sometimes it was dirty, but there was a pride in making it happen against all the odds in New York, the great cultural mecca.
I never imagined spending a second more than I had to in a oppressive climate like South Carolina. As far as I could tell, it was politically on par with my home state of Texas for its boundless conservatism and religious righteousness (albeit with fewer machine guns being toted around in public places). I had zero interest in a place where the work I wanted to do might be seriously challenged.
Over my time in Spartanburg, I learned firsthand that South Carolina is not a homogenous place. There are all kinds of people in South Carolina, people with voices and powerful stories. A lot of those stories are invisible because of the cultural and political climate that surrounds them. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there—but it means that to those living outside of the state, they mostly don’t exist.
That’s the case in Texas too, where I ended up spending most of July, and in other states where fellow artists relayed stories of visiting and making work, states like Kansas and Arkansas and South Dakota, where, suffice it to say, theaters are thin on the ground.
Throughout my time in New York, I talked the talk of wanting everyone to have a voice—as long as I didn’t personally have to step outside of my geographical comfort zone and listen, or present my work to a community that might not agree with everything I had to say.
In South Carolina, I realized I’ve spent the better part of my twenties buying into a collectively created mighty fiction that all the theater that matters happens in New York. That’s not true, as this terrific piece points out.
There are local theaters making incredible work outside of New York and Chicago and DC, and there are also communities with no theater that need theater. I never spent much time examining that truth when I was living in New York; I was too busy and too focused on life in the city.
I bought into the fiction of New York. I bought into it hardcore. Even though I knew that because of the abundance of young theater artists in New York, there were other communities out there with few to no theater artists, I didn’t think about it. I had a career to make. I would leave the rest of the world to others.
When I was in South Carolina, I curated an eight-day festival of new works, a youth playwriting festival, and put up a production of one of my own plays. In those six months, I discovered that living in New York, the place to do theater, I had actually lost touch with what theater that matters means to people—specifically theater that matters to anyone at who wants to watch a story happening onstage.
Theater mattered to our first-time youth playwrights who put up ten-minute works of their own devising. In school, many of them had only been exposed to Shakespeare. Imagine them when a twenty-eight-year-old woman with multicolored hair showed up to teach a playwriting workshop. Imagine when they realized that playwrights looked more similar to them than they thought. Now fast-forward eight months—I just received a full-length play written by one of these kids, who was inspired by his experiences making and watching theater in the spring.
We laughed at the end of the new works festival because our two “perfect attendees,” who came to every night of our eight-night reading series, were fifty years apart in age. This was typical of each event—a diverse audience sharing the experience together. Part of that was showing the high school students and college kids that theater can look like them. Theater cares about what they experience.
Spartanburg has a wealth of space—empty buildings, open parking lots, a whole slew of unused amphitheaters. And it has other space too—space for new ideas, new art, a thirst for more stories. It is growing an art scene, where organizations like Front Porch Arts Collective are beginning to emerge, joining pioneering Greenville arts institutions like the Warehouse Theatre. There is so much space to work, and so many stories waiting to be told. There is more than one Spartanburg in the U.S. right now, hungry for art; we just don’t always see it.
Here’s the question I’ve been pondering over the last few months: at what point am I responsible as an artist for the spaces of untold stories? At what point am I actually an active contributor to silencing discourse by ignoring the communities that are vastly underserved by the arts? Isn’t theater about speaking the unspeakable, the unvoiced, and the unheard?