Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa

My fantasy team has forgotten how to hit.
As they never could pitch, this is a tough week for me, and I’m going to take my faux-sport frustrations out on this Windows Live Writer box. Theatre: baseball style.


Minor League.

Less than. Incomplete. On your way up, or down, or out.

It has a uniquely negative connotation that sort of sums up how the City-States treat the provinces in just about every field now.

Branch Rickey broke it all. Oh sure, blah blah blah Jackie Robinson, colour line, ripple effect on American race relations… Barack Obama. Mr. Rickey was, as Billy Beane would do generations later, simply leveraging undervalued markets, which is what he had been doing all his career.

In the Good Old Days minor league meant smaller, not lesser. Playing in the Pacific Coast League or the American Association didn’t mean you couldn’t play for the Yankees, you just didn’t. Babe Ruth didn’t get ‘called up’ from the Baltimore Orioles to ‘begin’ his career with the Boston Red Sox, the Orioles needed the money and sold him. The same thing with Joe Dimaggio and the Seals. There was good money and considerable local fame for a fella playing in a smaller professional league in the pre-24-hour news era.

The American and National leagues signed players… and so did the other leagues. The top two leagues had more money which tilted the talent pool in their direction, but it was a trickle not tidal.

Then Branch Rickey, general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, signed… well he signed everyone. If he heard of a guy somewhere who could throw pretty hard, or a farmers kid who was knocking ‘titantic clouts’ (oh purple prose I miss you) he tossed them a contract, a trinket, and a ticket. He negotiated affiliate deals with teams all over the South and stashed all of his players to develop them while already under contract, saving himself thousands in rapidly escalation purchase costs.

And the “farm system” was born, and the identities of those minor league teams evaporated. See, you no longer were a proud Arkansas Traveler, you were a future Cardinal. In a thousand $25 strokes Branch Rickey killed off possible competitor leagues and locked up thousands of ‘prospects’, ushering in monopolistic industrialized baseball.

Lo, and we ended up right in the middle of Scott Walters’ wheelhouse (never groove him anything middle-in).

The theatre I make is backed by less money. The talent I work with isn’t drawn from a national pool. I’m never going to be on the cover of American Theatre. But the theatre I make isn’t less than.

The baseball talent filter is well-financed, broad-reaching and highly refined (no matter how often Albert Pujolses or Mike Piazza’s slip through the cracks).  Theatre’s talent filter is passive and arrogant. “I have the money, they’ll come to me,  I’ll take the cream and stash the rest at Starbucks until I need them”.

There’s a Waltersian rant about the evils of the industrialization of art, but this isn’t the time or place. Let’s distill it down to the thesis:

Industrialization is ALWAYS a wasteful process.
In theatre our raw materials are people.
Those people waiting tables in New York, providing casting directors one more alternative look, with enough talent to be ‘starting’ elsewhere?
That’s wasted raw material.
That’s hurting theatre.

Theatre isn’t baseball. (Theatre got it’s runtimes under 4 hours except for Forced Entertainment) Theatre needs all hands on deck. But there is no interest by the people in the filed to develop others. The machine in New York needs the best player available, they are pushing a product, and they need platinum to make it.

Fine.

So mail order it.

Give me back all of the talent Austin has bled to 3-in-a-studios in Dumbo and I’ll let them share a three-bedroom in the Arboretum and give them REAL stage time. I will challenge them to think, and create, and to own stages. I will push them to develop confidence in the ability they have, and be honest with what they lack.

And we will knock the socks off of these poor Austin audiences.

Because those performers will be proud to be here, proud to be working these stages, and if you don’t think that makes a difference… and then when you need someone for a part, or you need an entire show, there will be an entire vibrant ecosystem to choose from. Actors who weren’t developed in poorly attended showcases, but rather in fully developed works with real live humans watching will be ready to come play for you.

Smaller towns, yes, but not ‘minor league’

As for me? I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. New York doesn’t need anything I have to offer, and vice versa.

And today? Today, a list of what some critics think was the best recent theatre work in Austin came out. I am proud to call many of those people my friends, and I am proud as hell of the work that went on in this city last year. And this year, and this week. All for almost no money.

All for the love of the game.

  • walt828

    Love it! You and Tom Loughlin need to get together and do a whole theatre-as-baseball series.

    Love the attitude. Love the commitment. Love the pride in community.

  • Here's the thing, though. The average minor league actor has a desire for stardom that far outweighs their abilities. Even the ones who suck say, “Austin? Why would I go there? I would never leave New York unless it were to go to LA, which I'll probably do when I get an agent.” Meanwhile, related story: kill me. The average shortstop also wants to achieve greatness in the Majors, but it's much more evident to the naked eye whether or not he can catch up to a 94 MPH fastball that tails in.

  • Some wonkish quibbles about the rise of organized baseball aside, good post.

    I think Chicago is a good example of what you're talking about. (I know Scott will probably scream,) You can afford to fail. A lot of folks came here planning to work and then move to one of the coasts, but lately more and more folks have chosen to stay here. You might like Richard Christiansen's book “A Theater of Our Own.”

    But a half century ago Chicago wasn't really known as a theatre town like it is now. One of the things that changed was work created in Chicago started getting seen in other places and made folks outside of town aware of what was going on. Two things happened, folks started coming to Chicago in droves, but also it gave cover for folks who didn't want to leave.

    Does the theatre community do anything during SXSW or City Limits? I gotta think there is a huge opportunity to get the word out about the theatre scene with all the music fans who flock there (and any locals looking for something else to do for a night.)

  • Huzzah and Amen! But you're wrong — we DO need what you have to offer. Luckily part of it's right up there, purple-prose-loving and all.

    I'm just waiting for the day that more people start to really internalize that Broadway isn't New York any more than Disneyland is America. We'll spread the message to the kids pounding the pavements if you'll convince the tourists not to waste their time and money.

    Maybe then we can ACTUALLY have a theatrical culture all over this country.

  • walt828

    Love it! You and Tom Loughlin need to get together and do a whole theatre-as-baseball series.

    Love the attitude. Love the commitment. Love the pride in community.

  • Here's the thing, though. The average minor league actor has a desire for stardom that far outweighs their abilities. Even the ones who suck say, “Austin? Why would I go there? I would never leave New York unless it were to go to LA, which I'll probably do when I get an agent.” Meanwhile, related story: kill me. The average shortstop also wants to achieve greatness in the Majors, but it's much more evident to the naked eye whether or not he can catch up to a 94 MPH fastball that tails in.

  • Some wonkish quibbles about the rise of organized baseball aside, good post.

    I think Chicago is a good example of what you're talking about. (I know Scott will probably scream,) You can afford to fail. A lot of folks came here planning to work and then move to one of the coasts, but lately more and more folks have chosen to stay here. You might like Richard Christiansen's book “A Theater of Our Own.”

    But a half century ago Chicago wasn't really known as a theatre town like it is now. One of the things that changed was work created in Chicago started getting seen in other places and made folks outside of town aware of what was going on. Two things happened, folks started coming to Chicago in droves, but also it gave cover for folks who didn't want to leave.

    Does the theatre community do anything during SXSW or City Limits? I gotta think there is a huge opportunity to get the word out about the theatre scene with all the music fans who flock there (and any locals looking for something else to do for a night.)

  • Huzzah and Amen! But you're wrong — we DO need what you have to offer. Luckily part of it's right up there, purple-prose-loving and all.

    I'm just waiting for the day that more people start to really internalize that Broadway isn't New York any more than Disneyland is America. We'll spread the message to the kids pounding the pavements if you'll convince the tourists not to waste their time and money.

    Maybe then we can ACTUALLY have a theatrical culture all over this country.

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