Washington, D.C. — I was feeling stuck about what to write this month that would reflect my current experience of Dallas and its theater scene. I’ve been excited by and grateful for energizing conversations I’ve had with fantastic artists and advocates here, some of which were sparked by observations, ideas, and questions I’ve shared in this column. I love to think in big, bold terms about the state of our industry and imagine what might be possible for all of us as we create our future together. It’s easier for me to do that than to turn that spirit of inquiry toward what comes next for me personally and professionally. But, after all, my time here is temporary by design, and it’s more that half over already. It’s time for me to think about what comes next. So, if I’m honest, what’s been loudest in my mind as I continue to learn about this city and all its potential, energy, and opportunity, are questions of where I might ultimately belong and where I can build the life and career I’m after. Brilliant Tina Parker pointed out that the questions of geography and community I’m grappling with are ones that many artists have to face throughout their careers, even if we don’t often allow ourselves the space to talk them through. So this month, I’m zooming in, and I’m inviting each of you to zoom in close on your own hearts, careers, and desires, too.
Choosing where to live and work is such a personal decision, and we have more opportunity for choice than we used to. Our society is more mobile than it’s ever been: the days where you can assume that the majority of people will be born, live, and die in the same place are gone. Of course, deciding to leave the place you were born has real socio-economic implications, and is still a privilege that too few people are afforded. But it’s been far more possible for me than it was for my parents to choose the place I want to make my life. My father joined the Air Force so he could serve his country and see the world, but even as we traveled from assignment to assignment, there was very little choice in the matter, and we were always grounded to both sets of grandparents back in Iowa when we thought about home. It’s been different for me. After undergrad, I moved to pursue opportunity: to Chicago for an internship, to Texas for more education, and now—well, there’s the thing: there are great theater towns across this country. When there are so many options and the freedom to go after them, how do we know which opportunities to purse?
There was a lot to love about grad school at UT Austin, but one of the most useful was the access it gave me to get to know other communities. In those three years, I was able to visit cities from Boston to Los Angeles, Louisville to Minneapolis, and had the chance to talk to theater artists planted in a variety of great towns where exciting theater is being made. All of the artistic ecologies I visited have a mix of natives and transplants. Artists especially have unprecedented capacity for mobility, and unparalleled choice of where to call home. There are still major hubs, sure, but there’s energy around decentralizing, “buying local.” You don’t have to be in a major hub to make a life as an artist. And even once you choose your home base, the ubiquity of air travel makes it possible to work outside of your city of primary residence.
In so many ways, this is a great thing. I believe that every community not only deserves but is entitled to great art made by great artists who live where they work. Every town deserves the deeper investment of artists than what can be achieved during a few weeks of being jobbed in. Many non-arts hub cities are slow to acknowledge the value that encouraging artist-citizens adds to their civic life, but I’m hopeful that the arc of support will continue to bend toward some kind of justice for artists. The shadow side of this exciting evolution in our American cities is the paralyzing amount of choices it affords us. If we can find ways to create meaningful, high quality art anywhere, how do we know where to go? With so many choices, aren’t we more likely to choose “wrong?”
One of my heroes, Anne Bogart, talks about the crippling fear of getting it wrong as a director, and the singular cure for this paralyzing uncertainty as the violence of articulation. It’s one of my favorite concepts she outlines in her excellent A Director Prepares. She posits that the act of making a definite choice—one that necessarily excludes all other possibilities—is violent. There is power in naming, whether it’s a child, a color scheme, a conceptual take on a classic, or a home. Fear so often accompanies that violence, as we wonder how the decision we make is going to play out as we wait to see if we were “right” or “wrong” and Bogart acknowledges that. She says:
We tremble before the violence of articulation. And yet, without the necessary violence, there is no fluent expression. When in doubt, I look for the courage, in that moment, to take a leap: articulate a thing, even if I’m not sure it is right or even appropriate… “If you cannot say it,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “point to it.”
Bogart also talks about the feeling of loss that accompanies this violent act of decision. If the hat is blue, it cannot now be purple or red or orange. It’s okay to feel, even mourn, that loss, but then you have to get back to the work at hand, committing boldly to the blue hat you’ve pointed to.
That said, it’s easy to change hats. It’s a little more challenging to change cities.
So many of the people I admire in this industry attribute their success to being in the right place at the right time. Is it any wonder that the choice of where to root feels so vital? Combine this deferring to happenstance with the paralyzing array of choices available to us, and what’s a theater maker to do?
Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He would have hated Facebook. And he’s got a point when it comes to comparing our lives to those of our colleagues, friends, nemeses, and frenemies, especially those also working in our chosen field. But how would Teddy apply this notion to considering cities and establishing the next phase of a career? Isn’t it appropriate to make comparisons among the cities where theater is being made? Won’t it continue to be my responsibility to keep my eyes open for what might be over the next hill—or is that the surest way for me to drive myself batty and miss the life that’s happening all around me? What’s the difference between continuing to be on the lookout for new opportunities in other markets, and second guessing ourselves to the point where we’re never truly where we are? How can the violence of articulating home serve as both an anchor and springboard? And where is there the highest concentration of my people: artists I “get,” who “get” me, with whom I want to make the kind of theater that feels most vital, alive, necessary, and joyful to me?
One way to make a decision like this would involve spreadsheets mapping out the objective pros and cons of every potential home city, applying some kind of complex formula, and allowing the numbers to decide. I don’t think that’s how we make this kind of decision, though—I think we’re much more irrational than we want to admit. Remember that Radiolab episode where the guy who lost access to his emotional response couldn’t make a choice in the cereal aisle and took an hour to decide between a blue and black pen? That’s what this feels like to me—a decision that needs to be informed by facts but that actually gets made somewhere in our guts. Coast to coast, every day, artists make gut-led choices that are shaping the future of art in this country in a million ways, both tiny and profound. Perhaps the most vital of these choices is the one we make to keep making art in the first place.
On an especially bleak day of grad school self-doubt, I was reminded in no uncertain terms that I choose this. Not chose—choose. Every day. I didn’t choose to be a theatermaker once a long time ago, the end; no, every day I have to choose this life again. I think that’s true for all of us with the level of privilege that allows us to be artists in America. I wonder if bringing awareness of this choice into our consciousness might allow us access to the energy we need to create the right place / right time for our work and our communities wherever we find ourselves geographically. Another notion from Anne Bogart: whatever rehearsal room she walks into, no matter what she finds there, from orderly rehearsal furniture to school desks in chaos, she says, “This is perfect. We have exactly what we need.” That’s how I want to feel in my home city: I want to feel rooted, with a sense that, regardless of what resources I can access, I have everything I need to make the work I’m proud of with people I love.
During my time here, I’ve met some artists who have very deliberately chosen to make Dallas their home, and some who seem to have landed here by chance. Some are Texans born and raised. Others are transplants. Some went to college here and stayed; some grew up here, went away, and have returned to their home territory with what they’ve learned, eager to build new things. Some are looking toward new pastures now, but many are dedicated to Dallas and the community they have made here. It’s worth noting that many of them are women, and many of those women are the ones running the show. It’s clear, objectively, that Dallas is a good place to build a home as a theater artist.
So, here’s where I ask for your help. I’m curious: why specifically have you chosen to make Dallas/Fort Worth your home? Did Dallas somehow choose you? Is it perfect for you? How? How is Fort Worth giving you what you need? What is it that keeps you here? What inspires you? What are you working to build in this community? And why build it here? Why not go to the coasts and use the more clearly worn paths to success you might find there?
I’ve created two Padlets (which are like fancy web-based corkboards where you can click anywhere to create a text box to post your thoughts.) One for Dallas. One for Fort Worth. Go check them out, and please leave your thoughts. You don’t even have to create a Padlet account—just click and write. And for anyone reading from outside DFW, I’m also curious about why you’ve built your life where you have. You can make a Padlet of your own and link it to our DFW sites, or you can request one and I’ll set it up. You can also use hashtags #WhyDallas and #WhyFortWorth on your social media—I’ll keep an eye out and post what I find on the Padlets, too. (Each one is also embedded below, and you can work from this page if you want.)
I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this, especially as I continue to grapple with the question of my own long-term geography. Thanks for reading, and for thinking through this with me: it’s important as we ask these questions of ourselves to remember that we’re not alone. And isn’t that the point of theater to begin with?
» Jess Hutchinson is a director, dramaturg, and producer dedicated to new plays and getting to know Dallas/Fort Worth for the first time. She recently earned her MFA from UT-Austin, is currently the NNPN Producer-in-Residence at Kitchen Dog Theater, and a founding member of Austin-based groundswell. She'll be writing about her exploration of the DFW theater and arts ecology in this monthly column on TheaterJones. Learn more about her and her work at www.jesshutchinson.com.