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  • Writer's pictureVinny Eden Ortega

Rethinking New York: A Case for the Midwest

For decades, young artists of all kinds from suburban America have been fed a romanticized image of New York past. Where you could arrive with a hundred dollars, a bag of your favorite books, t-shirts, and maybe a few mementos of home. You would find a cheap apartment with other hungry young artists (of course all visionaries like yourself), drop your resume at several storefronts until you found a job, and soon enough be brushing shoulders with iconic artists and undiscovered talents alike.

This was the image I had. Growing up in Florida the idea of New York was one of an artistic mecca, where if you were talented: you could make it.

Was I naive? Of course.

I listened to the “experts” and tried to play the game of the New York theatre artist. I got my bachelors degree, I did a slew of unpaid work and internships with “prominent” theatre organizations. I worked hard for established artists in the hopes they would give me a chance someday. I applied to every fellowship and residency in the hope of attaining any type of resources to develop my work. All of that working a full-time day job to pay New York’s exorbitant living costs.

Along with thousands of young hopefuls I continued to do this while constantly being told, “you’re so young!” After years of the rat race burnout led me to give up. I decided to put theatre on hold for the sake of my mental health.

For a year I largely didn’t create work and then the pandemic put live theatre on hold for everyone. So after two years of not creating work I was forced to ask myself the question, was New York the right choice? Should I leave? But where?

As a Patti Smith super fan I was making my rounds of the internet watching interviews with her. That’s when I discovered a conversation between her and Jonathan Lethem. An audience member asked her if New York was still a place a young artist could go to.

Patti Smith responded, "New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there’s always other cities. I don’t know—Detroit, Poughkeepsie, Newark. You have to find the new place because New York City has been taken away from you. It’s still a great city, but it has closed itself off from the poor and creative burgeoning society. So my advice is: Find a new city."

My queen had spoken. So I went to Google.

A few decades ago cities like Madison, Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee were thriving on industrial work and manufacturing. With these industries pushed out, Midwestern cities have been declining in population, making them “overbuilt”.

What does overbuilt mean? There is space and housing, and it's cheap(er).

The average 1br rent in Madison is $846, Detroit? $691, and it is not uncommon to find a 1br at $600 in Cleveland that would cost you $2,000 in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

With cheap(er) rents and plenty of raw space available and ready, Midwestern cities like these are ripe and to be settled by artists. But creating your own space is not the only option, the Midwest is home to flourishing regional theatre like the Guthrie, Cleveland Playhouse, and the Muny.

Of course the conversation is much more nuanced than this, especially as COVID-19 persists and the fate of American theatre is still largely in the air. Which is why I write this as more of a question than an answer.

In post COVID-19 America, should young artists look to the Midwest first? In post COVID-19 America, should we stop telling high school and undergraduate students that New York is the goal?

COVID-19 has forced us to re-evaluate a lot about American theatre- white supremacy’s role, who the gatekeepers are, new models of governance. And now I pose the question, where should young artists go?

Vinny Eden Ortega is a New York City based theatre director, playwright, and artistic director originally from Clearwater, Florida.Ortega is a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab.


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