Back in 2013, I was stage managing a new play as part of the Arkansas New Play Festival with Theatresquared. The play, set in New Orleans, was written by one of my favorite professors at the time who is literally brilliant. Everyone in the room was incredibly talented and I learned so much from that experience.
But, as was just my normal from 2013 to 2016, something was missing.
The next year, I also was a stage manager for a different playwright but also based in Arkansas. And as I trying my best to make sure to create the best possible room for the playwright, I was also struggling with strong feelings of jealousy. I wondered if I was ever coming to see anything of mine (that I didn’t produce myself) in Arkansas. I didn’t expect to see it right then since I was still in grad school. But there was just a vibe. A feeling I couldn’t shake that being in grad school didn’t really matter.
That ultimately, despite feeling like I was beginning to write about the community around me, the community was never going to want my work.
In 2016, after I got over myself and stopped holding myself back, I decided that I needed to accept that getting produced in Arkansas just wasn’t going to happen.
Even when I did self-produce, no one came to the reading. No one showed up.
My play, Abortion Road Trip, sold out almost every night in DC and it won best comedy. It made such an impact that the Kennedy Center invited it as a production to the Page to Stage Festival. And then packed the house there too.
I did a reading a month after that in Arkansas, with all of that awesome energy around the play. And only 10 people came.
That night was a major wake up call for me. I told myself I would submit to 100 opportunities a year and none of them would be in Arkansas.
Because Arkansas didn’t get me. Didn’t want me. Didn’t respect me.
Fast forward to February 2019. I was working at my job at the major presenting house, had just finished setting up a Broadway coffee break (that’s a thing–google it), and was waiting for everyone to come. I looked at my phone and saw I had a missed call and a text message.
TheatreSquared wanted to include He Did It in the Arkansas New Play Festival as a staged reading.
Even though I responded pretty quickly, it felt like I stared at my phone for hours. I remember setting my phone down, pacing, looking at my phone again, and then pacing some more.
My initial thought was to say no. To say that I couldn’t do it with my work schedule. But that had a lot more to do with what’s a mix of imposter syndrome and a mix of “but what’s the catch?”
In the end, I said yes.
There aren’t enough words to say how thankful I am that I said yes. Or how much those two weeks changed my life. It led to a million first times. It was the first time my dramaturg (who is AMAZING) and I got to work together in person. It was the first time Bryn was played a trans woman, as written. It was the first time that I felt that literally everyone in the room could resonate with the play, wanted to make the play stronger, and understood what I was trying to say with the piece. It was the first time there were more queer artists in the rehearsal room than cis/het artists which led to a stronger understanding of the play.
It was the first time I had a reading in Arkansas that I didn’t produce myself.
Overall, the experience is one that I will hold up as a standard to my future readings/travels. And I loved that it happened in “my own backyard.”
But. Not including the artist who were out of town, I got asked five times by people who have known me for years where I’d moved to. One of them I had just seen a couple months ago in Fayetteville.
It was almost as if the assumption was that the only way my career could’ve taken off the way it has was if I moved.
When I told one of the people who’d asked that I was still based here, they asked why.
I think I’ve been clear that Arkansas hasn’t exactly been perfect for me and that I would like to move to Chicago in a couple of years. But there’s a part of me that recognizes the only reason I want to move to Chicago is because Arkansas isn’t doing a great job of retaining artists.
But we could be.
With all the grants coming through, the changing dynamics to the four cities, the growing understanding of artists as professionals, the ground shaking under some of the established centers while other new centers pop up and evolve…
There’s a lot of potential here. Do I really want to move to a city where there are thousands of me or would I rather help build up a new arts district from the ground floor? Is that even a question?
I’m getting the chance to work as the Artistic Director of a community theatre where I feel like I can grow as a teaching artist and arts leader. I also get to dedicate 20 hours a week to playwriting. I have an amazing amount of vacation days to be able to leave and go on my playwriting adventures.
And there are funders who want to see this area thrive and throwing money behind it. They want to see new work thrive. Funders who know my name and are excited by me.
Would I get all of that in Chicago? Right now?
I’m not trying to drag Chicago. I love, love, love the city. Chicago and DC will always be my dream cities. And I would love to live in either place some day.
But I feel this intense pressure that I need to be a bigger deal before I can survive there.
Arkansas feels like a great place to grow. And challenge myself in a relatively safe place. And push myself beyond surviving and move into thriving.
Who knows what the future will hold?
Right now, I live in Arkansas. And I want to live in Arkansas.
If I’m being super honest, I’m not super sure I want to leave. Back in December, I said Arkansas had me until 2021. But that was before I started standing up for myself and asking for the things I needed. And once I figured out I had something to fight for and once I figured out how to fight for it, things started lining up. Things started working out.
I’m still in Arkansas because it feels like I can do meaningful work here and really impact the community. The arts should exist in more than just three regions in the country and I want to be one of the people who are working to make that happen. To make the arts more accessible across the country, not just in certain pockets.
It’s not like my arts career is starving. In the last year alone, my plays have been in 10 different cities, outside of this region. Artistically, I’m doing fine. Could things be better? Yes. Always. Would things be better if I moved? Probably not. It’d probably be the same or worse because I would never have time to go to a worksop or leave for an adventure.
Plus, then I’d miss all the gorgeous sunsets and random hikes in the woods when I’m stressed.
I’m the kind of girl who does what she wants, when she wants. If I really wanted to move, I would’ve.
But isn’t there something kind of gorgeous about being able to say I’m doing all of this in a city half the country thinks doesn’t matter? Shouldn’t that instead make you question your bias rather than question my choices? Shouldn’t that make you want to give this city and this region a second look?