Beginning with Buffalo State's Senior showcase in February, several student showcases and auditions have yielded a new crop of talent ripe for the opportunity to present their craft on stage.
Seeing the audition process of these young folks is rewarding and injects a sense of anticipation for the next season. I also find it refreshing for the simple reasons of renewal and rejuvenation. And there is a true sense of hunger and a willingness to present their best to have a chance being on stage.
This effort reflects the true spirit of what it means to be a professional without a mercenary attitude commonly found with their "established" peers.
Yet despite all their efforts and talents, these young faces seldom find themselves on WNY stages unless the theater company has a need to cast younger actors, the theater has to put on a play every month to pay rent or the theater makes a concerted effort to hire inexperienced actors.
And not all of this is bad for those companies who hire these unknown and unproven actors that can't seem to break it into the Buffalo theater scene. Labeled as "Community Theater", groups including John Pirrone's Red Carpet Theater Productions and Doug Kern's Rocking Horse Productions are producing good pieces of theater using untested actors.
Otherwise, young aspiring actors finds themselves with little opportunities in a region saturated by theaters.
Why is this?
The answer can be best that professional Buffalo theaters utilize what is familiar without taking risks. With established actors, a director knows exactly what they are getting. Need a one-dimensional angry Hitler-type actor, just bring in so-and-so. Need a frumpy big-mouth, just bring in so-and-so. It's a simple call-back to read, match-up and the role is theirs, or the role is precast well in advance.
Is the deeper issue a matter of the slow gradual acceptance of what is considered new or unfamiliar among the established Buffalo theater community. If this is truly the case, then no wonder younger actors leave this area to seek work elsewhere after a season or two of small walk-on, resume building roles.
Some fortunate young actors with a great look and talent do find themselves in lead or substantial supporting roles with established theaters. Unfortunately, after a season or two doing the same role at the same theater, these actors relocate in NYC or elsewhere only to be seen a year later doing the same role at the same theater. The direct result of these young actors never being challenged to create or find a role that is different from the previous stint and being told to do what they did in their last role.
And what about the aspiring young directors and playwrights?
Unless they produce a work at the Buffalo Infringement Festival the opportunity for these young creative minds to get work with established theaters rarely happens.
"Buffalo is always overruned by confused youngsters", said local playwright Justin Karcher in a recent online conversation. "Buffalo has the potential to be a generational and cultural hotspot, much like Seattle in the early 90's, but what is holding the city back?"
The factors mentioned above as well as the acceptance of change at a reasonable pace, or a matter of those who sit in established positions eliminate new ideals because they threaten the very foundations in which they sit. Or as Karcher puts it "A geriatric feudalism" that keeps fresh, innovative ways of creativity outside the castle walls because these ideals expose an outdated monolithic artistic system.
This is what is "holding the city back."
In order to survive in the 21st Century, the Buffalo Theater community should start embracing of the unfamiliar and unproven instead of swallowing the threat like the Greek titan Cronus did with his children. Recent collaborations are indicating that companies are beginning to understand new and fresh ideas, while utilizing unproven talents, can introduce a new market to the Dramatic Arts and create grant opportunities with these unions.
Broader attempts at collaboration would mean that those in position of power and the BOD's of established theaters would have to relinquish some artistic control to a group of youthful unknowns and unproven actors, directors and playwrights.
That would mean taking a risk and, unfortunately, in this economy and age of financial uncertainty, the "sure-thing" is the best and safe bet.
But despite this unwillingness to embrace new ideas from it's elders, the younger generation is not giving up without a fight. "Buffalo is a lot like Cronus; it eats it young so they don't take over." The playwright Karcher concluded in our conversation. "My voice will find itself and, in turn, attract an audience."
Karcher's voice is one of many young voices straining to be heard in this city. Despite all the challenges facing them, the younger voice is one of this community's greatest assets. As a creative community, we cannot lose this voice and should do all that within our abilities to produce and advocate it.
Otherwise, ask Zeus what happened to Cronus.
Matthew LaChiusa is the Executive/Artistic Director for the American Repertory Theater of WNY. As for practicing what one preaches, ART of WNY's mission is to support a new generation of American playwrights and utilize the region's creative assets including unproven and unknown talent.