If you are a theater major or work in the field, you may dream of having more time and a lower cost of living. I know I did. Back in 2004, I was working in a Times Square high-rise in New York. I went through spans of time when I worked 60 hours a week to meet my financial obligations. I knew my writing was taking a hit. I used to wistfully imagine what it would be like to write all day long and not be in debt. What would it be like? If only…
So I made the move. I tumbled around the country and landed in a small town in Alabama. Population: about 18,000. I’ve been here since 2006. I’m not from Alabama originally, so I’ve had to deal with various levels of culture shock along the way.
Was it worth it? You will hear a lot of professional people give their opinions about where playwrights should live. They may encourage you to stay because of the career opportunities. They might also encourage you to leave so you can concentrate on your own work. Unless they’ve actually had the experience, they are talking in theories.
When I made the move, there wasn’t anyone who could tell me what to expect. Some people warned me about it, but they didn’t really know for sure either. If I knew what to expect back then, it would’ve made the experience easier.
These days, if I have ideas about theater or the world, I put them in my plays and books. That wasn’t always the case. I’m reverting back to my old personal blogging style, circa 2006, to give you a thumbnail sketch on the benefits and challenges of writing plays in a small town.
If you are thinking about making the move, there’s a whole lot you need to know. Due to the length of this essay, I'll post it in five segments.
Clearly what I’m about to write is my personal experience. I do not have an agenda. I do not care if people live in cities or towns. Whatever works for you is fabulous. I believe that people often talk in theories and stereotypes rather than facts and experience.
In all likelihood, you are reading this essay because you are wondering whether to make a change in your lifestyle. It can be difficult to navigate the factors. If you talk about it with people around you, they may become defensive. You are not alone. Whenever I’ve questioned my circumstances, I’m always surprised at the emotional reactions I receive. Remember, you have to do what is best for you and your work.
I lived in New York City from 2000 to 2004. It was my second go-around in the Big Apple since I went to college in New York City. My reason for moving away this time was primarily health-related. I had a chronic health condition that plagued me for at least two years that I lived in the city. Despite the downturn in my health, I had a rather fruitful playwriting career. Still, I knew that if I stayed in New York City, I would not get any better. Hence, a move was in order.
I took a month-long train ride before choosing to settle in Austin, Texas. I stayed for 18-months. During that period, I started a relationship with a guy in Alabama – my future husband. I moved to a rural town in Alabama in 2006 to join him. The town’s population: about 18,000 people.
About Alabama and “Special Circumstances”
Have I ever been called Yankee? A few times.
Do I regret moving to Alabama? Sometimes.
My experiences in Alabama fall under the term “special circumstances,” meaning that the cultural differences have made it more challenging. There are plenty of stereotypes and judgments about the South. Multiply it by 10 when you live in the Deep South. I’ve noticed particularly venomous reactions when I travel outside of the state and mention the word “Alabama.”
If you move to a rural town, you will be more comfortable if you don’t have to deal with culture shock. If you have blood relatives in the area, your chances of successful integration are far higher. Do not expect a good reaction if you are dropping in by helicopter. This is not the Peace Corps; rural folks don’t need to be saved from themselves.
If you are not originally from the area, you will likely never earn their trust. It does not matter that you are an artist. We would all like to think that the arts bring people together. And that’s true – to a point. Ultimately you can’t force people to change their minds. They change them on their own. There are slew of reasons why small towns are closed communities. Some of those reasons are understandable in context.
But it doesn’t change the bottom line: You may not fit into the rural town. This fact will make it impossible for you to do your work.