Throughout this essay, I’ve sprinkled accounts of my own background and experience. I did so because I believe playwrights tend to be vulnerable to other people’s agendas. I wanted transparency so you could make the best decision for yourself and your work. You may shrug this essay off because, after all, I live in Alabama. But I suspect that the differences between my experiences in the Deep South and other small town experiences elsewhere may only be a question of degrees.
In many ways, the Small Town versus City debate in theater is an illusion. Of course, it is wonderful when small towns can develop home-grown artists and art events. That goes without saying. But if you are a working artist yourself, you will have to contend with both the small town and the city.
For example, you may write a play that clashes with the culture of your small town.
In that case, you will have to seek production opportunities elsewhere. The same solution will usually apply to prolific playwrights. There is no need for you to stifle your own development and voice because you live in a small town.
It is easy to write plays when you’re in college or when your career is going well. You have the resources and external validation to support your creativity and voice. I’ve often wondered how many playwrights would last if they didn’t have that support.
I won’t lie. You will need an enormous amount of mental and emotional strength to go through this experience. If you are writing plays when you have no resources, no validation, no community, and perhaps even no hope of seeing your work onstage, then guess what? You really are a playwright. No lack of success or experience can take that away from you. If anyone accuses you of writing plays because you want to be famous, it will feel like that person has just called you the Easter Bunny.
One of the overlooked benefits to writing plays in a small town is the intense amount of creative freedom. You are no longer bound to the topics or perspectives that you had in a city. You are not beholden to anyone. With that freedom, your real voice emerges. When you hear or see it, you’ll know.
Pictured: Hay people who always show up for the town's
annual Oktoberfest. One of the pleasant aspects of this experience has been the emergence of gratitude. I focus now on why I liked theater, what drew me to it, and my own work. I also have no expectations. Being far away from the theater community means that a lot of problems simply don’t apply to me. I also have freedom to dictate how I will be involved with theater and on whose terms.
Having a lot of resources stripped away, I can see how I took so much for granted when I lived in the city. For instance, it was nothing for me to get a group of actors together to read a draft of my work. I do not have that resource at my fingertips here. It means I have to become more creative in how I work. It also means that if I ever have the luxury of resources again, you can bet that I won’t take them for granted.
At this point, you may still be wondering if you should write plays in a small town. I don’t know. No one else can tell you either. It will depend on your priorities and what you believe you need to sustain yourself as an artist.
I have two degrees in Dramatic Writing, and I can tell you that I’m writing more now than I did in college – or any other time for that matter. I am incorporating my experiences and the town itself into my work. Yet I also know that there is very little chance of seeing my work staged here.
I’m fine with that. Living in a small town has helped me deemphasize the production aspect of playwriting. While the opportunity would be fantastic, I would rather wait to work with the right people than have another bad experience. I also see a point where I will have to reconsider my life here. I have writing milestones to reach before that happens.
I want to close by saying this: If you do move to a small town and you’ve reached the point where your work and spirit would be better served elsewhere, you can always move back to the city. The problems are no better or worse there, just different.