Moving from a city to a small town is a large leap, particularly if you're a playwright. Like it or not, American theater is centralized in a handful cities around the country. That’s a fact. Yet, affordable living in those cities is almost impossible. It makes moving to a small town an attractive idea. But before you take the chance, look at how this move will serve you and your work.
When I moved to Alabama in 2006, I had planned on getting involved with theater in my town. It proved to be fruitless. I quit theater and playwriting in August of 2007. The reasons for quitting had to do with previous bad experiences, tons of debt, burnout, and the impossibility of doing theater in my current circumstances. These issues, on top of my health challenges, left little positive energy toward anyone or anything. For the next three years, I worked at paying off an enormous amount of debt I had accumulated from my theater days in New York City.
My husband, who was born and raised in this small town, was able to open a door for us to act in a few unconventional performance pieces. These bit parts occurred about once a year, and they were done for a specific reason outside of the conventional “evening at the theater.” In this way, I was able to contribute to the community.
Did these experiences count as theater? Absolutely.
Do I wish I had more of them? Of course.
Do I see a role for me beyond what I’ve just described? No.
Some writers prefer to stay in comfortable territory, either in their writing or in their personal lives. I’ve even heard a few theater folks say that they don’t care what people outside of their city think or how they live. That’s fine, if that works for them.
As for me, I like to push boundaries in my personal and professional life. I’m curious as to how people live and why they think they things they do. In my opinion, it’s impossible to gauge all that accurately by interviewing people or visiting a place for a few weeks. All you will get is a thin veneer, a surface understanding of people and their situations. If you have this same intense curiosity, then you might like writing in a small town.
There are advantages and drawbacks, of course. As I describe each angle, understand that I am coming from my own experience here in Alabama. Playwrights who chose to live in a suburb of a large city or another area of the country will have a different experience.
Low Cost of Living
When I moved to New York City, I had $1000 on my credit card. I left the city with $14,000 in debt. How did it happen? Good question.
I settled on the “day job/write at night” paradigm when I moved to New York. I figured my career was theater. There was no point in trying to get a job that meant something. These low-paying jobs were typically under-valued, both in appreciation and compensation. They didn’t do much for self-esteem and confidence. Some days I worked 60 hours a week to meet my financial obligations. Still, my attitude was that I should be willing to go into debt for my career. Otherwise, it was a statement that I didn’t believe in myself.
Living in Austin, Texas for 18-months gave me a glimpse at what it was like to live in a more affordable place. I marveled at how little public transportation cost. My rent was half of what I paid in New York. I finished three drafts of a full-length play during that time.
Alabama’s cost of living is lower than Texas. The result is that I have paid off my debt from New York City and I can meet all of my financial obligations without working myself to death.
I write 10-12 hours a day. I allot a certain amount of time to my freelance writing. Since there is a low cost of living, I can put more energy into my plays and books. I make my own hours, so if I feel like I’m on a roll with a project, I keep going. This is one of the primary benefits to living in a small town.
The slow pace means I have time to think. I can delve into ideas deeply and incorporate them into my writing. I also have time to consider my previous experiences in theater and who I am as a writer. I also have time to read books that I should’ve read a long time ago.
I have no children. But even if I did, the slower pace and low cost of living would still be a benefit.