my thoughts on NYC and houston

having just returned from NYC, i must admit that i had an absolute blast. but while i was there, i spent a great deal of time meditating on the merits of the city as a whole…or more specifically, what i, personally, do or do not like about it. let me begin by giving a bit of backstory…i was born and raised in houston. sugar land to be exact, the heart of suburban life. in fact, of my friend’s parents, 9 out of 10 of them actually owned suburbans. a cliche if there ever was one. (however, i would argue that sugar land is a lesser offender than some suburbs, for it was more common than not for my friends and neighbors to make frequent trips downtown for culture, shopping, adventure, etc…whereas many suburbs are isolating in their self-sufficiency.) i digress.

for as long as i could remember, i ached to get out of houston…and to leave texas altogether. as a kid, i hated everything about texas. i turned up my nose at cowboy hats and pickup trucks and country music. i even made a conscious effort (as a child, mind you) to avoid speaking with any type of texas drawl or twang. i literally did not say “ya’ll” until I was 22 years old. (and hell will freeze over the day i say “fixin’ to.”) furthermore, my mother was from the north and always peppered my upbringing with a bit of yankee elitism. and through her acquaintances and work ties, she exposed me at a very young age to a side of houston that i think escapes even most natives. in the art scene, she became acquainted with the people responsible for the menil museum, the orange show, and a greater part of the work at the MFAH…along with visionary artists doing work that would make a large impact across the country. not mere dilettantes or neophytes, but cultured, sophisticated people with the world at their fingertips…who CHOSE houston as their home base. (lest we forget that houston’s art collections are considered among the best in the world!) but i didn’t appreciate any of this as an adolescent…

given my attitude, i was thrilled the first time i visited new york. i was fourteen, and in a way, i felt like i had found my niche. (again, another cliche.) i hated the tourist traps and found myself silently judging the people running around with cameras. i was a native at heart, of course. i walked the streets, doing my best to blend in…never betraying the fact that i was a texas girl. after several visits and spending a decent amount of time there, i had the act down well enough. i fit in. (i laugh about this now, as NYC is full of millions of people essentially acting as though they’re not tourists.) and then, one day on the subway, in an effort to push past a crowd and find a place to stand, i clumsily elbowed a group of people. i turned around and apologized…just a small acknowledgement of the fact i could have seriously maimed someone…but not anything profuse. and the people just stared at me. coldly. and so, i just shrugged, figuring that they were simply rude. but not quite satisfied with that, i turned around and bluntly asked why they were just staring at me. (i guess it never occurred to me that they might not speak my language.) but they responded, “you’re not from here, are you?” and i answered that i wasn’t and asked if it was my accent or clothes that gave me away…and their response: “no, it’s because if you were from here, you would have never apologized.” interesting. i didn’t think too much about that at the time.

somewhere along the line, decisions about college were made. i desperately wanted to run away to NYC, but for many reasons (financial ones being no small consideration), i remained here…in some ways, with a foot halfway out the door. but a few trips to NYC later, i remember walking the streets and suddenly being struck with a severe case of homesickness. initially dismissing it as depression or loneliness, i took a good look at the city before me and noticed that no one around me really looked happy. millions of people brushing past one another with barely a word spoken between them. how could one experience such a sensation of isolation standing in a square with a crowd of a thousand other people? was it my imagination? was it mere prejudice, ignorance, or inexperience? or is it a case of personal preference? i guess i will never really know. but it was at that moment that i decided i loved my home…that i loved texas and houston. that i loved the fact i could easily strike up conversations with people in line at the grocery store. that i could walk 2 blocks and see some of the greatest art in the world. that i could watch our opera with the knowledge that it is one of the best companies in the country. that i could spend time with some of the most brilliant minds our nation has to offer (NASA and the medical center). and that i don’t need to feel like an outsider for being cordial, kind, and polite. today, i proudly say “ya’ll”…and i even came to enjoy donning my cowboy hat and boots!

granted, i don’t have the impression that all new yorkers are rude jerks. quite the contrary, i talked to plenty of natives over the last week who were very pleasant and polite. (one of the things i love most about nicky is that he will walk up to anyone and unabashedly start talking to them.) so, we chipperly embraced our (relative) tourist status and asked people where to go and what to do when my ideas and knowledge had exhausted itself…oftentimes being pointed in the best directions. most everyone was cordial…even the gangsters we asked for directions when we got lost in the bronx. sure, we took some big chances on getting mugged or taken advantage of…but the results were well worth it. and i finally found myself more amused by the other tourists than annoyed. they looked so happy and eager to take in the city…so why is it necessary or attractive to find that annoying? and then, it occurred to me: it’s not that i don’t like new york or new yorkers…it’s that i don’t like all the pretentious assholes PRETENDING to be new yorkers. those who flock to new york for their fifteen minutes who adopt an attitude and play the game to the extent that they feel they have the right to show disdain for those who don’t. what a bunch of posers.

which leads me to my next point: why i doubt i will ever move to NYC. for as long as i can remember, people have told me that i need to move to NYC. perhaps this is what created my false admiration for all things new york in the first place. first, for my dance…then, my musical theatre…then, my opera…and now, my directing. “oh, if you really want to have a SERIOUS career, you HAVE to move to new york.” blah, blah, blah. sure, i have no doubt that one is exposed to more opportunity in nyc. yes, the theatre scene is thriving and valued in a unique way…far more than it is here in houston. yes, you are surrounded by a creative buzz of activity and fascinating people. yes, working in nyc lends a certain degree of merit to one’s work experience. yes, that can create opportunities elsewhere. i realize all this. BUT i have watched friend after friend pick up and move to nyc or LA. and i have seen friend after friend pick up and move back…with a few more credits on their resume, but no more happy or fulfilled than when they left. no doubt, they are picking up and moving these places with 3/4 of the population who does the exact same thing they do. every other young, attractive person you run into on the street in nyc is a singer, actor, dancer, playwright, director, etc. in some ways, it’s as cliched as the tourist with the camera. and so, i started asking these people about their work…their work aside from their waiting job or bartending job, that is.

to one particularly attractive, svelte, and bubbly waitress:
“you’re an actress, yes?”
“how’d you know?!”
“wild guess. so, what shows have you done up here?”
“on broadway?”
“sure.”
“well, none…but i’ve been doing a lot of auditioning.”
“that’s great. best of luck with that. any work with any off-broadway theatres?”
“how off?”
“well, doesn’t matter…i’m a huge fan of the vortex and the wooster group. but i’d love to hear about ANY of the smaller, more independent theatres…”
“well, i haven’t really worked with anyone…recently…uh, yet. but i’ve been working with an acting coach. and taking dance classes.”
“cool. there’s so many great places to take class. so…how long have you been here?”
“3 years.”
(silence.)

for a long, long time, i bought into this mindset. first it was financial reasons for staying in houston, then i figured it was fear keeping me here. fear of the unknown. fear of failure. and perhaps it WAS fear once upon a time…but not anymore. you see, i’m not judging these aspiring artists. NOT AT ALL. nor is it jealousy. to the contrary, i have the utmost respect for those who just pick up and go for it. i admire their courage and their stamina. and i’m sure there are incredible rewards from the exciting experiences, as well as having the chance to work where so much is brewing. indeed, one of my dearest friends has recently made the move…and he’s already gotten work. and i have another on the eve of his move. BUT, on the other hand, i recognize that i’m not sure nyc is for me.

the realization came to me when i was in college that i had a different set of values than some of my peers. it occurred to me that fame really meant nothing to me. in my heart, there is no difference between my personally being at the top of my game and my having the broadway/professional credits or applause to affirm it. having battled periodic bouts with depression, i finally became certain that success by means of fame, fortune, and professional success (as defined by others) would never equal happiness for me. and i’ve done just enough contracting to know how i feel about being on the road directing. and granted, the very nature of the business dictates that it is necessary for an artist to be appreciated/recognized by others to get work to support his or herself. but to me, the most satisfying aspects of my journey as an artist are personal ones. and now, the only times i feel especially hungry for outside applause and recognition is when i’m not personally confident that my art was honest or well-conceived or well-executed. i need the pat on the back most when i need to compensate for something. my mentor taught to me to look inward in these instances…and i now see how right he was.

in retrospect, a great deal of these realizations came with big changes in how i view art…a shift in my perspective on aesthetics. with it, came a new appreciation for different types of art. abstraction and impressionism became more fascinating to me. but both deal with a more personal viewpoint, as opposed to a standard absolute. subjectivity is king…which leads me closer to my ultimate point: TO EACH, HIS OR HER OWN. i no longer feel like i need to make an excuse for why i am still living in houston. (in hindsight, BOO on the petty people who ever made me feel that way.) i LOVE houston. and i LOVE my friends…and i am meeting new, exciting people here at home every single day. people who exist with inspiration. who, for lack of a better expression, suck the marrow out of life. and furthermore, i have the best group of pals and partners with my theatre…people who don’t live and breathe art alone, but instead, live full lives so that they have a fullness of spirit to bring to their art. whose interests range from philosophy to astrophysics to ballet, etc. we love each other; we hate each other; but we always have fun. one friday, a week or so ago, i was running off to rehearsal for our next show, and someone remarked that it sucked that i had rehearsal on a weekend…to which i replied that it didn’t really matter, because i would want to hang out with my nova peeps anyways…and how lucky am i to have that! we are striving to do something HERE. for those that complain that our theatre scene in houston is not what it could be, let’s work together to change it. i just recently had this conversation with an “experienced” actor/dancer/choreographer who did her time in nyc, and she just shook her head in judgement at me. i’m sure she thought i needed my head examined…but if you can forgive my honesty, she has always struck me as a bitter, small-minded person. and perhaps i am foolish, but if her experience has not filled her with joy and fulfillment, who is she (or anyone else for that matter) to judge what keeps my cup brimming? (of course, it’s not my place to judge her either…it’s quite possible she feels very fulfilled…with a mere propensity to be unpleasant.) to be sure, my peers (within nova and other companies) and i have a long way to go, but we’re eager…and we fail and fall on our faces, but we’re enthusiastic (and probably naive) and learning so much and enjoying every second. why would i leave what i have at my feet here? houston has SO much potential…it’s like a field that’s only been partially sown. i can understand leaving for more opportunities, but what about staying and CREATING those opportunities? sure, there is thrill in the struggle… but is it not equally exhilirating to struggle to create something new, expose new audiences, and open people’s eyes to what’s possible here? and what is already available in our back yards? i have many friends (my HYPA pals among them) who are committed to doing just that (developing and cultivating audiences)…which is why i will be the first one to smack you upside the head if you complain about houston in front of me OR tell me that there’s nothing to do. a city is exactly what we make it. i take no issue with those who leave to seek greener pastures for themselves, but don’t you dare tell me my city isn’t worth the effort. remember, in the wise words of the shins: “you’re not obliged to swallow anything you despise.”

so, in conclusion, if you’re going to be the 780th person to suggest that i move to nyc, save your breath. this girl’s not budging just yet. it’s not my severe claustrophobia or the fact i think nyc is filthy or even the nyc attitude-posers….nor is it that i don’t realize i have something to learn and could benefit from journeying onward…it’s that i enjoy all the gifts and blessings i have at my feet right now here in houston. and i haven’t yet had my fill.

the end.

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~ by ladamesansregrets on July 11, 2007.

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