Reaching For The (Small) Skyline

Jill Summerville

  • OnStage Ohio Columnist

This letter is for you. Read it while looking at the Dayton, OH skyline, if you can. You must admit, that skyline has some worthy (some might even say, superior) competion nearby.

Columbus, OH, which has over a dozen theatres in the downtown area alone, is merely an hour away. That homage to mid twentieth century architecture, the Chicago skyline, is only four and a half hours away. Chicago's theatres can take some credit for that beauty; unlike most of Columbus', the downtown theatres of Chicago are big enough to have lights of their own that are part of the skyscape. For the little amount of illumination it provides, the Dayton skyline's glow takes much effort to maintain. Lexis Nexis was the most notable local corporation that had massive layoffs earlier this year, but it wasn't the only one. It's the one best known to me, because I applied for a job at Lexis Nexis.

As someone with a Phd in theatre, I would've been working outside of my field of expertise, but I would've been in good company. According to a 2013 survey by the website, CareerBuilder, one-third (31%) of college graduates ages thirty-five and over are never employed in their fields (“A Matter of Degree: Many College Grads Never Work In Their Major”). For a gimp actor like myself, the statistics are bleaker. In 2015, only 1% of the characters on TV had a disability (“Number of TV Characters With Disabilities Drops; Fewer Roles Go To Disabled Actors”). Broadway has an average of $1,138 million in ticket sales per season (“Theatre And Broadway In The US: Statistics And Facts”), but only one Broadway show, 2015's revival of Spring Awkening, has ever provided a role for a disabled actor. 

However, even norm actors who make theatre in smaller cities during their spare moments face particular challenges. The scarcity of jobs means union policies might strictly limit the amount of work that's available. Theatres may not have their own, local companies of actors. If the arts community isn't well organized, finding collaborators and funding could be difficult. Of course, there are benefits as well. There are fewer opportunities, but there's also less competition for them. Smaller theatres need many services, which means an artist can use her varied skill set. For someone who enjoys the work of making local alliances, there will be many chances. Succeeding in a competitive theatre market is one kind of challenge.

Creating a market is a different and equally worthy kind. Still, I should admit that no one goes to a tiny city like my own. People end up here. All of the artists I've met in the two years I've lived in Dayton, OH don't make art to pay their bills. They are working primary jobs to pay off school loans, take care of their parents, or provide stability for children. Some, like me, fall in love. Their names will never appear on marquees, because the city doesn't have any. It's scary, defining and redefining what constitutes a big success in a small space. Most days, I don't know if I'm a renegade, an activist, or someone who isn't living up to my own potential.

What I tell myself at night while I'm reading about how William H. Macy flew to three different states to audition repeatedly for the movie, Fargo, is that my greatest fear about staying here, with you, is finding I wouldn't be ambitious enough for New York City. That's not true; the kid who staged all of The Importance Of Being Earnest while being deliberately excluded from junior high gym class can make theatre anywhere. Honestly, my greatest fear is finding I'm not ephemeral. Though my passion for the theatre is genuine, I started acting because I was better at being various characters than I was at being myself. What if I like who I am when I'm with you so much I don't constantly wish I were someone else? That's the question that truly keeps me up, and if I were in a bigger city with more theatres with grueling rehearsal schedules I could mercifully avoid asking it.

One of the charms of living in a city people obviously haven't come to to “make it” is I can only guess what strangers' dreams are. Maybe that mother of two in a grocery store owns a dance studio. Maybe that twentysoming in the fedora is taking a film studies class. Maybe that elderly man who walks the same path every day with his dog stayed single so he could relentlessly pursue his playwrighting career. Or maybe, like me, he fell in love.

I'm often so disheartened by the statistics about the dearth of job opportunities for people with degrees in the humanities that I forget to consider the stories of those around me. Some of them may not be living they lives they expected, but perhaps they're still right where they need to be.

This letter is for you, for us. Read it while looking at the Dayton, OH skyline, if you can. I like seeing the light in your eyes.