For a generation of young adults raised on the outer orbit of a crumbling city, the word “Buffalo” has long carried a connotation of failure.
Growing up in Pendleton and only occasionally making my way into the city’s post-apocalyptic downtown or through its wild West Side, my half-baked teenage impressions of our metro region converged around one central and irrepressible urge: escape.
But eight years later, something essential has changed. Though the depressing exodus continues and the population dips further, hope is seeping back into the hearts and minds of the next generation. The explosion of activity on the city’s arts, theater and music scenes is one little piece of proof that the escape instinct is fading among at least one segment of Western New York youth.
Take, for example, the founders of the aptly named Second Generation Theatre, which this week launched its inaugural production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” to major buzz. Two members of the founding trio, Arin Lee Dandes and Kelly Copps, decided independently to make a life in the theater for themselves in Buffalo after giving New York City a shot.
“I felt like I had to go to New York because that’s what everyone else was doing, and if I didn’t, then I wasn’t really trying,” Dandes said. “I was working so hard to get these jobs that I was not booking, and I wasn’t doing what was making me happy, which was performing and doing these creative projects.”
Luckily enough for Dandes and her collaborators, Buffalo has a diverse and pulsing theatrical landscape unlike any other in the United States. It also has a cost of living that makes a stable and fulfilling life in the arts – something that is becoming next to impossible for many aspiring actors and creative types in New York City – viable.
For SGT co-founder and Rochester native Kristin Bentley, hoofing it across Manhattan from audition to audition and questing after Broadway glory as Copps and Dandes did never seemed appealing in the first place. Especially when compared with everything Buffalo offered: a career with a living wage, boundless creative opportunities and the possibility of having a family without going broke or mildly insane.
“I eventually want to have a family, I want to have a career where I can support myself and I want to have a life in theater. And I’ve always wanted to open a theater company, too,” Bentley said. “And in Buffalo, you can have all of that. You can perform and play parts that my friends in other cities wish that they were getting the chance to play, and you can start something of your own and have a well-rounded life.”
At its heart, the decision to stay or return to Buffalo boils down to your own conditions for happiness. As life in New York City or Los Angeles becomes more difficult to pull off, having a 716 area code doesn’t seem nearly as bad as it did just a decade ago. Weighed against the opportunity to play the role of a lifetime, to launch your own theater company and to afford food on top of that, the difference between Central Park and Delaware Park suddenly doesn’t seem so great.