Tuesday, September 20, 2005


SpearBearer Down Left and YS of Mirror Up to Nature are engaged in a discussion of "regionalitis," which YS defines as "the peculiar malady suffered by mediocre efforts of excellent playwrights. Usually regionalitis is caused by the continued and incessant performing of a play by regional and smaller theatres..." SpearBearer elaborates: "There's a lot of "mee-too-ism" that goes on in theatres around the country. If you can write a good 3-5 person play, that's not too long, smart but not too smart (we don't need any more new Stoppards, thank you very much), and avoid letting it look like kitchen-sink-drama or sound like a "well-made-play" — then, if you can have the good fortune to get a production or two at a couple must-see theatres, and then get it printed in American Theatre. By God, you've got something." YS concludes: " I think something is going wrong when most of us can guess pretty accurately what the theatre seasons of the regional companies are going to be. Not doing [a regionalitis] play as [often] may deprive people of seeing it, I know that. However, could multiple productions of The Real Thing and Burn This and True West, also be depriving us of seeing something possibly better? Something new, something that speaks to our time?"

In my opinion, we are being deprived of something new that speaks not only to our time, but to our place as well. Conventional wisdom is that mass media have made America a homogeneous culture: we all watch the same TV shows and movies, listen to the same music, read the same best sellers. And to some extent, at least, this is true. But I think what is often ignored is that the aesthetics and concerns of a community are strongly affected by its place: its geography, its size, its climate, its terrain, its pace, its culture.

I have lived in Manhattan (in fact, a block off of Times Square -- you can't get much more New York than that) and I now live in Asheville, and I know in my own case that, despite being the same person, I have appreciated totally different things depending on where I have lived. For instance, in NYC, rap music "made sense," it reflected my surroundings; here in Asheville, a small city of 100,000 surrounded by the incredible natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it seems jarring and incongruous. It seems to me that NYC people are focused much more on their inner life -- their aesthetic responses, their intellectual and emotional lives; Asheville people are more tuned into the environment that surrounds them, and their souls resonate to the things they see and hear around them. A novel like The Hours drove me crazy when I read it a few months ago; in NYC, I may have thought it absolutely brilliant.

The point I am trying to make is that regionalitis treats all places as if they were the same. If the hot new play in NYC is, say, Art, it must be just the thing for...Asheville and Omaha and Nashville...because w're all the same, right? Wrong. The reverse is also true. A play like The Kentucky Cycle was extremely popular at regional theatres, and even won the Pulitzer, but it failed in NYC. Why? I'd venture to say that, at least in part, it was because it didn't have an urban pace or urban subject matter, and so NYC critics found it tedious -- the production was undermined by an aesthetic rhythm problem! In fact, those NYC actors who would have been cast in it probably had no idea what a Kentucky rhythm was, and they distorted the production through their own internal timeclocks being set to Eastern Standard Time instead of Central!

This is why it is so important for theatre artists to be part of the community in which they perform. They can't fly in from LaGuardia, bringing all that Big Apple tension, frenetic pace, and edgy aggression with them and expect to create a successful production for the slower, more mellow, and more cooperative Asheville theatregoer. They have to let the community sink into their bones. Once that has happened, once they have been marinaded in the social juices of their community, then they can make insightful choices of plays that might speak to their audience in a language that resonates within them, and perform those plays in a way that is recognizable to those who bought tickets.

Let me be perfectly clear: I am not suggesting that plays performed in a city in the South, for instance, have to be plays about the South. What I am saying is that every play ever written vibrates with its own melody, and an artist who wishes to speak to the actual people in their theatre, and not some imagined Manhattan Ideal Audience, needs to be tuned into that melody and understand whether it can harmonize with the local chords. If they do so, they might have a chance of escaping the effects of regionalitis.


Anonymous said...

While regional theater's can do without another tired production of "Burn This", I think you should encourage playwrights not to write for a local, or national artist, but to write plays that speak to the human condition.

I was born in the South, and although I escaped to NYC, I still have an affection for parts of Virginia and Texas, not to mention North Cackalackey.

Perhaps I have become elitist. Nine years with the urban Yankess does that to a man.

Anyway, my point is: isn't encouraging regionalism asking playwrights to behave in the same insular way as Mr. New York Playwright Writing Something Pretensious and Urbane?

(I know the South, and it has other vibrations besides environmental harmony.)

The Playgoer said...

Yes, the New York theatre can no longer (if it ever did) stand in for the sensibilities of a nation. Great post!

My only quibble is with that beleaguered NY premiere of "Kentuck Cycle," an important work, I agree. The problem with that, though, in my view was that it was on *Broadway*. Some producer's idea of an American Nicholas Nickelby. Of course it backfired. I'm sure if a loving and expert production were staged on one of our better nonprofit companies, NY audiences would have taken a chance and critics might have judged more as a work of art than a commercial property.

alwaysabridesmaid said...

To suggest that artists cannot come from NYC to work in other communities because we cannot understand how to speak to them is to encourage provincialism in the arts.

Actors and directors live in NYC because that is where we get work.

We are so dedicated to a life in the theater -- creating it, not teaching others how to do it -- that we need to be where the opportunities are, even if that means not getting to live in the bucolic mountains.

We also like to be around and learn from a truly diverse community, because that is how to really learn to make art.

To suggest that we all insulate ourselves into small communities and only perform for each other? Means that your student production of the Bronx-set Marisol should not exist.

You have a white woman playing Marisol, a fact which I'm sure would make Rivera cringe. Under your reasoning, you and the small, very white community in which you live and work could not possibly understand his work.

Angie said...

I agree that no artist, from NYC or elsewhere, should swoop into a town bringing their cultural baggage to bear on a production on which they are working. No one, in fact, local or otherwise, should allow their personal circumstances to cloud the playwright's intention in writing the play. The artist's job is to execute the play, to get out of his or her own way, so to speak, so that the audience can appreciate the play as it was written.

I would add, however, that the producer for whom out-of-town artists are working would bear the responsibility for acclimating the artists to their temporary community. We do what we can, sending the artists relevant information about the area, but the economic realities of producing NFP theatre make it prohibitively expensive to rehearse long enough to allow the artists to really absorb the community. The producer, though, should be the local voice, the person on the artistic team who is making sure that the production is relevant for their community. Presumably, in choosing the play, casting it, choosing a director, and consulting on direction and design choices, the producer is speaking for her community (as she has the most at stake in all of these choices).

The real cultural imperialism, in my view, comes from touring productions, touted as "Broadway" shows, that are often cast with performers who have never seen a Broadway stage. These shows mislead the local community, charge very high ticket prices for a sub-standard (certainly not "Broadway") product, and pull audiences away from local theatres that exist to serve the community full-time. At worst, they deliver an unsatisfying product, and the fleeced audiences decide not to go to the theatre again.

As a producer myself, I use as many local artists as possible. At times, though, the specific demands of a play insist that I look outside Asheville in order to find the artist who will bring the most training and craft to the job (acting, directing, or designing.) The artists I hire, all of them, local and out-of-town, are chosen to best implement our mission of serving the Asheville audience that attends our theatre.