Monday, September 24, 2007

What Might Have Been

Back when I was in my late teens, I stumbled on American resident theatre pioneer Margo Jones' inspiring book Theatre-in-the-Round (1951). In the late 40s and 50s, Jones brought into existence a resident theatre in Dallas called Theatre followed by the year: Theatre 47, Theatre 48, etc. It was a brilliant idea that created an annual New Year's Eve ritual of gathering patrons together to ring in the theatre's new name each year.

I recently reread this book, which I recommend highly not only for its spirited endorsement of the arena theatre form (and she makes an excellent and very practical rationale for it that still stands up today), but also for an indication of the values of the original regional theatre movement in America. I would like to quote extensively from the early part of the book, and ask you to imagine how the American theatre might have been different had we followed Margo Jones instead of Tyrone Guthrie.

I believe it is imperative in creating new resident professional companies to take a violent stand about the choice of plays. Personally I believe in the production of classics and new scripts, with emphasis on new scripts. Our theatre can never be stronger than the quality of its plays. We must, therefore, have a great number of good plays. The classics have proved their value through­out the history of the theatre, and I believe we should draw on them as great literature and great theatre. But if we ( produce only classics, we are in no way reflecting our own age. Our theatres must not only be professional, they must be contemporary as well. The most excellent seasons in New York are those which bring forth exciting new play-writing talent.

Too many people are saying, "I'll do a new play if I can find a good one." Certainly you must find a good one, but this attitude is not good enough. The plays can be found if you look hard enough. And if you take the vio­lent stand I have spoken about, you will feel obligated to search and search and search until the scripts are dis­covered. I have a belief that there is great writing in America today and that much of it has not yet been un­earthed.

Great theatres have always had their playwrights. Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere, Ibsen—all these were men around whom theatrical companies were functioning. The Moscow Art Theatre had Chekhov; the Abbey Theatre had Yeats, Synge and O'Casey; the Provincetown had O'Neill; the Group had Odets. We must have our new play­wrights, and we will not have them unless we give them many outlets to see their plays produced. This is the best way in which they can learn to write better plays.

The production of classics is healthy, but it is not step in the flowering we want to see in the American
theatre. We need progress, and the seed of progress in theeatre lies in the new plays.

American resident theatres followed Guthrie, an Irishman who came up through the English repertory theatre tradition, in preferring a repertoire dominated by the classics. University theatres followed suit, abandoning the living playwright -- especially the living playwright of a previously unproduced play who might be able to be in residence for the production -- in favor of a series of classics. Tom Loughlin wrote, "
the expectation is that universities will present us with “traditional” art in traditional ways, the “high art” that everyone talks about. There is absolutely no expectation that universities will produce any sort of original art whatsoever, but rather act as a museum of art in every possible way. Shakespeare will be done as “Shakespeare,” classics are expected, and high art will be enjoyed by all...the name of the game is not creation; it’s re-creation." The resident theatre has also moved down the road to museum as well, focusing their creativity on the formal production elements, deconstructing the plays to make their own concoctions, and virtually ignoring the existence of the playwrights who are creating our theatrical legacy.

The commercial non-profits (a term coined by Bob Leonard of Virginia Tech) and the universities go hand in hand on this. If you are looking for evidence that Tom's call for a uniting of the artist and the academic is needed to force change, you need go no further than a comparison of Margo Jones and the latest American Theatre listings. Jones believed in full productions, and as a result she encouraged many, many playwrights including Tennessee Williams (she was co-director of the original Glass Menagerie).

The regional theatre movement got highjacked; it is time we took it back.


Bil said...

Dude, this is probably the most inspiring blog article I've read in a long time. And as someone who is in the earliest stages of forming a theatre company, I take a lot of comfort in knowing that there are others out there who believes in new plays. So, thanks for that.


Joshua said...

Someone mentioned you wrote this and so I came to check it out . . . if you'd had presented this POV eariler, it's doubtful you and I would have ever had such a fractious blistering blog-bout . . .

Then again, who knows? LOL!

I wrote about this subject, remember, in NO MORE COVERS?

Scott Walters said...

I do remember you writing that, and I think at the time I chimed in agreement. It seems so obvious to me, and such an abrogation of responsibility on the part of the regional theatre and the university theatre.