Friday, January 04, 2008


So as we see from the previous two posts, the health of the American theatre depends on the production of new plays by American playwrights, and the American regional theatres have almost completely abandoned any sense that doing so is part of their job as non-profit organizations supposedly serving the public good. The next question is why.

Why has America's regional theatres resorted to an almost total reliance on "classics"? I'm certain that many artistic directors will argue that the American theatre audience is conservative and doesn't want to see new plays. Like Noah Smith, they point to symphony orchestras and opera companies as being in a similar situation. But can this fear of the new really be true? Americans flock to see new movies and, in fact, are generally distrustful of remakes; they buy tons of new music and, indeed, regard cover bands as lower musical life form; yes, Americans watch re-runs on TV, but not to the exclusion of new shows, or else why would the writer's strike be a problem at all? No, the American psyche has long been focused on the new. So why not new theatre?

A large part of the problem may be the result of our educational system, which puts a major emphasis on plays of the past. Theatre history courses are required for every major, but how many courses are devoted to reading new plays? Perhaps a course devoted to reading the plays published in American Theatre magazine combined with an equal number drawn from a slush pile of new, unproduced scripts would give students a stronger idea of how the theatre fits into contemporary life. Instead, actors and directors go into the field carrying their theatre history anthologies and little else -- is it any wonder we have so many productions of The Seagull? Is it any wonder that most young artists have no idea how to even locate a new play to read, much less produce? Is it any wonder that the most young artists have no idea that a playwright might actually be a live human being who could attend rehearsals and be part of the artistic process? No, we college professors have to carry a great deal of the blame for the lack of new plays being produced by theatre artists.

But that's only half of the equation. I also think we should look at movies, TV, and music and ask: why are audience members willing to lay out their hard-earned money for new stuff? I'd propose that part of it -- and I'd say a big part -- is trust. We buy the latest album by our favorite band because, well, they're our favorite band and we want to see what they are up to now. (And in fact we would feel betrayed if we bought their new album and it was simply remixes of their previous songs and nothing new -- even greatest hits albums usually contain a new cut or two.) We go to certain movies because an actor we like is in it, or it is directed by someone whose movies we have liked in the past, or it is written by a screenwriter whose work we've enjoyed. We've established an ongoing relationship with these people. We trust them.

And it seems to me that what is missing in the American theatre is the trust that results from an ongoing relationship. What would have happened if the second Beatles album was performed by four different musicians than John, Paul, George, and Ringo? Would it have been a hit? Doubtful. Fans would have been outraged. The Beatles ARE John, Paul, George, and Ringo. But our regional theatres rotate actors and directors on almost a show-by-show basis, short-circuiting any possibility of an ongoing relationship between audience and stage. If John, Paul, George, and Ringo ARE the Beatles, who IS the Guthrie? It changes from show to show. Sure, there is an Artistic Director, and sometimes he or she has actually been around more than a year or two, but Artistic Directors are directing fewer and fewer of the productions because they have administrative functions. Instead, each individual production imports a director from somewhere else, and he or she does that single show and is never heard from again. The same is true of playwrights -- are there any regional theatres who have a resident playwright whose work is produced regularly? Perhaps a few, where a playwright has formed a relationship with a specific director, but it is rare.

We theatre people see this as a fact of life, and in fact we see it as a good thing -- we think it is a benefit to cast the "best" actor for each role, rather than maintaining a company where we have to put up with an actor playing a role for which he or she may be less than ideal. But the audience sees it differently -- they like seeing an artist stretch and try something new; they like having an ongoing relationship with an actor, a director. A theatre's identity is in its artists, not in its address. How can we expect audiences to make a leap into the unknown without having established a trusting relationship with SOMEBODY at the theatre?

If we want audiences to support new plays, we need to build an ongoing relationship of trust with them. The revolving door that is American regional theatre has got to stop.


patrick said...

Great post. This notion of an extended relationship is so important in theatre, and I think you're right, that if the audience gets to know the actors, writers, and directors, they're more likely to take a leap of faith with them and explore new works. There was a time when this actually did happen in regional theatre. The Denver Center Theatre Company had a resident company for a while that really worked. I've seen smaller companies work in this mode very well--Rough & Tumble in Boston operates in this fashion, and developed a good following.

The Director said...

That's an excellent idea. I know that one of the reasons why people keep coming back to the theatre that I work in is because they love to see the same people, they love to see how we change, and they have a personal (albeit distanced) relationship with us. They know us, our quirks, our foibles. They come in expecting certain things, and when we deliver something different, they're blown away by our versatility.

You're right on the money, though, as far as playwrights and directors go. Their jobs are too impersonal as far as audiences go. Shame.