In his 1972 book Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage, Joseph Wesley Zeigler, who from 1966 to 1969 himself led the TCG, decided to use the word "regional" to describe the theatre about which he was writing "mostly because it reflects the anti-capital philosophy which is the core of the story." In his first chapter, "Defining a Revolution," Zeigler elaborated about this commitment to decentralization. "The regional theatre phenomenon has been a major and determined attempt to spread American culture throughout the country and even more to create a new basis of theatre not dependent on Broadway. The purpose of decentralization has been less to spread the wealth than to triumph in an ideological war between the institutional theatre and the commercial theatre. Those in the forefront of the regional theatre movement see it as a way to strip Broadway of its power. The primary force of their crusade has been centrifugal." Unfortunately, in the years since 1972 entropy has robbed this centrifugal force of most of its energy, and the gravitational pull of Broadway (and its once rebellious but now equally tamed sibling, Off-Broadway) has reasserted itself. Charles McNulty, in an article about San Diego's Old Globe entitled "Theaters Playing to Bottom Line," does a nice job illustrating how the increasing focus on New York transfers is undermining regional theatres like the Old Globe, who "have come to mark their success by the number of Tonys their splashiest shows go on to win."
What I was asserting in my post on American Theatre is that this primarily New York (but also, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles and Chicago) orientation has come to inform this fine magazine both through its choice of articles and through its choice of writers. Are the articles written by these writers informative and inspirational? Absolutely, I would certainly never argue with that -- I read my American Theatre almost the moment it arrives. But I believe a magazine published by a regional theatre service organization ought to promote the values described by Zeigler that gave the movement its power and distinctiveness, and also resist the pull of the celebrity culture in which we live.
Isaac asks "why does something about a production in Kentucky written by someone who lives in NYC considered a NYLACHI article?" The answer, and I suspect it is one that will lead Isaac and other NY bloggers to throw up their hands, is that a New York author will write about a subject through a lens that is shaped by the New York context in which they live. It isn't intentional; it is a natural adjustment that occurs when one lives in a place and regularly encounters the values embedded in that place. Richard Florida's book Are You Living Where You Should Be?, which Joe Patti describes at "Butts in the Seats," says essentially the same thing. Joe writes about Florida's ideas, "communities have a certain character on a macro-level. There is always an artistic/bohemian, etc. area in any city of size. However, this area in Oklahoma City, OK is not equal to the same area in Philadelphia, PA but rather reflects what each city will tolerate of their artists. As I understand Florida, he is saying the artists of Oklahoma City will have absorbed the more conservative vibe of their city." [ital mine] I agree, and I New York is exempt from this effect. So when New York critic David Cote visits Reykjavik, Iceland, for instance, his reactions are filtered through his New York sensibilities. Can you imagine an Icelander writing this way about Reykjavik? I can't:
"It was interesting. Farty-smelling water from sulphur. Wickedly expensive. Insular. Nordic. Beautiful people - if you like the translucent-skinned elvish type. Scary, depressing hard drinking on weekends. Local theater is both slick-Euro and about 15 years behind the avant-curve. Reykjavik is a small Scandy town with one main street full of overpriced boutique stores. Men who look like rugged, homicidal Vikings but turn out to be exceedingly polite. Four-dollar hot dogs with crumbled onion rings and three types of sauce…very popular. And delicious. Dank, cold, dark....Iceland has not produced its Robert Wilson, its Wooster Group, its equivalent of Off-Off Broadway, or even its own exportable mainstream playwrights. Its productions hardly ever make it to the Brooklyn Academy of Music or Le Festival d’Avignon.How in the world can we take it seriously if it hasn't even made it to BAM? I mean, whatEVer.
In American Theatre, this surfaces in articles like the cover story about Edward Albee written by Carol Rocamora, a New York University professor, who refers to Albee's "distinguished 15-year teaching career at the University of Houston, where that city's Alley Theatre also gave him a home" as -- get this -- "critical exile." The Alley Theatre, founded by regional theatre pioneer and visionary Nina Vance, is one of the original flagship theatres of the regional movement. It should not be dismissed as a place of exile, least of all in American Theatre. Grinding salt into the wound, Rocamora lionizes the New York-based Off-Broadway Signature Theatre for doing the same thing the Alley Theatre did -- "giving the playwright a new home," and then she concludes the sentence by repeating the same insult: "after a decade of critical exile from New York." While Houston may seem like exile to a New York University professor, for those of us who believe in the value of the regional theatre movement, and who hold to the "anti-capital philosophy" of decentralization described by Zeigler, such throwaway insults are a slap in the face to everything regional theatre stands for.
Perhaps a more subtle example can be found in the December 2007 cover story Ms. Hart refers to about the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of It Happened in Little Rock, which portrays the 1957 events surrounding the integration of Central High School. That was a powerful article, there is no doubt about it, and it was inspiring to read about the production, and I applaud American Theatre for writing about it. But I'll also point out that it was written by Nicole Estvanik, American Theatre's Associate Editor (New York), about a play that was written by New York playwright Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj (who Estvanik points out has a father from India, a mother from the Caribbean, and who grew up on Long Island and did not come to America until he was school-aged), and was directed by Robert Hupp, who before taking over the Arkansas Rep spent nine seasons as the Artistic Director of the Jean Cocteau Rep in New York. So what? Am I suggesting that only people from Arkansas can write about Arkansas? Hardly. But I am suggesting that the lens of an outsider does have an effect on what is perceived, and that that is important.
Jill Dolan, in her brilliant book Utopia in Performance, writes about this very topic in her chapter on The Laramie Project, which raised similar question about the us/them, there/here binary. "The project," Dolan writes, "proceeds from the perspective of outsiders for outsiders, with the danger of condescension to the local using such techniques involve." The use of the word "exile" to describe fifteen years in Houston is an example of such condescension, which assumes a non-Houston audience that would share such an attitude. Poor Edward Albee, stuck in the fourth-largest city in the United States having all his plays performed at a nationally-recognized regional theatre with a 75,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility when he could be being performed in a 160-seat theatre on 42nd Street in New York City. Why, it's just tragic.
As far as the articles themselves, Hart asks: "In our April issue is an essay by Wallace Shawn on his writing process; he’s obviously a New York writer, but he reports that his favorite production of his work was done by Rubber Rep in Austin, Tex., whose productions are prominently featured in the issue. Is that a New York story?" I haven't received my April issue yet, but I would venture to say of course it is a New York story. Wallace Shawn is a New York writer, as Hart says, and that is why his article is being published. If he were an Austin, TX playwright, is it likely that American Theatre would be at all interested in his writing process? Not very. He is being published because he is the author of a number of plays that have been produced to some acclaim and notoriety in NYC, and because he achieved national recognition as a result of his film work. Is it nice that his favorite production was in Austin? Sure. Will the article be a good one? No doubt. But that's not the point. The point is, to use a phrase that continues to resonate in academia, the Problem of The Canon.
When people in literature departments argue about the canon, the argument often focuses on what underrepresented voices are going unheard because of a tight focus on canonical dead white males. In theatre, NYC has come to define, even for the regional theatre movement, the nature of the canon, by which I not only mean plays, but also actors, directors, designers, critics, and playwrights. When American Theatre interviews "8 Tall Actors on How to Play Albee" as part of the Albee cover story, they talk to Myra Carter, Rosemary Harris, Bill Irwin, Brian Murray, Bill Pullman, Mercedes Ruhl, Marian Seldes, and Kathleen Turner. I could be mistaken, but those all look like actors who have appeared in New York productions of Albee's plays, and yet for 15 years his plays were being done in Houston at the Alley Theatre. Why aren't those actors interviewed? Because they lack New York cache, they stand outside the NY canon of actors. They are the underrepresented voices that are going unheard.
Yes, In the Red and Brown Water received its premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, and that is truly wonderful. But playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is a New York playwright, a Yale Drama School graduate of the MFA program in playwriting, and his previous play opened in 2007 simultaneously at the New York Public Theatre and London's Young Vic (which also plans to produce In the Red and Brown Water). The play is being directed by Steppenwolf member and Anne Bogart collaborator Tina Landau, designed by NY designers Mimi Lien, Jessica Jahn, and Scott Zielinski. These are all NY-canonical names and credits. This is not a regional playwright, nor a product of a regional theatre. This is an import.
My intention is not to dismiss the value, quality, or importance of these people or plays or productions; my intention is to show that a New York pedigree seems to be critical to being included in the pages of American Theatre. And to say that I don't think that is truly supporting what the regional theatre was meant to be, or those who have devoted their lives to working in it.
What I want to see from a magazine purportedly committed to the health of the regional theatre is a focus on people who have committed themselves and their career to the regional theatre movement. Not a complete and total focus -- I like to read about Wallace Shawn and Anne Bogart as much as the rest of you -- but some level of equity. People need to know that it is possible, indeed admirable, to have a rich and satisfying career by committing your life to the regional theatre alone, and even better one regional theatre, rather than bouncing from Broadway to film to regional theatre to TV. Commitment to the vision of the regional theatre should be an important guide for choosing subjects to spotlight in American Theatre. I want an article about James and Rose Pickering, who I saw give brilliant performances at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre when I was in high school 30+ years ago, and who are still there and part of the resident acting company. I want to read about people like Cliff Fannin Baker, who founded the Arkansas Rep in 1976 and ran it for 23 years. I want the spotlight to fall on people whose names we don't already know, because they have spent their career devoted to a regional theatre movement that was supposed to be decentralized and anti-capital. I want an article about Charlie and Angie Flynn-McIver. the co-founders of North Carolina Stage Company, who have committed themselves to creating a professional regional theatre here in Asheville, NC, and who are not bouncing around the country picking up acting and directing jobs in NYC. It is a crime that incredible acting teachers such as Jean Scharfenberg and Cal Pritner, who taught at Illinois State University through much of the 1990s and who had a hand in teaching many of the founders of Steppenwolf as well as a whole boatload of talented actors like Judith Ivey, Laurie Metcalf, and the founders of Chicago's 500 Clowns and Breadline Theatre , were ignored because they didn't teach in a "name" east coast theatre department but in central Illinois. Instead, we get interviews about teaching acting with Andrei Serban, of all people, who teaches at -- you guessed it -- New York University.
This reply was supposed to be calm and polite, and I know I haven't managed to keep it that way. But it frustrates me to see a movement that I grew up with and that had such promise for creating a true renaissance in the American theatre be co-opted by Broadway aesthetics and succumb to the culture of celebrity. And I want American Theatre and the TCG to be vocal proponents of what the regional theatre was supposed to be.