Thursday, July 24, 2008

What Was Sold

I happened to stumble across a book entitled Theater in America: Appraisal and Challenge, a report put together for the National Theatre Conference in 1968. The preface indicates "In November 1961, at the annual meeting of the Nationa Theatre Cobference (NTC) in New York, the Board of Trustees established a major project for a National Appraisal of the American Theater. The purpose of the project was to prepare an accurate, up-to-date, critical report of the 'total, multi-faceted image of theater in the United States in the third quarter of the twentieth century' -- a picture, as it were, of the whole state of the theatre, where it is and where it is going."

There were chapters on the New York Theater -- Broadway and Non-Profit Organizations; the Community Theater; Educational Theatre; and the Professional Resident Theaters. They noted that the regional theater had grown from 12 theaters in 1950 to twenty-three in 1960 to sixty-two by 1968. So the movement was no longer in its infancy, and it was starting to blossom. So what were some of the observations and predictions?

First, it drew a distinction between it and the commercial NY theatre: "instead of being set up for the production of a single show and then dissolved at the end of its run, they are organized for continuity of management and artistic policy, and, in the main, of performing and technical personnel, playing extended seasons of 20 weeks or more..." NTC, the authors go on, "has a special interest in this movement, having dedicated itself from the beginning to the decentralization of theater in the United States...[M]ost of them have certain goals in common, which set them apart" from the NY commercial theater and the educational theater "and which make them part of what we have called a movement."John Reich, the director of the Good man, described his program for success, which included "careful casting: combining some guest actors of repute with the regular company, including students, but offering the guest players only parts they have not previously performed, and screening them judiciously for their human qualities and potential influence upon the company as well as for their artistic talent."

"The majority of the regional theater's professional actors," the authors continue, "come from the New York theater. The success in luring good actors away from New York is due chiefly to the challenging and varied roles available. An actor offered four or five roles per season which has has always dreamed of playing, and which would never be available to him in New York, becomes friendly toward the idea of a prolonged residence in another city. Any good actor is interested in improving his art and recognizes that roles in great plays enlarge his horizon and skills. Conditions and pay in regional theaters, too, are quite favorable. These theaters employ actors both on production and on seasonal contracts. Of 25 regional theaters replying to NTC's queries, 12 employed on contract per production while 19 employed actors also by the season. Their actor's average salary is reported as approximately $200 per week -- far better than the general average of $50 - $65 a week for off-Broadway shows."

"The professional actor in regional theater, therefore, has greater security than he does on or (still less) off-Broadway, unless he happens to be continually in demand. This offer of security may be the strongest asset possessed by these theaters in drawing and holding talent and in building a cohesive ensemble." {ital mine]

"In spite of the relatively good pay, seasonal contracts, and challenging roles in the regional theaters, managing directors report a considerable turnover of actors. Only about three-quarters of a typical company return each season..."

The authors conclude, "the Professional Resident Theater movement -- and it is a movement -- has broken the stranglehold of Broadway by planting in almost half a hndred cities across the land, and even in Manhattan, professional organizations permanently rooted and growing in their communities; also by demonstrating that it can attract good actors in large numbers away from the lures of the Great White Way by offering seasonal securrty, challenging roles in classic, modern, and experimental productions, and a chance to live more stable, normal lives -- and even raise families if they choose -- while expanding and perfecting their skill as artists."

Their last words: "NTC closes its report on the professional resident or regional theater movement with some optimism, much hope, and many perplexing questions. The most encouraging fact is: it exists, it is here to stay -- so far, so good."

Forty years later, when people like me or Mike Daisey draw attention to the problems of the regional theatre movement, and discuss the abandonment of the founding values, we are called "naive" by the current leaders, and others express doubt as to whether there has ever been a time in the American theatre when there was a possibility of stability, of commitment, of an escape from the blackjack model of regional theatre. This report belies those doubts. It clearly shows that not only were those values and ideals held by the leaders of the regional theater movement, but far from representing "naive" ideals, they were actually being successfully implemented and lived. Nineteen of twenty-five,  or 76% of the resident theatres that responded to queries, employed actors by the season. The average salary of $200 per week was the equivalent today of about $1250 a week, which made actors firmly middle-class.  And if the authors of this study were right, and the offer of security was "the strongest asset possessed by these theaters in drawing and holding talent and building a cohesive ensemble," then the abandonment of those values and that commitment to security represents a betrayal of the regional theater movement by its leaders, and a gutting of what made it unique and healthy.  And that is shameful. And to forget that such a theater existed, and did so in a healthy and vigorous way that was the cause of "optimism, and much hope," is to buy into the ahistorical, cynical culture that has taken over our arts institutions. And we must demand that we do better, and accept accountability for readjusting of way of doing business to reinstate what was most promising about the real regional theatre that came into being in the third quarter of the twentieth century.
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Ethan Stanislawski said...

It still seems to emphasize that New York has always been the center of American theater. Daisey's "freeze dried" New York actors metaphor still rings true. I have a hard time judging the optimism of a movement still in its pre-natal stages with its current form (like comparing The Ramones with Sum 41). Still, it's a nice find all the same, and inspiring to note that faith in regional theater hasn't always been as turgid.

Scott Walters said...

Ethan -- Man! You really filtered that message! The message was that in 1968, New York actors were being drawn away by seasonal contracts that paid a middle-class wage and provided security and stability. And that wasn't prediction, that was fact: 75% of the regional theatres offered seasonal contracts. And it sure ain't pre-natal -- 63 theatres across America, some as many as 20+ years old, ain't prenatal -- that's young adult, and established enough the be a movement with specific shared values.