In quest of a national theater (Part 2 of 2)
By Charles Brousse
A friend of mine, who had read the first part of these musings (‘Deconstructed,’ Aug. 31) about current trends, asked me what I meant by our failure to create an “American National Theater.” Did I mean a place, an actual building like the National Theatre in London? And what, exactly, derailed the project?
No, I said. The answer to the first question is that what I was writing about was more an aspiration, a dream that one day playhouses (large and small) throughout the country would feature our best writers (old and new), telling stories that offered insightful perspectives on America’s ever-evolving social landscape. In fact, it almost happened. Roughly between Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness! in the early ’30s to Edward Albee’s 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, all the elements seemed in place.
Here’s how it worked. New plays by established or especially talented new writers were usually born in New York, on or off-Broadway. From there, the cream of each year’s crop moved on to the large regional theaters, either as touring productions or as in-house projects. The final step in this progression was the amateur, or semi-amateur community playhouses, of which there were—and still are—literally hundreds scattered across the nation. At every level, critics, newspapers and magazines published judgments that, along with audience response, influenced whether a particular work had the potential to be included in the “standard repertoire.”
Of course, that arrangement wasn’t popular with everybody. Emerging playwrights who weren’t part of the New York network complained about the difficulty of getting their scripts produced. Regional companies didn’t like the long waiting periods before production rights were released. Nevertheless, for a few decades, America had what I might call a sustainable “theatrical ecosystem” that nurtured a generation of outstanding writers and engaged the culturally aware public with familiar names and play titles.
By the end of the century, that ecosystem had almost totally collapsed. It didn’t happen overnight. Albee, Neil Simon and David Mamet continued to write plays that received widespread distribution into the ’80s and beyond. Newcomer Tony Kushner made a splash with Angels in America (1991), but that play, which originated in San Francisco’s old Eureka Theater before moving to New York instead of the other way around, signaled the start of a new era.
The reasons for such a catastrophic ecosystem collapse are many. It began at the center. Burdened by high production costs and declining audiences, Broadway turned to mega-musicals to justify the soaring ticket prices. As drama at the national level lost prestige and funding, writers migrated to the greener pastures of movies and TV, or turned their attention to the major regional theaters that were offering play development programs. The public was lured away by competing forms of entertainment and changing tastes. Informed criticism waned as newspapers closed and the remaining few outlets cut their staff. (The Bay Area, with its 7.5 million inhabitants, has for some time had only one regional daily newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, which employs one full-time theater critic.)
The result? With just about every theater, large and small, loudly extolling its “world” or “Bay Area” premieres of works by writers (many of them local) whose names and performance records are unfamiliar, how does anyone decide what is worth seeing? For a while, Shakespeare filled the void. At least that was a recognizable name and body of work. Lately, though, “authentic Shakespeare”—that is, productions that have not been tinkered with too much and have actors and directors who respect the playwright and have the necessary skills—is becoming harder and harder to find.
So where is this all leading? Nobody talks about an American National Theater anymore. Every company has a different audience, with different tastes. I think people will identify their favorites and trust that what they will be seeing is worth their time, money and effort. While some guidance may come from the few of us who are still active critics, and there are numerous blogs of varying quality that offer online advice, I can imagine a seamless process in which you search the web for what’s on, punch in a ticket order on your smartphone without knowing much about the play’s content and reserve a driverless car that will transport you to the chosen venue. Welcome to our very own theatrical Brave New World!