Friday, July 3, 2009

Just How 'Regional' is Regional Theatre Anyway?

Since yesterday I threw up some links related to the ecological side of theatre production, today I thought I'd discuss some articles and sources dealing with socio-economic issues.

First, there's this article, The Empty Spaces written by Mike Daisey (who also turned the same article into a one-man show entitled How Theater Failed America.) Warning: while it makes many sound and searingly insightful points, Mike doesn't pull any punches in his discourse, and the picture he paints of theatre in the USA is exceptionally bleak. It's a must-read, but not when you're trying to savor your good mood. While the whole article is worthy of discussion, there is this particular section I wanted to cite:

The institutions that form the backbone of Seattle theater—Seattle Rep, Intiman, ACT—are regional theaters. The movement that gave birth to them tried to establish theaters around the country to house repertory companies of artists, giving them job security, an honorable wage, and health insurance. In return, the theaters would receive the continuity of their work year after year—the building blocks of community. The regional theater movement tried to create great work and make a vibrant American theater tradition flourish.

That dream is dead. The theaters endure, but the repertory companies they stood for have been long disbanded. When regional theaters need artists today, they outsource: They ship the actors, designers, and directors in from New York and slam them together to make the show. To use a sports analogy, theaters have gone from a local league with players you knew intimately to a different lineup for every game, made of players you'll never see again, coached by a stranger, on a field you have no connection to.

The trends that Mike Daisey refers to are worrisome, and have been cause for concern for most theatre professionals to one degree or another. One of the great promises of the regional theatre movement was, as Mike alludes to above, the possibility for artists to work where they live, in their own communities, instead of being forced to migrate to New York in order to make a name for themselves and then wait to be shipped out on their next contract (or abandon their theatrical ambitions and jump ship to LA...) I believe that there is something visceral about this issue. I know for myself, I have little desire to live and work out of New York or LA, and there is something deeply depressing about the thought that the only avenue to having a stable career in an established community may end up being a job in higher education.

At the same time, it is important to note that even Mike allows that there are legitmate reasons for these trends. Artistic directors and other administrators of regional theaters constantly struggle to keep the doors open by whatever means possible, and at the elevated level of the regional theaters, competition over limited funding is ferociously intense. There is this article from the New York Times (which references Mike Daisey's work and examines many of the same issues) where the artistic director of the Guthrie was quoted as saying that in the world of regional theatre, "You either grow or you die." I don't reference this source as a justification, rather just an argument that these conditions are systemic in nature, and not simply due to 'short-sighted and corrupt' regional administrators we can shake our fists at.

Well, I don't want to dwell in just doom and gloom. In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the bioregionalist movement, localized economies, and community building, and this has also been reflected in theatre. For an example, there is this very recent piece by David Dower that takes a more cautiously optimistic view of regional theatre and it's future than Daisey. Theatre, like any sub-section of human society, is an incredibly diverse and complex ecosystem unto itself, full of often contradictory attributes and trends. It's tempting to formulate simple opinons and answers, but intricate issues require equally intricate and nuanced analysis.

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