Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Just How 'Regional' is Regional Theatre, Anyway? - Part 2

There are some thoughts that have been banging around in my head since my post on Mike Daisey's work, "How Theater Failed America." To bring up to speed, Mike's piece makes the argument that the increasingly corporate structure of theatre in America, coupled with NYC and LA functioning as nexuses for professional artists, is dooming regional theaters to a slow death by dwindling, aging audiences served by an equally dwindling population of nomadic professionals.

There's no doubt that many of Mike's points resonate deeply with me. I don't think there's a single professional working in theatre that isn't concerned about the imminent fate of the industry. But there are also discussions happening here on the Web that remind me that, like most things, this is a complex situation with many possible perspectives.

Check out this theatre blogger from the DC area who a while back posted a long response to Daisey's piece. The response is itself well worth reading, but if you scroll down the comment list for a bit, you'll find a long comment from a poster named "Philip", who claims to have worked in the industry for over 40 years and takes a very contrary view.

Definitely read it for yourself, but to sum up Philip's argument, he believes that it is disingenuous to accuse artists from NYC or LA who work in other locales of being less artistic, committed, or their art being less worthwhile because they don't live in the places their work is being produced. He continues to say that great art is great, irregardless of the exact connection between an artist's residence and where their art is viewed. Also, he states that many artists continually meet up and collaborate, despite a model that discourages the formation of stable companies.

First, while I hesitate to assume, I believe the fact that the poster has been working in the business for 40 years implies a certain attachment to how professional theatre 'has always been done.' But secondly, his arguments are well-reasoned and worth listening to. I know very well that my own ambitions don't include migrating to LA or NYC in order to make a name for myself so I can work all over the country, but for many young people in the industry, that may be EXACTLY their dream, and not just because of the notion that they 'have to.' Who would I be to belittle that? For another example, we have a venue here on the North Coast that regularly hosts touring shows, and due to knowing the technical director of the company, I've had plenty of opportunities to see these shows both backstage and in the audience. It's certainly not the lifestyle I'd chose for myself, and while quality and spirit varies, I've seen many good shows where the performers and crew are giving everything they can, which is too much for me to discount their work as lesser because it isn't local. It's just different.

The point I'm steering towards here is that I believe it may be a mistake to reduce the issues currently facing theatre to a simple dichotomy of a 'local vs. nomadic' mode of production. I'd like to believe that theatre is expansive enough to warmly encompass both, for the special gifts that both offer. And that the failure of vision occurs when the dominant belief is that one way is the 'only' or 'right' way to produce theatre.

The long history of the profession, in the West and otherwise, seems to show me this as true. James Burbage built the theater whose timbers became the Globe in his community of Shoreditch at the same time minstrels and troupes of players wandered all of Europe. Let those who want to wander, wander. And let those who want to share their gifts with the community they call home do so. A truly sustainable theatre should be able to sustain both.

Also, I'd like to offer these final words that Philip shared:

In conclusion, I have been in this business, man and boy, for over 40 years and all during that time various individuals have decried the imminent demise of theater, it’s mediocrity and its corporatization. I am glad for everyone of those prognosticators of doom, for they shake the tree and keep us awake to the pitfalls inherent in the juxtaposition of art and income.

I am immensely fond of this statement. Amongst other things, it reminds me that theatre has almost always been a profession that has suffered, been marginalized, threatened with extinction, yet we're still here. We're impossible to get rid of.

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