Okay, I’m starting to get really irritated.
Last winter, Broadway was briefly populated exclusively with musicals, revivals and European (read: British) plays—not a contemporary American in sight. Alas and alack, cried a New York Times writer—how low we have fallen! The new American play is dying! In the months since, an increasing number of doomsday journalists and funders have lamented the demise of American playwriting, citing this brief Broadway hiatus.
To those who find themselves incapable of looking south of 40th Street (or north of 52nd), especially in a moment when available theatre real estate in the city is as rare as the proverbial hens’ teeth; to those who can not be bothered to check the listings in Time Out, the Village Voice, the Internet or alternative media outlets serving theatres for whom Times advertising rates are prohibitive; and especially to those who think playwrights live and work only on the island of Manhattan—to you, I dedicate this issue of American Theatre with its annual Season Preview listings.
When TCG was founded in 1961, there was just a handful of professional not-for-profit theatres sprinkled across the country (including the first, the Cleveland Play House, founded during World War I). But MacNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation invested millions upon millions to create a theatrical landscape in which audiences, no matter where they lived, could regularly experience work by professional artists. The creation of the National Endowment for the Arts and the subsequent appearance of arts agencies in every state kicked this movement into high gear.
Today, we have an estimated 1,100 professional not-for-profit theatres, many dedicated to work by American writers, many doing productions of new plays, many doing workshops and staged readings that go far beyond the listings you will find in this issue.
Initially, our movement looked to the commercial theatre and to the classical canon for its repertoire. But soon, organizations specifically dedicated to new plays (the O’Neill Center, for example) began to dot the landscape; festivals devoted to new work (prominently among them Actors Theatre of Louisville) arose; and, increasingly, theatres began to build second spaces to encourage experimentation and adventure. With the move of The Great White Hope from Arena Stage to Broadway in 1967, the commercial sector began to appreciate the advantages of not-for-profit gestation, ultimately leading to the frequently knotty marriage of these sectors through enhancement funds and transfers. The commercial theatre today depends on the not-for-profit for its new work, a change seen in the Pulitzer Prizes for drama, which since 1973—with the sole exception of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers—have all gone to works developed in the not-for-profit sector. Often, these winners never have a Broadway run at all.
Nor, perhaps, should they. I, for one, rarely find a theatrical experience enhanced by a move to a larger venue. I love sitting knee-to-knee in small spaces, on top of the actors, as it were, registering every shift of the emotional landscape. Broadway architecture demands a different scale of performance, contributes to a different emotional experience. The extraordinary Kathleen Chalfant can command and dominate a space of any size, but I selfishly cherish seeing Wit in that tiny Manhattan Class Company space, sitting three claustrophobic rows from death itself.
So, for those of you who still think American playwriting is in decline, I say call Lynn Nottage, Luis Valdez, Valina Hasu Houston and Carlyle Brown. Call Jon Robin Baitz, Keith Glover and Kenneth Lonergan. If their phones are busy, try Ernest Joselovits, John Belluso or Jane Anderson. Suzan-Lori Parks, Leslie Lee, Rebecca Gilman and August Wilson all might be too busy to return your calls, so you might e-mail Eric Rosen, Kyle Hall or Jim Grimsley, José Cruz Gonzalez, Charles Mee or Theresa Rebeck. If none of these fit your fancy, try contacting ensembles dedicated to creating new work: Mabou Mines, the Wooster Group, Double Edge of Ashfield, Mass., the Dell’Arte Players of Blue Lake, Calif., Roadside Theater of Whitesburg, Ky., or the Independent Eye of Sebastopol, Calif. All are premiering new work this season–and they represent only the tip of a larger literary iceberg.
And, if this still doesn’t do it for you, make your way to the annual meeting of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of America. Listen when some of these new-play professionals describe sifting through the more than 800 unsolicited plays they each receive annually from new American writers-a web of plays beyond agent submissions or referrals.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Broadway: Its ability to mount large-scale musical work and to lure star names back to the stage is wonderful and generally exceeds our collective ability to do the same. But to view new writing through the lens of Broadway is simply short-sighted and wrong-headed. Broadway is not the American theatre—it is a part of the American theatre, a piece, albeit a much- beloved and treasured piece, of a larger tapestry of theatre work in America.
Broadway notwithstanding, American playwriting is alive and well—with more aspiring writers, I would guess, than at any other time in our cultural history. Here’s to them all.