I recently received this disheartening message from a major play publisher, in response to a query I sent about submitting some translated works produced by our company, Upstream Theater, in St. Louis:
Thank you for reaching out and for all of the information about these shows. Though they do sound very intriguing, unfortunately we are trying to narrow the focus of the shows we accept for our submissions to those with New York productions, and we are moving away from considering most translations.
If there are any other shows you feel very strongly about in the future please feel free to send those suggestions along as well, but do know that we are attempting to streamline our submissions a bit more.
The rather squishy language is undoubtedly meant to soften the impact of the rejection, but the final sentence reads like a sign placed at the bottom of the hill to encourage Sisyphus.
Perhaps this is simply the new default position for publishers whose choice of material is based on received opinion rather than trust in their own editorial discernment—another sacrifice on the altar of efficiency. And clearly some gatekeeping is needed just to manage the huge inflow of unsolicited submissions. But this particular agenda seems as insular as it is isolationist. Surely there is at least some important work being created outside New York, and “moving away from” even considering translations sounds disconcertingly like an echo of “build the wall.”
Theatre in the United States is homogenized enough as it is, with a relatively small set of plays dominating the larger LORT houses in any given season—a phenomenon reinforced by the same theatres casting most major roles out of New York. Regional distinctions become erased, while the concept of the resident company—a concept so crucial to Zelda Fichandler’s pioneering vision—has become largely eroded as the same stages now tend to hire show by show. This practice does not build community, does not lay the foundation for an artistic home. Actors from the province move to New York to get hired back to the province, though not necessarily to the one they know best.
Hardest hit are the artists with the strongest ties to their communities, who cannot audition out of New York, whether because of family obligations or economic necessity or simply because they are committed local citizens. Of course not all roles can be cast locally, but neither is a New York address an imprimatur of talent. The fault lies not in our aspiring stars but in the system. Meanwhile theatres are burdened with extra travel and per diem expenses, and money that would otherwise support the local community leaves with the actor.
When prior practice is allowed to dictate artistic policy, when theatres pick their seasons from a limited list of plays, when publishers and agents shrink from considering works from other languages, then what truly gets streamlined is our collective artistic imagination.
Philip Boehm is the artistic director of Upstream Theater in St. Louis.