Like the fortune-teller lady in The Skin of Our Teeth says, telling the future is no problem. Especially the future of the American theatre. Telling the past—including the theatre‘s past—is something else again.
Why was last season as bad as it turned out to be? What happened to that old dream of repertory with a company? Where is that wonderful new talent from two seasons ago? The past is tough to see into. But telling the future? The lady said it: “Nothing easier.“
The shorter the time span, of course, the less easy the job of seeing ahead. Tomorrow is the hardest to predict—it‘s too close to yesterday. We all think we know what Frank Rich will say in the morning light, but will he? Will tomorrow‘s rehearsal go well or badly? Who is next week‘s artistic director?
Further ahead, the road becomes increasingly visible. In the next couple of seasons on Broadway, for example, there‘ll be 30 to 40 productions, mostly musicals, comedies and a growing number of both imports and revivals. The season will start out being “the best in years,” and end up not as good as the year before. Production and operating costs will go up (as well as the number of seats in each theatre); and quality, artistic and vocal, will go down (as well as the number of available theatres). Lobbies—and stages—will be smaller, auditoriums larger. More will be taken in at the box office and by various Administrative Personnel, and less by ordinary working actors, directors, playwrights, designers and stage managers.
Fewer people will be going to the theatre in more places. The dominant form of playwriting will continue to be realism—mixed with surrealism. British plays will continue to dominate our marquees, brought in alternately from the repertoires of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare (which in London are largely supported by American theatregoers).
In Samuel Beckett‘s newest and most minimal masterpiece, titled Untitled, the first act will open on an empty stage, no actors visible. The play will be composed of simple forms and fundamental sounds (in the words of the author, “no pun intended“). It will run approximately 7 to 11 minutes, depending on the director‘s interpretation of the pauses. In the second act, the curtain will not rise at all. It will be a very short act. Actors‘ Equity—ever vigilant and alert—will react by passing a new rule requiring a minimum of roles for its members per act, properly proportioned by sex, race and national origin.
Everyone will blame the playwrights, the producers, the unions, the system. And there will be no new American plays, no decent directors, no trained actors, and lots of extraordinary designers, mostly from Yale, capable of making the scenery move up and down and from side to side. Especially in overtime.
What will happen in about five years is even clearer. A musical version of King Lear (set in Houston in 1984 and renamed Lear! in order to save on ad space) will star Richard Burton and Angela Lansbury, alternating in the title role. Lear!‘s production budget will be a relatively modest $17.5 million; its producers (Alexander H. Cohen, the Messrs. Barr and Woodward, and the Msses. Nugent and McCann, in association with the Shuberts, the Nederlanders, the Minskoffs, the Feld Brothers and Lee lacocca together with Neil Simon, who was called in to work on the last act) will announce that fact proudly in a full–page ad. The Broadway season will have 20 to 30 productions, mostly musicals, comedies, and an alarming number of imports and revivals. British plays will continue to dominate, including several hauled out of the RSC‘s and National‘s warehouses. The dramatization of the Warren Commission report, Oswald!, will arouse much debate and controversy, as well as riots in the grand ballroom of the new Portman Hotel. What Barnes says about it will be a rave; what Simon says will not be.
The “Tony” Award committee, newly reconstituted to make sure that no one on it is involved in any way with the theatre (to avoid charges of prejudice), will be hopelessly split over its Best Play award between a new and sensitive work, originally presented off–off–off Broadway in a telephone booth, about a blind, deaf and one–armed mute who has difficulty expressing himself—and the regional theatre‘s candidate: a four–hour epic drama about a maladjusted transvestite electrician unable to cope with the strain of existence in Omaha, Neb.
The Actors Studio Theatre, now under Shelley Winters‘ artistic leadership in a well–equipped living room overlooking the Pacific in Malibu, will decide that no audiences are to be allowed to see their performances. (People watching tend to disturb the actors.) Undaunted, Joseph Papp—President–for–life of the New York International Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan Festival (now performing Boucicault on various sidewalks of New York)—will decide not to disturb his audiences every evening by doing things on stage. His favorite director–in–exile, Andrei Serban, will be on hand to direct the audience in and out of the theatre.
In the nation‘s resident repertory theatre movement—its actual numbers ranging from 500 to 5,000 depending on which mimeographed letter one reads—only one theatre will continue to retain an acting company, that being The Acting Company, whose one–night stands on the road will give the term “resident” an even more extended meaning. Its producing artistic director, John Houseman, will have completed the ninth volume of his memoirs. The Pulitzer Prize in Drama will be shared by Robert Wilson for the longest play and Richard Foreman for the one most lacking in clarity.
Everyone will blame the playwrights, the critics, the unions, the system. And there will be no new American plays, no decent directors, no trained actors, and lots of extraordinary designers, mostly from Yale, with fascinating and highly workable ideas about scenery composed entirely of computerized holograms, thereby cutting down considerably on production costs. The producers and theatre owners will be especially interested.
The situation even further down the road, say 15 years from now, is obvious. Only a carefully selected and screened number of non–musical plays will be permitted on Broadway (10 to 20 productions, mostly musicals, comedies, imports and revivals) by order of the Mayor‘s Central Tourist Bureau. British plays will continue to dominate, presented by the National Royal Shakespeare, Ltd. All Broadway theatres will be required to have a minimum of 5,000 seats, built–in invisible microphones and a closed–circuit television screen so that the people sitting in the back half of the auditorium will be able to see the stage. In return, all regional theatres (some 15,000 by now) will be expected to present a Shakespeare, a Chekhov, a Neil Simon, a Stoppard or a Beckett (choose one), and one original script in order not to lose their good standing as a member of LORT. As theatre board members in such places as Washington, D.C. and Tulsa have always stated, “We want art, but we have to break even.“
Off Broadway, of course, will continue to operate as an antidote to rising costs and expectations on Broadway. Its average budget will be a relatively low $2 million. The Lincoln Center Permanent Revolving Committee of Artistic Directors (now numbering seven) will announce a season to be announced. And the avant–garde theatre will continue to be as experimental as ever, with such pioneers as Lee Breuer, Ellen Stewart and Richard Schechner still trying to come through with a successor to A Chorus Line. With the growing use by designers of three–dimensional projections, laser beams and ballistic missiles, advancing theatre technology will literally flash across the horizon: Instant Theatre, Total Instant Theatre and Instant Multiplex Theatre (triggered by the recent publication of Peter Brook‘s new opus, The Empty Vacuum) will replace Gordon Craig‘s old–fashioned notions about the Temporary Theatre and the Permanent Theatre as starting points for discussions of theatrical esthetics.
There will be such evolving forms as the Structuralist Theatre (which will stress the “Barthes Method” of acting and directing), the Semiotic Theatre, the anti–Semiotic theatre (Anti–defamation League, please note spelling), the Theatre of Frenzy, the Theatre of Paroxysm, the Theatre of Ecstasy and the You–Know–What Theatre.
Everyone will blame the playwrights, the critics, the unions, the system. And there will be no new American plays, no decent directors, no trained actors, and a flock of new, talented designer engineers, mostly from Yale, to whom verticality rather than horizontality will be paramount. In some cases, theatre stage houses will have to be rebuilt to accommodate their advanced ideas.
Finally, a period of time as long ahead as, say, 50 years, is more predictable still. Broadway will, of course, continue to be the fabulous invalid, although perhaps a trifle less energetic than previously (5 to 10 productions, mostly musicals, comedies, imports and revivals). Tickets for those lucky enough to buy in will be relatively inexpensive—a top price on weekends of $888.88, including all taxes and penalties. Seats bought at the TKTS Booth atop the World Trade Center will still go for half–price. All ticket holders, including those who buy their tickets via Think–It, will be somatically sensitized during the performance, and wired for National Cable–Vis and isotape transmission if they specify.
In spite of translation difficulties, an Odets revival will sweep the country in 2034, resulting in 25,000 simultaneous hundredth anniversary productions of Awake and Sing. Especially worth noting will be an outdoor version of the play, performed in sign language by a group of Hopi Indians in New Mexico (their unique interpretation of “Twice, I weighed myself in the subway” will be considered especially moving). The Stanislavski System, once known as “The Method,” will now be referred to as “The Thing” (from Inner Space). Together with the Old Actors Studio, which had to go underground around the turn of the century because of extreme pressure from the growing number of British artistic directors running American theatres, “The Thing” will eventually emerge stronger than ever as its followers rediscover O‘Neill, O‘Casey, Sam Shepard and Israel Horovitz.
In towns across the U.S., most theatregoers will also have the opportunity to watch televised 3–D performances of the Royal National Company, or the I Am a Berliner Ensemble Theatre on do–it-yourself micro–chip cable. Robert Brustein‘s most recent collection of his half–century‘s most significant reviews, The Theatre: What Was It?, will hit the bestseller lists briefly, before being filmed in empathetic “feelies” by Federico Fellini.
Everyone will blame the playwrights, the critics, the unions, the system. And there will be no new American plays, no decent directors, no trained actors. Talented youthful designers will, of course, continue to emerge, mostly from Yale, self propelled lasers in hand and trajectories trailing. There will always be a theatre, albeit not necessarily on 45th Street, New York, NY 10036.
I‘d like to live long enough to see the demise of words like ‘hit‘ and ‘flop,‘ ‘revival,‘ ‘show business.‘ Do we ‘revive‘ Mozart or Modigliani? Is Isaac Stern in the ‘music business‘?”
In contrast to such clear–cut certainty, let me postulate a few less provable fantasies.
As the American theatre moves into the 21st century—if we‘re all lucky enough to make it that far—the institution of “Broadway” will become, increasingly, the appendix of the body theatric. That body in the meantime will continue to spread far, wide and—hopefully, in some cases—handsomely. Whatever its artiştic virtues, theatregoing outside Manhattan, in such places as Minneapolis and Washington and Denver and Louisville, will be more pleasant, more convenient, more possible, safer and perhaps even less expensive. The structures, the mechanisms and the talent will exist and persist in a growing number of locations remote from Shubert Alley. That process of dispersal will be irreversible in spite of what the National Endowment or the foundations do or don‘t do. And the network of regional theatres will finally get that name for which they have always been searching: the American National Theatre.
In that same period, our plays will continue their gradual shift from trying to portray the surfaces of life—“human interest stories,” as critic Mary McCarthy so aptly characterized them back in the ‘40s and ‘50s—to suggesting in varied styles and degrees “the essence of being human.” We will finally realize that with electronic closeups of “reality” available as well as disposable at the touch of a fingertip, only some sort of magnification, intensification, penetration and rearrangement of that “reality” will succeed in holding us in our 12th–row seats.
The theatre of the future, if it is to hold us, will have to shake off a belief it has held only a relatively short time, the belief that it is showing us “a real room with real people.” For the theatre‘s role is to present life not in its literal exactness but rather through some kind of poetic vision, metaphor, image—the mirror held up as ‘twere to nature. Only such a mirror can present us with the “grand crash and glitter of life,” in Robert Edmond Jones‘ classic phrase.
Once our stages and our plays shake off the proscenium‘s delusion about illusion, and return to the more familiar ritual of theatricality, our manner of performing and the nature of our performers will also change—as it is already changing. The actors in our future theatre will be not only truthful but interestingly expressive, physically and vocally. They will seek to present life as it might be as well as to represent it as it is. The American actor and actress, no less than his or her British or Continental counterpart, has the equipment to do that. All that he or she must do is replace the concept of acting as “just playing oneself in imaginary circumstances” with the larger concept that acting is actually transforming oneself, utilizing both truth and craft, into someone else.
The American actor has, in addition, an emotional aliveness and a physicality not always inherently present in other societies or cultures. That‘s why our musicals remain so popular worldwide. The demands made on the actor by the musical theatre, where our national rhythms and tones have long been dominant, will be more and more matched by the technical demands of our non–musical theatre of the future. From all this will come a larger and more powerful theatre of images and truth, a theatre concerned with the pulsations of life, not just its breathing.
The specifics of that future theatre will be, as always, unpredictable. Who will be the next new playwright, post–Beckett, post–Shepard, post Durang? What new forms will replace the old ones? What shape will the new avant–garde take? The theatre must always be “new,” always “experimental,” always seeking to renew itself—from within and under the influence of outside non theatrical forces—and always coming back to its older self. A great portion of what we hailed in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the work of a vast array of real and ersatz artists, individual gurus and group gurus, was blown up out of all proportion to its worth. Many of the works we once called masterpieces have turned out to be doodles.
The ‘80s and ‘90s of our turbulent end–of–the century will be equally full of theatrical sound and fury, signifying not very much. And our problem will be, as before, to fasten onto the few genuine forces and talents, and to separate them from the fool‘s gold, whose glitter will always attract and distract our attention. Who will be our Peter Brook of 1999? Peter Sellars ...? Who will follow where J. Grotowski left off? J. Chaikin...? Who will go beyond Sam Beckett? Sam Shepard...?
No one can predict the exact nature and locus of the future theatre. We do know that it will continue to stress the performer‘s image and three-dimensionality. It will return more and more to a dependence on and a respect for the text, for language itself, for the power and beauty of the human voice. Music and dance, from both primitive and contemporary sources, will more and more share the performer‘s freer vocal and physical expressiveness. Finally, and perhaps more vitally, the theatre of the future will depend more and more on accepting the living presence of the spectator–auditor—not in the superficial sense of the actors running up and down the aisles and touching the audience physically, but in the sense of the entire theatrical event happening only because the audience is there, because the audience and the event truly touch each other at the moment of performance.
The theatre, in whatever form or manifestation, can never be more than a minority preoccupation. But as there has already been a transition from a theatre of personal and private truths to a theatre of more public and communal awareness, so the theatre of purely private gain is gradually giving way to a theatre of public benefit. The transition is slow but steady. More people would go to the theatre if they were only stimulated to do so—and if they could afford to go. There are entire sections of our population who do not go because the subject matter or the process—in addition to the prices—do not suit them. But that caring minority which still depends on the theatre for at least a portion of its sensuous and emotional sustenance is gradually growing, and will continue to grow—if only the theatre does what it alone can do: make its audiences experience the essential nature of the living of life.
Along with the rest of our society, the theatre will go the way the world goes, with a bang or a whimper. Presumably, it is still the theatre which can suggest to us, a few minutes ahead of the journalist or the politician, which way that is going to be. The theatre is fundamentally poetry, not prose. And our playwrights are poets who can read the shapes in the sands ahead of the rest of us and form the tremors we don‘t even know we‘re feeling into sentences and speeches. We can stop saying that theatre as art is dead or passé—and admit that it is only our own fault, the fault of those who are working in it, that theatre happens to be less important or effective than it used to be.
I‘d like to live long enough to see the demise of words like “hit” and “flop,” “revival,” “show business.” Do we “revive” Mozart or Modigliani? Is Isaac Stern in the “music business“? And I‘d like to see the day when audiences pay more attention to their own responses than to what the critics said. And the evening when an airline pilot, while he‘s landing, tells me what‘s playing that night at the Arena Stage or the Beaumont (if anything!) as well as what the Yankees or the Redskins did that afternoon.
Sometimes I agree with Brecht that if a theatre ticket cost no more than a pack of cigarettes, we‘d have the greatest theatre in the world—without needing any artistic changes or pronunciamentos. Someday I‘d like to feel that actors—and directors, and the rest of us who labor in the theatre‘s chaotic landscapes—might be provided some semblance of stability and sanity in their artistic lives instead of the hit-and–miss madness with which they daily have to cope. I‘m dreaming of a day when I can actually go to a “repertory theatre” in New York City—or anywhere else in these United States—that‘s actually playing more than one show at a time, and changing the bill each night on purpose.
In spite of the playwrights, the critics, the unions, the system. In the meantime, I‘m keeping my eyes open for more Zelda Fichandlers and more Adrian Halls and more Jon Jorys and more Lloyd Richardses.
The system, we‘ve got to remember, is us.
Alan Schneider’s stagings of two programs of Beckett plays are currently running in New York, and his own adaptation, Pieces of Eight, is touring nationally. He is an artistic director of The Acting Company and president of TCG.
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