Two topics keep resurfacing these days in any discussion of the American theatre. One has to do with the crumbling of boundaries between performing arts disciplines. The rigid boundaries that once separated dance from theatre or opera from theatre no longer exist—they have been rendered obsolete by bold new explorations, through which we are achieving a new vocabulary and new perceptions of what constitutes theatre.
This interdisciplinary work has, and will continue to have, a profound effect on how plays are written, developed and produced. Significantly, many of the foreign companies appearing at this summer’s Olympic Arts Festival defy strict categorization; the descriptions of their work in this issue confirm that formal differentiations between theatre, dance and opera are disappearing around the world. Mabou Mines, also featured in these pages, has long been concerned with investigating the fusion of disciplines.
The second topic on people’s minds is the nature of the theatrical company—the relationship of artists who create work to the institution which produces it. The foreign companies appearing at the Olympics can serve again to illustrate the point: they seem to share three commmon denominators. First, they make use of the aforementioned collaboration with other disciplines—all aspects of the performing arts are treated integrally, not peripherally. Second, these companies have been given the opportunity to dream—they have all found ways to implement their visions rather than trying to accommodate their work to rigid parameters. Third, their focus is clearly on the work they create rather than on the mechanics of survival. This focus translates into risk-taking, a sense of participating in the unknown and potentially dangerous—and this has excited audiences.
Gordon Davidson, artistic director of L.A’s Mark Taper Forum, a “co-producer” of the theatre component of the Olympics, said recently that theatre artists and athletes share a sense of danger, for both must leap alone into the unknown void. In both cases, it is the audiences’ sharing in the confrontation with the unknown that provides immediate excitement.
In this country, we seem poised to explore new theatre structures. Our theatrical ecology, to say nothing of our geography, precludes the slavish imitation of the English or Eastern European models. While strictly circumscribed companies seem unrealistic here, an extended family of artists committed to a theatre for discrete periods of time could provide the answer. Clearly, the prevalent system of institutions and artists committing to each other for only a single production has proved restrictive and limiting.
However, any changes will be cosmetic until institutions fully accept the necessity and responsibility for developing and nurturing young artists. Looking again to sports, it is most curious that all sports teams expend enormous energy—and money—on the training of young athletes, while many theatres continue to think they can compete for the always-limited supply of young talent on the open market rather than growing their own.
The boldness and uniqueness of the Olympics companies stem from the fact that each is a community of artists—actors, designers, composers, playwrights and directors—engaged in a common purpose over an extended period. The record shows that you can’t buy successful sports teams—they have to be cultivated. Why do we think the theatre is any different?
The challenge is to create conditions in which artists can function and flourish. A step in that direction may well be adopting a form of creative tithing, wherein artists and institutions mutually accept long-term but non-exclusive contracts. The formalized extended family may provide our best foundation from which to take those bold theatrical leaps into the unknown.
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