AIl the performing arts institutions in this country have evolved from European models—except the theatre. As a means of presenting the symphonic literature of the past three centuries, we have developed appropriately large symphony orchestras capable of presenting the full range of that literature. The same is true for opera and ballet, both of which require large cadres of artists to prepare as well as present the repertoire. Simply because of the scope of this work, these disciplines require many artists to bring the work to fruition.
Our theatre, unlike the other disciplines, did not develop originally as a means of presenting the body of dramatic literature; rather, it evolved to produce a series of productions. Consequently, we do not have a long tradition of sheltering and nurturing our artists within institutions. Our directors by and large work from outside the institution, while in Europe even small theatres have large artistic complements because their role models are more complex. Our theatres started without those precedents.
The most pressing issue confronting the American theatre today is the relationship between the institutions and the artists that develop the work. It is certainly true that artistic structures have expanded over the roughly 25 years since the nonprofit theatre movement began. Ten years ago there was only a handful of literary managers across the country: at last count, there were close to 100. Five years ago there were only two or three full-time associate artistic directors; today there are nearly 50. This trend toward more institutional employment for directors and dramaturgs, however, has been accompanied by a slower growth in the number of new theatres in which freelance artists can work. It was, after all, the directors who 25 years ago caused the great explosion in American theatre by starting companies all over the country. For whatever reasons—and my guess is they are largely economic—directors today are not making their own places to work by starting new theatres. And today it is impossible for a director to make his or her living in the theatre on a freelance basis without any supplementary income.
A portent toward a fresh solution to this problem is the adopting of a continuing—but not necessarily continuous—relationship between artists and institutions. By developing a category of associate artists, theatres like Center Stage in Baltimore and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre have developed structures that create a larger “family” by providing retainer fees—ongoing, but not exclusive, relationships between those theatres and directors, playwrights and designers. Through this simple method, theatres invest in the artists and the artists are provided with a creative base. Theatres are still able to benefit from the participation of a wider range of artists, but at the same time have many of the advantages of a full complement of staff artists, which they might otherwise not be able to afford on a full-time basis.
Not all theatres, nor all directors and designers, can—or should—emulate this model. But it is an example of what, one hopes, is one of many l creative new ways the theatre will find to improve the climate in which artists work. We should not forget how fast conditions can change once needs are comprehended. The O’Neill Theater Center started because there was no mechanism for new play development within the structure of the burgeoning theatres. Now, 25 years later, thanks to the leadership of the O’Neill and others, many theatres have developed both literary departments and any number of ways to work with playwrights on a continuing basis. The relationship of playwrights to theatres has changed radically; we now need to find creative solutions to assist in both the development and support of freelance directors and designers to end their isolation and create the climate for our theatre to grow and prosper.
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