When a theatre is the only professional theatre in its community, that places a great burden on the company—and raises some tough questions:
Do we who run such theatres have an obligation to “serve the community” by producing a “balanced season,” or do we have an obligation to narrow our sights and produce a particular kind of theatre?
Should we operate sequentially, or in repertory?
Should we work with a company of actors, or should we cast each production individually?
Should we see ourselves as “regional” or as part of the “American National Theatre,” as the recent Theatre Communications Group National Conference in Massachusetts would have us believe?
Many of these questions are answered by economic pressures over which we have little control. At my theatre, the Virginia Museum Theatre of Richmond, we are in the 57th market nationally. In this small marketplace, we must offer a variety of fare or we will limit our audience, our earned income will drop drastically, and we will be out of business. As a pragmatic warrior in the trenches, I believe some theatre is better than no theatre, and so the answer to this first question is easily found.
We operate sequentially because thus far we have only one performance space and the expenses of true repertory seem prohibitive.
But are we “regional” or “national”? There is a qualitative question as well as a cultural one hiding here. I find great comfort in noting that the membership of the League of Resident Theatres comprises the American National Theatre, but I fear the smugness that comes with the phrase. I wonder if we think that because we are the “American National Theatre” that we are also the “best” theatre our nation produces—and we ought to know that simply isn’t true. Once in a while one theatre will do one production that is at the highest qualitative level—but that is damned rare! It disturbs me when the relative stability of the institutions in which we work is mistaken for proof of the quality of the art we produce. Most of the shows we do at VMT are “acceptable”—I can sit through them. About once a year, we do a production that I can tell professional friends is “really worth seeing.” Of the 51 productions I’ve directed or produced here, I’d say three or four were “really pretty damned good.” And only about eight or nine were “godawful.” And I’m not embarrassed by any of these statistics. But I am embarrassed when our fecundity and our general level of competency is mistaken for excellence.
We have the obligation to resonate on the cultural strings of our community.
There is a realm in which “regional” has a cultural definition and not a qualitative one. And in that realm, our “regional” nature creates obligations for us and provides opportunities as well. We have the obligation to resonate on the cultural strings of our community. When Zoot Suit thrives in Los Angeles and fails commercially in New York, no qualitative judgment is made—but we are reminded of the cultural diversity we inherit. When a very good production of The Dining Room does poorly in Richmond because our audience does not enjoy seeing its current lifestyle satirized, we are reminded that we have the opportunity to widen the horizons of our fellow citizens.
We recently mounted a production which (I hope) will both play on our regional resonances and expand our community’s vision. It is a newly commissioned verse adaptation of Goldoni’s The Mistress of the Inn. The action is reset in Colonial Williamsburg on the eve of the Revolution and we are billing it as a “patriotic, romantic, feminist comedy.” If it works it will touch our community in its historical heartstrings at the same time that it shares with them the surprising truth that pre-Revolutionary women had very nearly the same rights that today’s women will have if we can ever pass the E.R.A.
We regionally based theatres have an opportunity to goad our audiences out of their biases and smugness and to guide them into seeing examples of lifestyles and value systems which are different from their own. Kenneth Johnson’s Final Touches, which ran at VMT in October, is a huge taboo-tester in this community. For a large portion of our current audience, the play is about people they don’t know, in language they find vulgar and shocking, and it questions their familiar and religious beliefs in very daring ways while exploring a subject matter they pretend doesn’t exist. Those seem to me damned good reasons for doing such a play in this regional theatre.
There’s a definition of art I have become fond of. It is spoken by the character Alfred Steiglitz in a play about that great man and the painter Georgia OKeeffe which I am hopeful this theatre will premiere soon. It goes like this: “Art is the means by which one soul communicates from the lonely abyss of hell into which each of us is thrown at birth and from which very few things in the human experience can lift us. Love is one. Art is another. I don’t understand the one any more than I do the other but I sure as hell recognize it when I see it.”
My goal as a worker in the theatre is to create theatre in which I can recognize “art.” To do that, I believe I must work with the finest material I can get my hands on—as a director, I want the finest actors I can get. To tell the truth, I usually can’t get them. That’s one reason I am confused by this season’s latest fashion: the resident acting company. I wonder if it isn’t too often a disguise for mediocrity? Oh, I know it will work wonderfully for the Circle Repertory Company in New York because Circle Rep can attract a company of fine actors—since they continue to live in N.Y. where they can make voiceovers and the odd commercial and the two-day sequence in a film. But who are the actors I can get to come to Richmond for a season? Are they the “best”? I don’t think so. I think they’re good—fine professionals. But if I have to select a slate of plays to accomodate the actors I can hold on to for a full season, I’m making basic compromises in the art form that make me very uncomfortable. I question if the romantic conceit of a resident company is valid in many places? I wonder if the NEA’s subvention of this current fashion isn’t encouraging compromise and mediocrity instead of adventure, risk, and the chance for “art.”
We seem to be a theatre that does a wide range of drama for a broad range of audiences. We seem to have a love/hate relationship with our region, and we do one play at a time—on a treadmill that begins in August and spews out eight-in-a-row by May. And we do them the best way our resources, talents, strength and imagination permits.
Like any other self-respecting messiah, I want to change the world—and I am one of those crack-brains who believes that art can (in some small and indirect way) encourage change. As food can nourish our organisms and cause a change in the size of our bodies, so I believe theatre can nourish our spirits and cause a change for the betterment of humanity. And I think our world sure as hell needs changing.
But I am blessed in this, that I believe art is one means toward salvation. It may not be the swiftest or the most efficient, but it is the only one I know how to do.
Tom Markus is artistic director of Virginia Museum Theatre, which recently became a separate institution from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. The theatre will shortly have a new name.
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