The Stage Manager, you remember, welcomes us into Grover’s Corners with exquisite specificity. He points out all the churches—each denomination—town hall, the post office and jail, a row of stores, schools, houses, down to the burdock in Mrs. Gibbs’s garden and to the butternut tree “Right here.” “Polish Town’s across the tracks,” he tells us, as if it occurs to him that someone might someday write Their Town about the marginalized Poles. By the end of Act 1, Thornton Wilder, the playwright behind this tour, connects this pinpoint locale with a universe beyond imagining. We hear tell of a letter addressed: “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.” From a single soul on a tiny plot of land to the mind of God….
Works of theatre take aim like the address on Jane Crofut’s letter: They begin with a small circle on a map—the one the characters and, possibly, the audience inhabit cross time and space, linking us as they go, guiding our awareness toward the connective mysteries of creation. Ideally, like the letter, they reach their destination.
All theatre is local. The Greeks knew it, as did the Elizabethans, the U.S. frontier troupers, the Dadaists, and artists of almost every epoch in theatrical history. Only 20th-century America seems regularly to forget, in the hunger to mass-market art, to move and dispense it. As a result, we exist in a state of perpetual tension between the local and the national, the regional and the Center.
It would be nice to believe that this tension—specifically between Broadway and the theatre of America’s other cities and towns—was a dead issue. It’s not. Broadway forever doubles as artistic black hole and a radiating center of the English-speaking theatre. As recently as last fall, an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, “Broadway: The History of the American Theatre,” defined out of existence all non-musical, non-Broadway theatre with a single “the.” Ethel Merman had a wall and Rodgers and Hammerstein had a corner; others, from Le Gallienne to Le Mamet, not a mention. Provincetown, San Francisco and Kentucky—all blown off the face of the theatrical-historical map by a 10-square-block piece of real estate.
Meanwhile, the influential movement to “decentralize” the theatre, now almost a half-century old, remains chronically schizoid: Is it regional (referring to place), resident (because it provides homes for artists), or Broadway bound? Is our nation’s theatre centrifugal—perpetually in flight from New York—or centripetal—constantly headed back? Argue the preeminence of non-New York theatre (even to educated theatregoers) without using the Great White Center as your reference point. It can’t be done. “You see, Angels in America began there and there….Wendy Wasserstein premieres her Tony-winning plays over there….August Wilson? Connect the dots.” Even in 1995, New York, specifically Broadway, is the final validator. From its beginnings, the regional theatre sought out, but out is where it never quite got. What will it take to cut the cord that keeps Chicago, New Haven, L.A. tied to the mythical middle of midtown Manhattan?
What it will take, what it has taken, is a different idea of theatre, one that’s been crystalizing over the past 10 or 15 years away from traditional centers of the art. Another breed of artists, more far-flung and unassuming, have broken the centrifugal-centripetal deadlock, not by forcing it but by walking away. A coincidence of era, the will to diversity and a hardening of American theatrical arteries has propelled numerous theatre artists to the most unlikely spots: rural by-roads, urban housing projects, quiet towns and communities in crisis. They’ve staked out Grover’s Corners and Polish Town across the tracks. On their way they’re creating something truly radical and more uniquely American than the European-modeled institutional theatres: a professional, activist, community theatre of place.
It’s called Jewish geography, but you don’t have to be Jewish to play. I learned the game at college in Protestant Iowa, surrounded by other Jews from Long Island, New Jersey and the north shore of Chicago. Elsewhere, though, it’s played by African Americans, Mennonites and French semioticians. The game consists of two questions: 1) “Where are you from?” followed by, 2) “Do you know_____?” The point of the game is to create instant community. By establishing shared knowledge of a place, you can identify people you know in common. By discovering common ties, you connect yourself to new people in a new, shared place.
Theatrical events follow the same course. They move from place, common ground, to the people inhabiting it. (Even at Sunset Boulevard—I hear—the audience first applauds the staircase, then Glenn Close sweeping down it.) Performers and audiences occupy the same room in a particular place on the globe. From Illyria to the South Pacific, however exotic the setting, the actual location of the play is always here. The “site-specific” theatre of New York’s En Garde Arts and the Hillsborough Moving Company in Tampa capitalizes on this fact by commissioning theatrical work for nontheatrical—“found”—spaces: hotels, parks, docks, abandoned buildings in splendid decay. Watching these “pieces,” we participate not in the conventions of the stage but in the fact of a singular place. Likewise, environmental theatres of the ’60s, such as Richard Schechner’s Performance Group, revised the performer-spectator relationship by reinventing, with each production, the architecture of the theatre.
Even classics, which survive by universal appeal, start place-specific. When Wilder set out to boil the theatre down to its essentials, as a way of probing the painful, transitory beauty of everyday life, he hit upon a bare stage, actors as actors, and the details of place. Moliere is another kind of example, three centuries away. We can laugh with recognition at the type of miser, misanthrope or religious hypocrite he sketches, but when he wrote the plays he often had actual people in mind, many of whom were sitting in the audience, vying for a seat near King Louis. Most everybody watching knew everybody else. Sometimes the guy who thought he was being lampooned gave himself away by writing a furious letter of protest to the King. Sometimes, if the joke’s butt was another actor, he’d stage his own counter-offensive—a rebuttal. It was local satire, interclaque attack.
America’s current theatre of place is an activist, community-based art that dreams globally and acts locally. It belongs not to regions or centers but to specific, square-yard-by-square-yard pieces of turf. If “decentralization” was a battle cry for the regional theatre, “recentralization” might be a motto for the new pioneers: to recenter the American theatre in neighborhoods and communities, from fishing villages in Northern California to the Main Streets of Pennsylvania to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. The lure or repulsion of Broadway doesn’t enter into it; sometimes, what we usually think of as theatre doesn’t either.
Because it builds on the singularity of a where, no two artists or groups are alike. This makes defining a “movement” slippery. Thumb through recent issues of this magazine, however, and you’ll find examples everywhere. The shapes change, the means vary, but the primary ends remain the same: to foster community within an established place.
Some troupes seem fairly conventional, except for a devotion to their hometowns unthinkable for urban institutional theatres. The Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in rural Pennsylvania, for example, offers up a standard non-profit repertoire in an area that, with a population near 12,000, should never be able to sustain a professional company; moreover, ensemble members are as intimately involved with the town’s governance and economics (the sustenance of a viable downtown, for instance) as they are with its cultural life. “It’s the regional theatre goal cubed,” a company member explained when I visited BTE, “not just a theatre in every major city, but one in each community.” Or travel to the tiny outposts of northern California and find no fewer then 10 permanent theatre companies, back-to-the-land radicals with a taste for political satire and a survivalist dependence on their neighbors.
Other artists gather material from actual places. Some People, Danny Hoch’s one-man cavalcade of Brooklyn characters, provokes us to listen to the distinct strains of language and dialect that make up the American Babel. His linguistic mimicry is precisely geographical, an artistic map of his streetcorner of the world. One of America’s most original and successful solo performers, Anna Deavere Smith, culls material from taped interviews with citizens of racially divided neighborhoods like Crown Heights, Brooklyn and South Central L.A. and incisively impersonates her subjects on stage, in their own words. Both these soloists create personal/political landscapes.
What further sets this late-century avant-garde apart from the movement that brought art-theatre to mainland America is its insistence that the process of theatre, as much as the product, is integral to the nation’s life, wherever it’s lived. Fighting a national drift toward unconnectedness, these artists dig their heels into the soil of established communities, either for extended stays or for good. Professional artists work with, not just for, audiences and amateurs. When the Cornerstone Theater Company revises classic plays with folks from Watts or Marfa, Tex., a sense of shared place animates the final product. Before moving on, the company helps transform the landscape as well, by leaving a newly formed theatre behind. In Colquitt, Ca., insiders and outsiders, pros and locals, have set in motion an ongoing, evolving oral-history called Swamp Gravy—pure place. The polymorphous American Festival Project, which began in 1982 as a cultural exchange between the African-American Junebug Productions from New Orleans and Appalachia’s Roadside Theater, now includes eight other dance and theatre companies, such as Urban Bush Women, El Teatro de la Esperanza and A Traveling Jewish Theatre. All or some of the projects offer joint workshops, performances and full-scale festivals during residencies ranging from weeks to years in communities as disparate as Maine, Miami and Montana. These residencies promote a cultural exchange between the culture of art and that of daily, rooted life.
Because so much of the work has evolved from the issue-oriented theatres of the ’60s and ’70s—the Free Southern Theatre and El Teatro Campesino, to name two—it often mingles aesthetics with activism. As a result, these troupes are sometimes accused of mistaking social work for art. They lead with their consciences and draw on models of social outreach, civil rights demonstration, grass-roots organizing and political theatre as they try to activate healing in tribe-torn America. The Living Stage Theatre in D.C., a granddaddy of activist theatres, runs workshops in schools, prisons, community centers—wherever there are lives to save through art—and creates heart-stoppingly vital theatre with actors and non. John Malpede’s Los Angeles Poverty Department collaborates with homeless people to cobble together shows one critic called “bizarre, unpredictable, emotionally supercharged affairs that walk a fine line between stark roving madness and frightening clarity.”
All this activity comprises what Gerry Givnish, director of Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia, once called “a giving back” by building community locally. Clearly, the giving goes both ways. Theatre folk share dramatic techniques and expertise and, so, help communities theatricalize their stories and play out crises within. The communities give back a sense of purpose, connectedness and, of course, the stories themselves. They give artists a place.
This spiritual dimension, sometimes obscured by the work’s stark political content, runs deep and feels deeply American—democratic, populist and good-neighbor-transcendental. Its motto might be taken from Emerson, who, in his journal writes: “The place which I have not sought, but in which my duty places me, is a sort of royal palace. If I am faithful to it, I move in it with a pleasing awe at the immensity of the chain of which I hold the last link in my hand and am led by it….”
The professional regional theatre and the professional community theatre of place were separated at birth. Like so many extraordinary ideas, they seem to have sprung full-blown from the visionary brain of Hallie Flanagan, director of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theatre Project. Begun in 1935 as a relief—read “jobs”—program and killed by an Act of Congress four years later, Flanagan’s project anticipated everything that came after (including ongoing trouble with the Feds). “Part of a tremendous re-thinking, re-building and re-dreaming of America,” as she called it, FTP would radiate over the vast geography of America by creating a “federation of theatres” subsidized nationally but administered locally. They’d spring up in all shapes and sizes: new-play theatres, classical ones, circuses, puppet shows. Metropolitan resident companies would tour regional circuits of small theatres and work with local groups to develop regional playwrights.
Flanagan envisaged her experimental, populist theatre interacting with—feeding into—the commercial Broadway theatre, and so she enlisted the talents of Broadway artists like Elmer Rice, John Houseman and the very young Orson Welles. She also saw it leaving Broadway behind. Local work by local artists—a true theatre of place—would become part of the fabric of American life. Oklahoma got a theatre for the blind in which students from the school for the blind worked as actors from scripts transcribed in braille. A unit in Omaha played to audiences, 90 percent of which had never seen a live show. (Afterward, the story goes, Flanagan watched spectators wait to touch the actors to confirm that they were “real people.”) On Oct. 27, 1936, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here opened simultaneously in 21 American cities. With labor and construction funds from the WPA, America’s longest lived and most imitated place-based theatre—Paul Green’s local-historical drama The Lost Colony in North Carolina—began its perpetual, perennial life.
After FTP’s demise, Flanagan’s revolution sprouted one branch at a time. A decade later, the regional theatre movement began, resembling her metropolitan resident companies. Soon after, professional activity took root in America’s smaller communities—a theatre of place. Both branches struggle for validation: one against the idea of New York’s centripetal power; the other, against the notion that quality art and outreach don’t mix. Flanagan fought these battles, too. That’s partially why she forged connections with theatre luminaries where she could; she had to prove that her enterprise was real theatre, that talented artists did, in fact, wind up on relief rolls.
As Flanagan made clear, powerful art can and does happen anywhere, for all sorts of alchemical reasons. It succeeds when it effectively confirms or challenges a community’s idea about itself. When it continues to do so over time, it lasts. (Ezra Pound put it best: “Literature is news that stays news.”)
It’s too early to know what the implications of this renewed activity are for the future. Will it forever change the way theatre fits into American life? Will it foster real community or false art? Will it fall out of the arts altogether, until it seems a subsystem of grass-roots social service? Will it save the arts from universal defunding—by being non-elitist and a justifiable contributor to down-home America—or prove too subversive for faint hearts with money to spend? Will criticism—which in reaction to a true theatre of place means something more like cartography—learn a language that goes beyond “universal” quality to one of purpose and context and local value?
When the citizens of Grover’s Corners plan their time capsule, they choose to include copies of both the New York Times (“Of course,” the Stage Manager shrugs) and Mr. Webb’s Sentinel, the town paper. As a final object for future interest, the Stage Manager decides to include a copy of the play itself, so “the people a thousand years from now will know a few simple facts about us…” However the American theatre of place looks to our critical eyes in 10 years or in that distant moment when the Grover’s Corners time capsule gets opened, it’s here now. Right here.
Todd London, a regular contributor to this magazine, is visiting literary director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge and lecturer of dramatic art at Harvard.
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