On a crisp weekend last March overlooking the Hudson River, more than 70 theatre professionals from across the country gathered in Tarrytown, N.Y. for a national think tank entitled “Revisiting the Artistic Home.” The roster of attendees, all participants in Theatre Communications Group’s National Theatre Artist Residency Program, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, included the freelance artists whose residencies have afforded them artistic homes of their own, as well as artistic and managing directors of the theatre institutions hosting them.
The weekend was the outgrowth of work that began in 1986, when TCG launched an 18-month series of nationwide meetings of artistic directors to examine the structures and working conditions that had developed around theatre art in America, and to evaluate the artistic prospects for the future. The meetings resulted in the publication two years later of The Artistic Home, a landmark report that still continues to reverberate throughout the theatre community. Parallel to these meetings of artistic directors, TCG convened similar gatherings for freelance artists. Among the highest priorities expressed by both groups were the need to strengthen relationships between artists and institutions; to offer challenging, creative and hospitable working environments for artists; and to provide more opportunities to engage in extended collaborative work.
Based on the findings of those meetings and The Artistic Home, the Pew Charitable Trusts was inspired to award TCG $3.5 million in 1990 to develop the National Theatre Artist Residency Program, a regranting program designed as an experiment to encourage deeper and more lasting relationships between individual artists and theatre institutions, provide the expanded time necessary for artists to develop work within institutional settings, enable the artists to become full participants in the ongoing life of institutions, as well as to offer crucial support and enhanced compensation to artists. The pilot program has just completed its third year, supporting 37 artists and 30 theatre companies during the initial period, and the Pew Trusts has awarded TCG a second grant of $3.6 million to continue the program for another three years.
What follows is a summary of some of the many wide-ranging ideas expressed at the think tank last March.
Our society is going through tremendous changes which are sending shock waves through the theatre community. If theatre is to survive, things can no longer be business as usual. The stakes are high: Audiences are no longer growing; funding sources are drying up; the culture wars have left many in the arts feeling constrained and besieged; barriers are growing between artists, audiences and theatres; talented artists continue to leave the theatre for more lucrative arenas. Indeed, the non-profit theatre community stands at a critical crossroads.
In this changing world, theatres face real competition from other, more technologically advanced forms of cultural expression. As audiences seem to be moving away from theatre, the forms of electronic media keep multiplying, with the development of new interactive forms, such as CD-ROMs, and new avenues of access through the World Wide Web. More and more, popular culture seems to be winning out over traditional forms of artistic expression. Some of the roles historically played by the theatre seem to have shifted to film and television. “We expect truth from the camera these days,” said playwright Paula Vogel, who worries that small, independent films have replaced plays as the place where vital truths are told.
Since the publication of The Artistic Home in 1988, the conditions under which theatre artists work in this country have undergone significant, if not drastic, changes. Then, America’s nonprofit theatres had reached a level of relative stability that allowed them the luxury of turning their attention to long-term artistic concerns that would foster the progress of the art form. But today, less than 10 years later, theatre professionals find themselves robbed of this luxury, forced to balance artistic concerns with sheer survival tactics. Yet the stakes are higher. Institutional models that have served until now seem outdated, and achievements that had come to be taken for granted must now be fought for tooth and nail.
The recent think tank convened by TCG and the Pew Trusts to reexamine the notion of the theatre as artistic home swiftly found itself grappling with issues of the largest order. Participants struggled to place theatre in a global context, examining the cultural, social, political, economic and technological changes influencing the theatre’s delicate ecosystem. In a rapidly changing world, what new role should theatre play? How can theatre better adapt to the changing environment? How is the notion of an “artistic home” affected by these changes?
Because of reductions in government and corporate funding, today more than ever nonprofit theatres are profoundly dependent on their audiences—both as ticket buyers and potential donors. Perhaps one of the most urgent problems felt by theatres is not only how to hold onto audiences, but how to respond to the changing makeup of their communities. Audiences are often polarized over social and racial issues. Since theatre remains a predominantly middle-to-upper-class activity, issues of class need to be addressed as well. And, theatres across the country are having trouble attracting younger audiences.
But it is disturbing to note that audiences seem increasingly indifferent to the value of theatre, often choosing to stay away altogether. According to TCG’s research audiences have been slowly eroding for the past four years, after decades of uninterrupted growth. The seriousness of this problem and its implications for the future were expressed by New York Theatre Workshop artistic director James Nicola: “Audiences are going away. They have been suspicious or indifferent in the past, and now they are sometimes outright hostile. For me the most important question is, what is the relationship we have with that audience.”
As a freelance director, Anne Bogart often feels prevented from establishing direct contact with the audience by her need to be on a plane the day after the show opens. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case when she recently directed a production at a festival devoted to her work at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where she was able to participate in discussions after every show. Director and writer Sheldon Epps echoed this same benefit while in residency at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego—being able to stay on after a show opens.
Audiences, to be sure, are no longer homogeneous. As theatres have worked to diversify their programming and staff to more accurately reflect the communities they are a part of, they have begun to reach out across racial and economic barriers to attract new, more diverse audiences. Yet many feel that theatres have not yet learned how to make these new audiences feel welcome. Many of the structures of institutional theatres—subscription plans, increasing ticket prices, even programming—can discourage nontraditional audiences from attending.
In order to ensure a future existence for themselves, theatre leaders realize they must also recommit to cultivating and educating young audiences. Actor Randall Duk Kim worries about the absence of classics from the curriculum: “I’m a classical actor, and I feel like a dinosaur. Shakespeare, the Greeks, Ibsen and Moliere are my friends. I’m a medium between the past and the future, telling classic stories to children. They can’t be taught these stories from books.” Many theatres are responding by intensifying efforts to bring school classes into the theatre, and by giving higher priority to bringing theatre out into the community through youth-oriented outreach programs.
The harsher economic climate for the arts has caused theatres to become more reliant than ever on box-office income, and hence, their audiences. A theatre’s need to hold onto the audience at all costs—afraid of alienating anyone—can amount to a form of self-censorship, preventing it from making risky or demanding choices. Thomas W. Jones II, co-artistic director of Atlanta’s Jomandi Productions, sees this desire for safety and comfort as a mortal danger: “The problem is not that the Right is censoring us, but that we are censoring ourselves. The window of opportunity to take the greatest risk is now. Because otherwise, in three or four or five years, none of us is going to be here.”
Participants pointed to pressures to cast “stars” instead of the best actors for the role, a reliance on elaborate sets and the programming of light or commercial fare as indications of the ways box office drives the theatre today. Although the nonprofit theatre movement gave rise to the thrust stage, which was designed to focus on the actor and require minimal production elements, such stagings today are considered “arty.” But designer Marjorie Kellogg questioned whether production values have escalated to fulfill audience expectations, or whether such “expectations” are really unfounded assumptions. “I think audiences are just like us,” responded Carey Perloff, artistic director of American Conservatory Theater. “I think they are interested in things that are good.”
While many theatres have made advances in broadening the racial and cultural diversity of their programming and staffing, it is clear that there are still enormous problems, arising in part from a growing perception among theatre professionals of the theatre’s need to be an organic part of a given community. And so, since race is a central issue in most communities, race has naturally become a central issue in the theatre.
Issues of race permeate every aspect of the theatre, including funding, staffing, board membership, play selection, casting and other freelance hiring. Yet many artists expressed their concern that theatres are too complacent about issues of racial diversity. As Sheldon Epps succinctly put it, “We make assumptions that we are getting along until a riot occurs.” As theatres try to reach out to a broader spectrum of the population, selecting a season can become a tricky business. A theatre has to ask with new urgency, “Who are we selecting plays for?” Is it appropriate, for instance, to choose a play that may specifically address only one segment of the audience?
A theatre’s interest in bringing new voices to the stage can also affect the play development process. Is it all right to bring a play by a new writer into production because the perspective is fresh even though the writer may be less experienced and the play doesn’t meet the theatre’s previous definition of “finished”?
Ironically, grants tied to multicultural goals have often served as touchstones for controversy. For example, when playwright Eduardo Machado was trying to cast his Floating Island plays during his TCG/Pew-supported residency at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, his casting choices threatened to come into direct conflict with the Latino Theatre Initiative established at the theatre by a grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. Because several of his first-choice actors were initially unavailable, Machado considered casting a few non-Latinos, a decision that was vehemently opposed by the staff of the Latino Theatre Initiative.
Reflecting on the experience, Taper producing director Robert Egan feels it is important for theatres to form policies on matters like this. The Taper has decided to be as aggressive as possible in hiring ethnic-appropriate actors for its plays. But Oskar Eustis, artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I. and director of the Taper’s production of Floating Islands, cautioned theatres against trying to shield themselves from controversy: There’s no sense trying to avoid trouble. It’s our job to dive into the contradictory, messy areas, the scary areas of our culture. Certain trouble is worth courting.” “We’re in a time when our understanding of ‘community’ is profoundly changed, and there is a growing need to deal with the fracturing of communities into multiple and sometimes polarized groups,” said Marian Godfrey, director of the culture program of the Pew Charitable Trusts. An inquiry into the role of discomfort in artistic engagement, as well as in interpersonal and cross-cultural engagement, she suggested, could help theatres learn how to be brave artistically—even though engagement is more difficult with audiences, it is more rewarding when that engagement pays off.
Almost across the board, theatres are worse off economically than they were in 1988. Old methods of generating income are no longer sufficient. As Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson put it: “We’ve become used to a certain system of making a living in the theatre. It used to be that if you kept moving you could survive by putting the pieces together. It’s no longer possible.” In other words, only by coming up with creative new approaches to generating income are theatres going to be able to survive.
As a result of diminishing resources, most institutions, especially large ones, find themselves downsizing. Many resident acting companies, once a hallmark of the resident theatre movement, have been eliminated altogether or are being reduced in size. Design budgets are decreasing, and pressure is felt to program plays requiring fewer actors each season. At a time when theatres want to make it possible for artists to have a life in the theatre, they are less financially able than ever to make this happen. There was a widespread feeling among participants—artists, managing directors and artistic directors alike—that economic pressures have led theatre institutions to curtail artistic development and give higher priority to management and financial concerns than to artists. This imbalance tends to alienate the very artists that the institutions were created to serve, leaving many artists feeling bereft of opportunities, undervalued and even cynical. Artistic directors lament that they must spend far too much time wrestling with the budget and far too little time wrestling with artistic challenges.
As director Lloyd Richards put it: “What we have done is develop the institutions without the artists, despite the fact that it was generally the artists who began the theatres. How do we make the artist a more integral part of the theatre so that the theatre means the artist? We have created institutions—the danger is that we become institutionalized. We talked about this 10 years ago at TCG conferences, and we are still talking about it. Maybe it’s time for an off-regional theatre. That’s what we’re all trying to create, an alternative that progresses more readily.”
Adapting to Change
Theatres must adapt to these changes they are to survive. Gordon Davidson described the volatility of theatre’s current predicament in seismic terms: “The system by which we put plays on in front of audiences is shaking apart. It’s not as much fun. The limitations are so great now that we can’t navigate them.”
So what are some of the ideas emanating from the think tank that might help theatres and artists make it to the 21st century?
One of the most important land resounding themes of the think tank was the need for theatre to reach out to its audiences, especially across racial, economic and age barriers. Theatres need to confront on their own stages the racial conflict existing in their communities. Not surprisingly, many of the collaborations in TCG’s National Theatre Artist Residency Program are deeply involved with issues of race. Playwright Philip Ifan Gotanda, as part of his residency at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, will serve as liaison to the Asian-American community. Director and playwright Frank Galati is writing a play for the Indiana Repertory Theatre about the city of Indianapolis, a community in a crisis of identity, which is 22 percent African-American and yet hospitable to the Klan.
Some of the participants voiced concern over the potential danger of ghettoizing race. It is important, many felt, to allow people to experience other people’s stories. “Should a theatre like [Atlanta’s] Jomandi,” composer Dwight Andrews asked, “be limited to black audiences only? Why can’t theatre audiences transcend their ethnicity, like people do in the music world?”
Many participants also felt that theatres haven’t done enough to convince communities of the importance of their art form. Artists, they feel, must be willing to take their passions outside of theatre walls. According to M. Edgar Rosenblum, executive director of Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., “We have yet to create the argument of our value. We haven’t sold ourselves strongly enough.”
The threat to theatres from the organized forces of the political Right was discussed frequently and passionately, along with the need for theatres to band together to oppose them. Michael W. Horne, producing artistic director of Theatre in the Square in Marietta, Ga., where a production of the gay-friendly Lips Together, Teeth Apart got local officials so upset they cut off funding to all the arts countywide, warned: “Cobb County can happen anywhere. The far Right is 10 years ahead of us. It’s time to circle our wagons.” Director Seret Scott agreed: “We are not standing up to the opposition. We are not providing a strong voice for those looking for something to follow.”
In these perilous times, survival alone might seem like a victory, but Gordon Davidson feels it’s not: “Institutions of any size have the responsibility for creating the possibility of art happening within the structure. Just to preserve oneself seems not as interesting or as valuable.”
Over and over, participants reiterated some version of M. Edgar Rosenblum’s comment that “Inequality of the art is the real bottom line. We can change marketing strategies, but we can’t tell artists they have to change.” At a time when artists are under political attack, former TCG executive director Peter Zeisler challenged the group to take the lead: “If we don’t proclaim the centrality of the artist to our society, who will?”
The subscription system has become one of the most problematic fixtures of institutional theatres. It was created to develop a committed ongoing audience that would give theatres a solid financial base on which to plan a season, but subscription may in fact be discouraging the new audiences theatres seek to attract, who find the cost prohibitive and the need to plan months in advance off-putting. Many artistic directors and other artists also find this structure can be detrimental to artistic needs.
Yet other artistic directors still attribute crucial advantages to the of subscription system, chiefly that of instilling the habit of theatregoing. A subscriber in essence makes a commitment to the theatre’s vision by promising to check in several times over the course of a year or, ideally, years.
The financial security offered by subscription plans makes it difficult to completely abolish. Rosenblum feels that financial worries are even more likely to block theatres from being responsive: “If we could take the quotient of money out of our fears, theatre could react in a much better way to the world. That’s why we developed subscription as the basis of our theatres. We are still very dependent on box office. How do we get away from that structure?”
Looking for New Models
Institutional theatres are in the midst of a profound identity crisis. The European model of a subsidized repertory theatre doesn’t seem to work in this country anymore, if it ever did. In Lloyd Richards’s words, “We need something uniquely American, an American approach.”
Think tank participants searched for new models by asking questions: Are there too many theatres? Are theatres too big for their own good? Are smaller theatres more adaptive to change? Should theatre try to reach everyone, or can they target a specific audience? Do large theatres have special responsibilities to reach the largest possible audience?
Again and again, size came up as a key issue. Large theatres, it seems, feel particularly vulnerable in the present economic climate and ironically envy the relative flexibility of smaller, less institutionalized theatres. “In a land of diminishing resources,” said Thomas W. Jones II, “the notion of ‘bigger is better’ is becoming obsolete.”
Small theatres across the country often can adapt more easily because they bear fewer institutional burdens than larger, established theatres; at the same time, the larger theatres currently reflect what seems to be an overall national trend toward downsizing. Benjamin Moore, managing director of Seattle Repertory Theatre, observed: “We’re all getting smaller. The conversations that I have witnessed here make me believe that I really want to work for a ‘smaller’ organization.”
As an artist Anne Bogart feels much more satisfied working for a small ensemble than guest-directing at a large institution. Playwright Mac Wellman, even though his current residency is at San Francisco’s flagship American Conservatory Theater, says he still does most of his work in tiny, “semi-destroyed theatres.” Some wonder if, in this changing environment, art will only be able to survive in the smaller venues. Yet smaller theatres rarely have the resources to offer significant compensation to artists and face declining sources of support as well.
Here are some of the alternatives theatres have already found or are exploring in their attempts to reinvent their institutions.
*For many reasons, more and more smaller theatres are choosing not to maintain a permanent building to call home. The high cost of real estate and building maintenance can prove prohibitive, and some companies even prefer the interaction with a community that comes from being “homeless.” As Marsha Jackson-Randolph, co-artistic director of Jomandi Productions, said, “For a long time, an artistic home meant a building. Now, it seems to mean a ‘community.’ Maybe we should go to the audience and leave the buildings behind. We used to think of theatre as a place to get people to come to. If the National Endowment for the Arts dies and if there is also less local funding, it won’t be possible to create theatre in that place, because it will be too expensive.” Her theatre now tours and participates in festivals.
*Smaller ensembles are providing an artist-centered model suite different from the tradition. institutional type. Gerard Stropnicky of Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg Ensemble Theatre explained how his company is able to provide financially for its artists. Bloomsburg has nine actors who work 48 weeks a year with up to 4 weeks of paid vacation. The company has a top quality health plan, some company members own their own houses and cars, and those who have kids raise them in the community. Theatre de la Jeune Lune of Minneapolis is another example of an artist-centric model. All members earn a living wage and are covered by health insurance Those two costs are the first line-items in their budget, and everything else is budgeted after that.
Many theatres are beginning to rediscover the centrality of place to invigorate local audiences and fight homogenization. Mac Wellman hopes that some day he’ll be able to tell what part of the country a theatre’s in just by looking at its season. Marian Godfrey took this idea to the level of institutional structure: “Can you construct an institutional model that is responsive to your place, as well as an aesthetic and a repertoire that is responsive to place?”
*With increasing frequency, larger and smaller theatres are finding ways to collaborate to mutual benefit. For example, Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage brought in Cornerstone Theater Company of Los Angeles to develop a co-production of A Community Carol, an adaptation of the Dickens classic, in the predominantly black Anacostia community. The Cornerstone project was a completely unorthodox step for Arena, a step that had a rejuvenating effect on the theatre. “The things that we had in common with Cornerstone,” said Arena’s artistic director Douglas Wager, “were some of the same basic internal aesthetic commitments and loyalties to a group of people working together. They do it differently and more equitably, but what I found most exciting was to recontact with that kind of energy.”
*The fast-growing practice of large theatres sharing productions is another tool being used to combat costs. Benjamin Moore of Seattle Rep was not alone when he said: “Co-productions are an inevitable factor in the life of my institution. We can’t consider planning a season without two such opportunities, where pooling resources leads to economic efficiencies that allow us to balance the budget.” As a writer, David Henry Hwang observed that co-productions also help counteract the “virgin play” syndrome, whereby theatres only want a play if it’s a premiere.
But co-productions are not without their hitches. For example, while actors get paid better because of the longer run, the longer run often makes it harder for actors to commit to the project. Some writers fear that co-productions reduce the number of available production opportunities, especially for new plays. These can also be problems when the second theatre, which receives the finished production, doesn’t feel a strong connection to the project. Arvin Brown, artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre, did some. thing to combat this problem in a recent co-production with the Pittsburgh Public Theater: Rehearsals began at Long Wharf, then continued in Pittsburgh where the show opened; when the production returned to Long Wharf, there was a brief additional rehearsal period and a preview.
*Many theatres are battling diminishing funds by taking advantage of their existing resources. For instance, Nancy Kassak Diekmann, managing director of New York Theatre Workshop, reported that although there is less money nowadays, her theatre has identified a number of low-cost resources to share with their artists as freely as possible, e.g. rehearsal space and photocopying facilities. Arena Stage is trying to counteract budget reductions by tailoring the length of the run for each production next season to the size of audience anticipated, rather than scheduling a standard fixed run.
A Still-Visible Dream?
When The Artistic Home report was written, its central image referred primarily to an artist working at a theatre. Today, the concept of the artistic home has grown to include the community. As Edith Love, managing director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, observed, “I feel the definition of the artistic home has changed dramatically. The definition of the artistic home within our community has become far more important a to us than the role of the artist in the institution. The issue of race was only on the periphery 10 years ago. I think the artistic home has now broken out of the walls of whatever theatrical institution we are in.”
An artistic home need not have a physical location. It frequently materializes around a group of artists with a shared aesthetic. Douglas Wager places art at the center of the artistic home: “Home is where the art is—a place where people self-select their relationships, where people like to work. And then they invent ways to work there more frequently, whether it’s by being on staff or—if it’s not an ‘institution’—by gathering around a project and keeping that project moving.”
It’s important for artistic homes to leave the stage door open. Current market forces make it harder than ever for artists to stay together. For many artists, an artistic home is not a permanent relationship. Playwright Mac Wellman has had a series of artistic homes, each lasting for two to three productions. He says this seems the ideal arrangement for him. Playwright Barbara Lebow, who has had an artistic home for 30 years, also feels it is important to leave the door open. It has been her experience that artists will leave the artistic home periodically when they need to for artistic or economic reasons, but if the door is left open, they will come back.
The artists taking part in the National Artist Residency Program expressed varying opinions about the value of an artistic home. Some artists relish the opportunity to slow down their frenetic freelance existences and follow a project through to completion and even beyond. Others, though, have had difficulties finding a niche within an institution’s existing structure. Creating a successful residency, like any relationship, seems to have a great deal to do with making the right match.
Designer Majorie Kellogg believes that one of the reasons for her residency’s success at the Alliance Theatre was that she felt very involved in the life of the theatre. Her involvement wasn’t highly structured, but because she spent so much time at the theatre, a relationship evolved. People began to ask her what she thought about particular plays, for example. Her relationship to the theatre was not about power, she observed, but involvement.
An institution must be able to support its artists financially as well as artistically. Artistic partnerships can flounder when the institution itself does not have the resources to devote to the artists, or when the host institution is experiencing administrative and financial difficulties that dilute their creative energy.
Many of the artistic directors and managing directors regretted that the artistic home is often not as creative an environment as they would like it to be. In the words of Peter Culman, managing director of Baltimore’s Center Stage, “We must know the value of what artists bring to the theatre. We haven’t always created the environment for them to do their work.” According to Douglas Wager, this problem even affects the artistic leadership: “How can an artistic director also find ways to grow as an artist in an institution?”
Having an artistic home seems to suit some artists better than others, both personally and in terms of an artist’s particular discipline. Directors, for example seem to have the greatest chances for making the most out of an artistic home.
Some designers and playwrights are able to find a place in an artistic home, while others prefer to maintain a certain distance from an institution. Playwright Elizabeth Egloff, for instance, believes that the assumption that there is a natural place for the artist in the institution is not always true. “Finding that place is a two-way street,” she cautioned. Mac Wellman, in his residency at the American Conservatory Theater, was able to find such a place, by attending board meetings, serving as an in-house artistic voice, keeping the staff and board “artistically honest.” He feels that the best way for a theatre make a home for a playwright to commit to producing his or her future work—sight unseen.
What the artistic home seems to be missing most is the actor. Is becoming harder and harder for actors to make commitments resident companies. Although many non-profit theatres were originally formed around acting companies, such ensemble-based companies are becoming less and less common today. Most actors do not want to commit to an entire season of work, because they might miss out on opportunities to do more lucrative work on Broadway, or in television a film. Seattle Rep has a core company actor but they find that many of their guest directors prefer to hire their own casts. Even Arena Stage, which has always had a core acting ensemble as part of its mission, is scaling it back: between the 1988 and 1995 seasons, the number of roles to be cast has gone from 120 to 80.
This centrifugal pull away from a central artistic home seems to be an increasing part of the new theatrical landscape. David Esbjornson, artistic director of New York’s Classic Stage Company, sees this end as driver by marketplace forces: “I think is very difficult for a group of artists to get together and stay together. These facts point to a new definition of an artistic home, As theatres, we have to allow artists to come and go in order for them to survive. There aren’t enough resources out there to provide for people in that way.”
Yet many artists continue to crave just such a home where they can grow and develop and experiment in a secure environment, “The life of a freelance artist is tough,” said director Sheldon Epps. “It’s not the work, is not even getting the work, it’s the lifestyle of jumping around and remaking your life every six eight week and having to direct so much to make a meager living in the theatre that you wake up resentful of having to go to rehearsal.”
Theatre’s Changing Poles
Given the changing environment in which theatre exists, how should theatre position itself. While some audiences over the years have come to view the theatre as a kind of safe zone, they should be encouraged by theatres and artists to understand the importance of discomfort and the need to embrace conflict. Rather than trying to provide a forum to resolve conflict, perhaps theatre should try to provide a protected place for people to explore their differences and feel free to disagree. Arvin Brown believes that we should not try to hide from the conflicting emotions and opinions that theatre can generate: “Couldn’t the theatre be a safe haven for polarization?” Thomas W. Jones II suggested that “theatre is the only place where politics can exist in a free forum of ideas.”
Theatre can also serve as a crucible where combustion is allowed to happen. Los Angeles itself, according to Gordon Davidson, is not a melting pot but a cauldron, where race and culture are huge issues. In that volatile mixture, Eduardo Machado’s residency at the Mark Taper Forum provided a real catalyst for discourse. The cauldron had already boiled over a year earlier when Davidson commissioned playwright-actor Anna Deavere Smith to create Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a piece about the L.A. riots, and was harshly criticized by local artists for hiring an “outsider.” Struggling with the problems of his own community, Davidson also sees the larger picture: “I think if we took an aerial viewing of the situation, we would find a lot more decay and rot than we think. Something radical has to happen.”
At a time when glib TV-talk shows and talk radio rule the airwaves, theatre often serves as a more in-depth platform for examining social issues. While many artists welcome this type of topical engagement, others feel it can lead to a kind of preaching in the theatre that is often self-defeating. Movement artist Daniel Stein was not alone in arguing, “Political correctness is the death of theatre. Theatre is not a soapbox. Theatre needs to take up issues, but we can’t lose the road of metaphor.” Seret Scott agreed that “it is not theatre’s job to give audiences answers; audiences want to be presented with questions that they can grapple with on their own.”
In the former Soviet Union, people went to the theatre to hear what wasn’t being said in other media. At a time when we are bombarded with information and ideas through all forms of popular culture, said TCG’s incoming executive director, John Sullivan, perhaps theatre in this country should exploit the fact that it is “out of the format,” and use this position to say things that aren’t being said in the prevalent monoculture.
For Lloyd Richards, theatre needs to reconnect with its fundamental role as part of society: “I didn’t go into the theatre to be an artist. I went into the theatre to be a more meaning part of society. To speak to it, to listen to it, to interact with it. Art for me, as I began to understand it, was something that brought conscience and perspective to events. What may be happening is that we have lost touch with that. If people aren’t coming to the theatre, maybe is because we aren’t speaking provocatively enough.”
Scenes from an Artistic Marriage
On a panel titled “Developing the Partnerships” at TCG’s think tank, San Francisco-based playwright Philip Kan Gotanda and artistic director Sharon Ott of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre recounted the fallout of an incident that took the place at the 1994 TCG National Conference in Princeton, N.J. and shared their personal struggles about coming to terms with multiculturism. What follows are excerpts from their conversation.
PHILIP KAN GOTANDA: In the Bay Area, the minority is becoming the majority. But the majority is diverse. While there is one of the largest Asian-Pacific-American populations in the world, it is not a yellow monolith. In the midst of all the diversity swirling around us, I work with two theatres—the Asian American Theatre Company and the Berkeley Rep. Sharon has been very committed to me as an artist, and I have always felt I would work with both theatres, even though I have been criticized.
Into this dropped a large sum of money from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. This grant put a lot of groups at odds, especially the Berkeley Rep and Asian American Theatre Company, and it became very difficult for me personally, as if I were a spy having to make decisions about what I would reveal to each side. The situation finally blew up at last year’s TCG National Conference, when Sharon and I found ourselves in the middle of a public fight.
After the conference, we exchanged letters; they had a Rashomon-like quality, which often happens when race and culture are involved. My friends confirmed my reality and Sharon’s confirmed her perception. I was ready to drop out of my residency at the Berkeley Rep, but we both felt we had spent so much time developing the relationship that we decided it was worth it to try again. Like a marriage, if you have a fight, you need to break the model and try again.
I think the most anyone can hope for is finding a common vocabulary. Sometimes we are not talking about the same thing. The fact that we don’t always agree is just a given. Then we work to feel more comfortable and begin to find a common vocabulary. Conflict just is. There are going to be a lot of experiments—most will fail, but we have to try.
Now Sharon and I feel we can argue and respect each other’s views. If we can work within these coordinates of contradiction, it is a window to look for the continuance of our relationship.
SHARON OTT: For me the public focus on Philip and me at the TCG National Conference was the most depressing thing I had ever faced as an artist. I had been involved with more of Philip’s work than any other artist; we had done six plays together. After the conference, we realized that we still wanted to work together—viewing the work as neutral turf, as a way of communicating again. We also vowed to engage in a series of discussions, where we would attempt to talk honestly about our feelings and issues that we faced.
In one of our talks, I remember saying to Philip that if I was going to have to come to grips with racism and its legacy and with having been born into the dominant culture, then he was also going to have to come to grips with the effects of racism on him, with this anger and rage. I had never been able to say that to a person of color before.
We know there is this discomfort, this unease—and the possibility of a complete breakdown. All this has had a profound impact on my theatre company. Now Philip and other Asian-American staff members come to our meetings about the Wallace grant. There is a heightened awareness of the difficulty of communication…and maybe that’s enough.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. This Giving Season, please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!