If you’ve been keeping tabs for as long as I have, on the uneasy, codependent, sometimes wildly dysfunctional but patently necessary relationship between the not-for-profit and commercial sectors of the American theatre, Gordon Cox’s cover story in this issue will come as something of a relief. Things, he reports, have changed. Not so much that the nearly three dozen opinion leaders he’s consulted no longer harbor reservations about the operating principles and the practical mechanics of production-sharing across the nonprofit/Broadway divide—but enough so that those reservations, in most cases, take a back seat to the sundry advantages (creative, economic and otherwise) that such partnerships afford.
That wasn’t always the case, of course. “I’ll tell you what regional theatre is,” one character groused in Terrence McNally’s hilariously self-referential 1986 comedy It’s Only a Play. “Plays that couldn’t get produced in New York with actors who couldn’t get a job in New York performed for audiences who wish they still lived in New York.” Twenty-eight years and who-knows-how-many transfer/co-production/enhancement-funded/aisle-crossing deals later, McNally’s joke still reads funny, but it bears little relation to reality. As Cox’s examination makes clear, regional companies of various sizes and artistic focus are making the most of their commercial theatre connections, sharing artists and sometimes even audiences with New York, seizing the collaborative opportunity (as Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Susan Medak points out) to bolster institutional learning at home. The profit/nonprofit gulf has shallowed into a wading pool, and more and more theatre organizations are willing and eager to get their feet wet.
Prominent among those waders is Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which is home base for in-demand director Anna D. Shapiro, the subject of Christopher Kompanek’s feature profile. Kompanek captures Shapiro’s ingenuous responses—there are moments of speechlessness, tears and hyper-exhilaration—to the inevitable attention that comes when a director’s career shifts into the high-stakes gear of Broadway. It all reminds Shapiro, she says, of the NBA.
Hers are not the only intense observations about the vagaries of a theatrical career that you’ll encounter in this issue. For further introspection, travel with playwright Craig Lucas to a palm-strewn Gulf Coast retreat called the Hermitage, where solitude engenders self-examination and helps him complete an important new work, Ode to Joy, currently premiering with New York’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Another playwright, Lucas Hnath—who bounds onto the scene with his commissioned play The Christians at this month’s Humana Festival of New American plays—shares his aspirations and techniques with American Theatre’s Diep Tran, and waxes philosophical about creativity in general. “Making any kind of art,” Hnath posits, “involves a grab for immortality.”
That may sound grandiose, but most artists are prone to temper their theoretical extravagances with a healthy dose of get-the-work-done practicality. That’s the common impulse that Cox detects in his survey of theatrical dealmakers—and, I’d argue, a similar hard-won pragmatism undergirds the accomplishments of artists like Shapiro and Hnath and Lucas. See if you agree.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!