I recently revisited a memo written by Michael Mabry, executive director of TCG in the early 1960s. Reporting to the board on the first five years of the organization, he talked about the needs being addressed by TCG in its infancy and the challenges to come. It was a pioneering period, in which new ways of making theatre were being shaped and honed. And scarce were the tools for a young movement of resident professional theatre leaders to achieve success!
There were concerns about training actors, inspiring them to settle in communities outside of New York and Los Angeles, and connecting them to jobs. There was a hunger among resident theatremakers to combat isolation and communicate more about the challenges of stabilizing their organizations, which were almost entirely box-office dependent. Among the programs TCG offered were a Visitation Program that sent leaders to visit each other and share problems and solutions; the Chicago Auditions, connecting training programs with professional theatres; the Consultancy Program, a Danny Newman roadshow to advise theatres on building subscriptions; as well as a Script Reading Service, an Observership Program and a Casting Information Service.
In looking beyond those first years, Mabry wrote:
If in generalizing about the past five years, isolation and meager recognition were the major factors inhibiting the internal development of resident theatres, it appears now that over the next five years, the further raising of professional standards will constitute the main area of concentration.
The first decades of our movement were about field-building, including the cultivation of cooperative learning networks and increasing professionalization. The next steps were capitalization, recapitalization and stabilization, followed by more growth and the construction of new facilities.
Now that the field encompasses hundreds of professional resident theatres and hundreds of thousands of artists, craftspeople, administrators, educators and trustees, we find ourselves in a new age—one that calls for increasing our collective responsibility for the stewardship of what we’ve built together. What are our strengths? What are our weaknesses? And how do we address them as a community? How do we make the work that we do every day touch individual human lives and specific communities, and contribute as well to the shaping of our national and global ethos?
In an ecosystems way of thinking, what are the assets we should cultivate and the faults that we should repair?
Our publisher, Terry Nemeth, is fond of noting that we’re presently in a golden age of playwriting. Given that in the early stages of our movement, the field had no real infrastructure to support new-play development, it is exciting to realize that there are now so many remarkable American plays being written, produced and regularly revived. The centrality of the playwright to our American theatre ecology is unique—it is one of the things, along with a strong and growing ensemble movement, that distinguishes us worldwide.
Agility and flexibility are equally important strengths. What we are able to accomplish in times of crisis or economic distress—in terms of adjusting our practices and budgets, and making effective (even if difficult) decisions—has enabled the field to weather storms and grow in new directions. This comes from a culture among theatres and theatre people that favors both supporting and challenging one another, the sharing of information, and coming to the rescue when others are in need.
We should also take pride in the activist spirit displayed by so many theatres and artists, a development not unrelated to TCG’s vision statement: “A better world for theatre and a better world because of theatre.” Our recently formed Actor/Activist group is a case in point. Last month, 100 theatres and individuals from across the country signed up to participate in a webinar about how actors are expressing their activism through their work onstage, in community settings, as teaching artists, and more. There is a hunger in our field to have an impact, to be a central influence in community life, to bolster the recognition that theatre is local, national and global in its reach.
However, there are also ecosystem-wide weak links that we must join forces to conquer.
One such area central to TCG’s current work is the struggle for equity, diversity and inclusion. Too often our field mirrors the inequities that are etched into other sectors of our society: racism, sexism, compensation systems that don’t make sense for artists and other theatremakers. We are just beginning to join hands to examine and change certain systems that have grown up over time, through thousands of conscious and unconscious acts.
Another area for consideration is our collective development of audiences and theatremakers of the future. How do we, in the words of economist and demographer Manuel Pastor, “pitch to the coming America,” to its young people? Who will be engaged with, inspired by and benefitting from theatre—an entity that will become ever-increasingly unique the more electronic gadgetry, apps and artificial intelligence meld with our own lives?
If the first 50 years of our movement had to do with building an ecosystem, the next decades are about making that ecosystem work as fully and productively as it can. How do we think of ourselves as a sector? As a field? How do we become the best ecosystem in the world?
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. 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!