In my last post, which was over a month ago, I once again indicted the non-profit regional theatre movement in general for its failings – failing to take risks, failing to make money despite not taking risks specifically to make money, failure to support new work, failure to support local artists. I’ve begun to think there was a regional theatre “bubble” (run away! it’s the bubble!) in the ’60’s and 70’s, a sort of Golden Era (run away! it’s the Golden Era!) of non-profit work when local people really cared about making their communities better, around or just before manufacturing jobs left the country, the wealth gap became super-massive, and people lived in the suburbs and moved every handful of years, with kids in tow, because their job decided to relocate them. You know, when people lived simpler, stabler lives and were able to think about other things.
Then again, Golden Ages are bullshit. There’s really no such thing. Golden Ages are only labeled such in hindsight. The non-profit, regional theatre movement was born out of problems in the theatre of the time. It was a fight against conformity in its own way, and in that ecosystem, it worked really well. But the landscape has changed, and the delicate organism that is the non-profit theatre evolved for a time but has not shed some vestigial limbs that are necessary for that next stage of development.
Anyway, that got me thinking – what was the non-profit movement a reaction to, exactly? Despite many Google searches (my favorite method of research, lazy and biased though it is), I didn’t find much information.
Here’s what Wikipedia claims the regional theatre movement is:
Regional theaters often produce new plays and challenging works that do not necessarily have the commercial appeal required of a Broadway production. Companies often round out their seasons with selections from classic dramas, popular comedies, and musicals. Some regional theaters have a loyal and predictable base of audience members which can give the company latitude to experiment with a range of unknown or “non-commercial” works. In 2003, Time magazine praised regional theatres in general, and some top theaters in particular, for their enrichment of the theatre culture in the United States. Some regional theaters serve as the “out of town tryout” for Broadway-bound shows, and some will even accept touring broadway shows, though those more typically play at commercial road houses.
So, in theory, regional theatres have a built-in loyal base that allows them to experiment. Now, this isn’t necessarily true, although I would also suggest that artistic and marketing leadership has underestimated their patrons for years. Regional theatres focus on making big bucks, either by bringing in popular shows from Broadway, or reviving old popular shows (Hamlet! Ghosts! Glengary Glenn Ross!). They almost never stage completely new original local work, and on the rare occasions when they do, it’s a “second season/second stage” situation – they make it very clear that the play is new, like we should be afraid of that, and it’s still in development, like that should appease us if we hate it.
They fail at being non-commercial because they are so worried about their general, commercial appeal.
But originally, it was supposed to be a workshop for new works, daring things. Via the University of Delaware website, here’s a brief intro to the history of the non-profit movement:
The Regional Theater Movement grew out of the Little Theater Movement. As Little Theater became more commercial, a new movement was developed as a non-profit, professional alternative to Broadway dedicated to the training and employment of local residents. Regional theaters often produce plays that are new, experimental, unknown or are not bound for Broadway, as well as the more popular and well-known plays.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, theater professionals began establishing regional playhouses in cities across the country as part of an organized movement.
This, frankly, sounds like what’s happening right now. Little Theatre rebelled against big, commercial theatre and, as the idea became more popular, artists came up with a model that worked (I’m sure through a lot of trial and error) and for a couple of decades, the set-up was great for everyone.
And then the Demon Money came to town.
What I would hope, ultimately, is that theatre artists and administrators as a whole can, moving into the future, change the system to work as it used to, or when they do inevitably find a system that works better, remember the sins of the past. I know this is wishful thinking, but I am, frankly, excited to be part of the discussion in the theatre world, to be part of shaping a new destiny for the artform I’ve devoted myself to. And I think this is a movement taking place in all kinds of other artforms (comics and television are the big ones I can think of). So, as long as we keep having revolutions, things will continue to improve for a time. And this is good, that’s how it should be.