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Theater's crucible. Celebrating its first quarter-century, the alternative to Broadway - American regional theater - is finding its own in a multimedia culture

By Hilary DeVriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 1987

DURING the past 25 years, America has witnessed an unprecedented explosion in the performing arts. In less than three decades, nearly 300 resident theaters have sprung up across the country. Houston's Alley Theatre, Minneapolis's Guthrie Theater, and Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum are just a few of the nonprofit stages that have brought professional drama to the public where it lives. It was a movement fueled by fresh artistic goals and fistfuls of federal and foundation funding. These theaters now provide an alternative to Broadway.

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One of the country's fastest-growing art forms during the past two decades, America's regional theaters have altered both the individual art form and the country's culture as a whole. Most of what is seen on Broadway now originates either in London or on America's regional theater stages.

But there are troubling signs lurking in the wings. Theater operating deficits are an annual occurrence, audience growth is sluggish, and ticket prices are on the rise. And theater professionals speak openly of a corresponding ``artistic deficit'' - shorter seasons, smaller productions, and an avoidance of risky, demanding work.

Even more disturbing, however, is a growing malaise among theater professionals. Throughout the industry, there is a somewhat shaken confidence in the worth of it all. Many successful theater artists, including playwrights David Mamet and Sam Shepard, now work as often in film as they do on stage. And in the last five years, about one theater every two months has permanently closed.

To probe the American regional, or resident, theater movement as it celebrates its first quarter-century, the Monitor spoke to six preeminent directors. We chose artistic directors over playwrights, actors, and designers, because, above all, resident theater is about art occurring in a particular place, at a particular time, for a particular audience.

Four of the directors - Gordon Davidson, Zelda Fichandler, Adrian Hall, and Lloyd Richards - are founding members of the movement. Des McAnuff and Garland Wright represent the next generation of theater artists.

We asked them to comment on their theaters' milestones, cite the achievements and the challenges, and discuss the value of maintaining live art in a technological age. Their responses ranged from ``burn the text'' to ``stop competing with TV.'' From the conversations there emerged a passionate commitment on the part of these directors to preserving America's cultural diversity - its ``spiritual health'' - through live theater. DES McANUFF

``We now have a theater in virtually every major city in the country. ... That's really quite remarkable, considering it happened in less than three decades. But to put things in perspective, I think if you were to ask anyone, How much does theater dominate your life? How much theater do you watch as opposed to TV or film or baseball? - well, I think theater plays a relatively small role in people's lives in this country. That is something one has to accept, that theater plays a smaller role than it did a century ago, because then we weren't competing with the reproduced mediums - television, film, and the home video recorder. This is a natural evolution of art, to get art to the masses. It's a struggle that has gone for thousands of years....

Ironically, I think something that makes some of us [in theater] value our role more is the insecure future we all face in the nuclear age. Theater depends very much on immediacy and the celebration of the living moment, and that is something you can't get out of celluloid. We're living in an age when conversation itself is perhaps in some danger of becoming extinct; when it's possible to create the illusion of a dialogue with the screen.