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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

In the theater you are not going to get out as much verisimilitude as in film and TV. [But] you're getting reality ... flesh and blood on the stage. Because it's not as powerful as TV in reaching masses of people, theater tends to be a freer form, freer socially, politically, morally.

There's a lot of dreary theater out there, let's not kid ourselves.... But on the point of [cultural] spiritual health, it's a great forum to exchange and examine opposing points of view. Because you get somebody who is alive representing with particular passion a particular point of view. Theater is a great way to question ourselves, our times. Few other [art] forms do that as well.'' ZELDA FICHANDLER

``[The nonprofit theater movement is] totally different today. Early on, when we were little, we were a little waving hand against the dark landscape. Now every community that has [a resident theater] wants to keep it.... There are people who care about having this civilizing instrument in their midst....

I've lived through the whole time of it, and yes, it has made an enormous dent. ... But I do think it's clear that just having [a theater] that is permanent, community-based, and raises money is not what it's about.

The original commitment of this cultural form has to be reinvestigated. ... It hasn't had sufficient national support, either from the funding agencies or the critics ... who don't do enough traveling. There hasn't been a clear national policy toward these theaters at the federal level or at a journalistic level to cover a national art form....

The theater is a place of language and a place of experience and a place of imagination. Theater usually takes its technology from its current day. Shakespeare did, and so did the Greeks. Today, there is a broader spectrum of technology available to us, but theater is essentially still a storytelling medium, and people still go to it because they experience their lives as story, as a tale. And they go to see ... other's people stories, which they can compare and relate to their own.

Theater is elitist. No matter how many people it plays to, it will never reach as many as does film or television. [But] I don't think how [far-reaching] an art form is is any definition of its worth. ... The experience of witnessing, of participating [in a play], is just not reproducible in a technological medium....

Our curiosity, our persistent interest to know what stuff we fools are made of - this will keep [theater] alive. You see the impulse in every society to enact and examine its rituals in this magic space, to find out what it's all about.

Some people think cultural richness [is] acquisitive, rather than inquisitive - that you have it rather than know it. A rich civilization is contemplative. ... It knows what it is and what it's living through. ... Nothing's better than the theater for that [inquiry]. I really mean that. [Theater] is a form of social meditation.'' GARLAND WRIGHT

``This began as a movement of dreams against all odds. If the first quarter-century proves one thing, it is that the dreamers weren't wrong.... What we see now is a first generation of artistic directors who were raised in this system [of nonprofit theater] and who were enticed by the original dream moving into positions of leadership. ... My generation grew up in a theater where a lot of us fell in love with the theater by going to see ``Funny Girl'' as well as going to see ``A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' I think we have a peculiarly American point of view on what those variations can be in the theater....

I am optimistic that the movement is going through a period where it is demanding its rights as an art form. ... Theater is an antique art form, and a lot of theater [professionals] are envious of the toys of the other media. And we're in danger of losing sight of 2,000 years of history of written theater. [But] there is a timeless need for the actors and audience [to interact]....

No amount of brilliance on anybody's part is going to overcome [theater's] lack of real investment in the actor. The actor is the central artist in the theater - theater as that moment of being when the audience is there; surely that is what theater is ... the event itself is what we have committed our lives to by choosing to be artists. ... I think there is a lot of self-obsessed theater. But I think there is also a lot of theater [based on the premise] that a theatrical event can engage you, can include you....'' GORDON DAVIDSON

``Money is very much on my mind. I feel the pressures tremendously and have been for the past two years. It's very different from before. There's never been a time when money hasn't been a problem, but there always seemed potential solutions. ... I find it's getting to be a much more arid plain out there; the possibilities are fewer, and there's a very strong bottom-line mentality, which is interested only in the bottom line and not in what the money is getting you.

When people believed in the [original resident theater] dream, the boards and managers said, `We got to do it, we'll find a way to do it.' ... Yeah, it's hard, because [running a resident theater] is two different processes: The process by which you create [art] is different than the process by which you create the circumstances in which you can create [art]. ... [Now] no one wants to take chances.... People pose the argument that you can't take risks. You can take risks whether there's five dollars or a million dollars at stake. But you have to have the million dollars, and you have to be willing to blow it.

I have no doubt in my mind about the value of theater and what it does for me, the people I work with, and my audience. When [theater] is good, has real moments of emotional truth and power, you can really touch people. I've tasted that enough times to know that's valid and real. The trouble is, that gets harder to do, harder to find good enough material, harder to produce it well enough and harder to deliver it to sufficient numbers of people to make it matter. The pressures are greater, and the incredible competition [from other media]....

One of the main problems facing us [is that] you have these [theater] institutions, but they don't mean anything without the live blood in them. It is a question of who's coming into [the theater field], and their vision of what's possible. If they don't have a hunger and an appetite to do extraordinary things, they're not going to do it. I don't feel that same hunger and appetite. ... I think we've created the possibility of a legacy, but there is some serious question about how to pass it on. I believe very strongly in the social function of art. But I'm not so sure that everyone believes that.'' ADRIAN HALL

``Playwriting, as we know it, is going to be a thing of the past. It has got to be much more spontaneous, with a reliance on the actors directly confronting an audience, leading them into the story. If the [theater] craft is to do anything other than be frozen in time, we have to get out of the old rules - first act followed by a second act - those old George Kaufman and Neil Simon precepts of what constitutes drama. This is what ... excuses us from reinventing the art form....

Audiences today are so barraged by sight and sound that we've somehow lost the idea of participation. It's going to take a lot more than Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason to reinvigorate that. Theater is just such an old craft, and we are literally practicing it the way we were a century ago, where the dominant feature is the text. We've got to have a serious revolution, as we did in the '60s, when everyone screamed, `Burn the text.' When the regional theater movement began, it addressed itself to the new plays being written, and we attacked it with a vengeance. Today, everybody is writing new plays. But the factory days [must be] over.

Greed has just destroyed the commercial theater. [Broadway] is about real estate, not art, anymore. But to say that capitalism is killing theater [as a whole] is a misnomer. There is a real cynical crust about the [theater's ability to keep the] artist at the center of the institution. But there isn't a theater in this country that doesn't talk about [the need for] a company of artists. ... Something is out of balance if a theater cannot commit itself to supporting a group of actors. We've set up our theaters, and we tend to think of the bureaucrats as the most important, but we've got to grab that old craft, grab it to our guts. We have got to want to take responsibility for [the survival of] the art. LLOYD RICHARDS

``The impulse was to create an alternative theater.... That meant the establishment of theaters in various parts of the country. ... When I look back, that is a major achievement, and it may go down as one of the most interesting movements in the country. ... [But] one of the things we have not been able to do is establish a national sense of theater. We do the work for a limited period of time, in regions, and then it's gone. The artists are known locally, but there is not a national image. It's one of the reasons there should be more exchanges of [productions], and why I'm attempting to take work from my theater to other theaters.

You can be on TV and do a bit part [in a prime-time show], and you have a national image in a matter of weeks. Our [theater] artists can do wonderful work for a great length of time and still not be known. Twenty-five years ago, how was celebrity [in the theater] created? You did two shows on Broadway, and the world came in to see them. You got national attention for it, and you were known. You take the same artists [today], and run them four weeks in the regions, and it's gone. [As a consequence] we're not getting the same kind of recognition that is available for a similar effort in other arts.

I'll tell you what the regional theater has done: It's kept drama alive. When [Broadway] was finding it hard to produce drama, [nonprofit theater] kept it popular. The commercial theater has actually suffered more from TV, in the sense that TV has co-opted many areas of theater. You go back 25 to 30 years, [and] what were the [Broadway] shows? The murder mystery, the sitcom - all those genres that television has now usurped. ... The networks say what is taste, and within the networks, taste is defined really by one person - the person who controls programming in that network that received the highest ratings. In the theater, someone writes a play, sends it to seven directors, and all say no; the eighth guy says, `Yes, I love it.' And he produces it. The control of taste is a more amorphous thing in the theater. We're not ever going to compete with media, or even with what commercial theater can offer. But people can have a sense of `Hey, we have a national theater.' ''

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