The directors. A rising generation of directors, performers, and writers is forcing theater in new directions.

The man who contends that our theater will be great only if superior people lead it is quite right. But the question is, from whence come these superior beings? We believe in this country that they . . . may be anywhere. -- Norris Houghton,

``Advance from Broadway'' WHEN Des McNuff was not yet 30 years old, he was invited to take over as artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, a long-dormant summer theater whose ancestry creaked with Hollywood stars and standard stock fare. Mr. McNuff, whose own background ran to avant-garde productions and rock-and-roll guitar, not only accepted the position but dished up a first season of revisionist Shakespeare, experimental Brecht, and acidic British satire.

Subscribers retreated in droves.

Today, four years later, the subscribers are back. The playhouse, which produced last year's Tony Award-winning musical ``Big River,'' is now considered one of the country's most exciting regional theaters. McNuff is hailed as one of the most forward-looking directors in theater.

``We can't afford to be a snob,'' says McNuff, dressed in his signature oversize linen jacket and pegged trousers. ``Theater has traditionally been a popular, not an elitist, art form. There is a generation of new theater artists emerging, and we have got to win this [artistic] battle.''

Indeed, McNuff is considered part of a new phalanx of theater artists -- a diverse group of designers, writers, performers, and directors -- who are committed to the American theater and, in many instances, are forcing it in entirely new directions.

Since the beginnings of the regional theater movement more than 20 years ago, when pioneering directors such as Tyrone Guthrie, Zelda Fichandler, Adrian Hall, and Gordon Davidson first established a regional alternative to Broadway's commercial theater, American theater, unlike its European counterpart, has been characterized by artists rather than institutions.

Today, that tradition continues. Despite the administrative growth among regional theaters -- subscriber lists, boards of directors, and operating budgets at six figures -- the most successful are those that have retained the artist at their core. New York's Public Theater, Washington's Arena Stage, Providence's Trinity Repertory Company, Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum, and the American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge, Mass., are among the best of these operations.

Now a new generation of artistic directors is adding its distinctive stamp to the movement. In addition to McNuff, the group includes Peter Sellars of the Kennedy Center's American National Theater in Washington, Robert Falls of Chicago's Goodman Theater, Elizabeth LeCompte of New York's Wooster Group, Gregory Mosher of the Lincoln Center theaters, and the entire ensemble of Chicago's Steppenwolf Company.

While some observers suggest these Wunderkinder are simply a last gasp of a movement that has peaked, others insist that their arrival indicates a genuine renaissance within the noncommercial theater -- a renaissance that returns the artist to the center of the institution.

``We have never seen more first-rate artists entering the theater field than right now,'' says Robert Brustein, artistic director of the ART. ``We will look back on this age as the golden one.''

``It is very encouraging to see this number of young directors taking on the weight of these institutions instead of just free-lancing,'' says Ms. Fichandler, co-founder and artistic director of the Arena Stage.

This new guard has already imbued its work with a new artistic standard that is reshaping individual nonprofit theaters as well as reinvigorating American theater as a whole. As the first generation to have grown up on television, film, and rock music, these directors don't recognize a difference between high and pop culture, the avant-garde and mainstream art. As a result, their productions are apt to use video as much as verse, the Talking Heads as much as Shakespeare.

``There is an emerging pop culture,'' says Robert Falls. ``And it is an imagery that needs to take its place in classical [theatrical] work.''

In addition to these directors' work -- including Falls's production of ``Hamlet,'' McNuff's version of ``The Sea Gull,'' and virtually anything by the iconoclastic Sellars -- observers point to a new generation of theater performers -- Whoopi Goldberg, Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, Laurie Anderson, Ping Chong, and Meredith Monk. These artists, however, now emerging from New York's avant-garde art circles into the theatrical and movie mainstreams, signal not so much a resurgence in American theater as a challenge to it.

``This isn't the avant-garde [theater] moving into the mainstream, it's individual personalities moving into the mainstream,'' monologuist Bogosian points out.

After years of working in East Village clubs, Off Off Broadway theaters, and the annual Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, these hybrid performers are now heading for the mass market -- cable and network television, feature films, publishing and recording contracts. Already a new award category, the ``Arties,'' has been established in New York avant-garde circles for these crossbred performers. Yet, with few exceptions, these artists are not fueling traditional, company-rooted theater.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the current Chicago theater scene, where the past decade has seen that city quietly nurture the country's most vibrant regional theaters.

Although such Chicago-bred talents as playwright David Mamet and the Goodman Theater's artistic director, Gregory Mosher, have moved on, others have stayed. Falls has simply moved from the city's Wisdom Bridge Theatre over to the Goodman. And, despite the frequent departures of members of Steppenwolf Company to appear Off Broadway or in films, the group as a whole remains intact.

Founded a decade ago by a feisty group of college graduates, the Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf is the theater most responsible for establishing a so-called Chicago style -- an unorthodox blend of high energy and hip theatricality that marries rock-and-roll rhythms and a no-holds-barred acting technique, which, nonetheless, rarely ventures from the mainstream into the avant-garde.

If the success of the Steppenwolf troupe, which sent four productions to New York in three years, illustrates the potential achievement when artists band together, it is also part of a grass-roots resurgence among acting ensembles.

During the 1960s, it was common for both New York-based avant-garde groups and the newly formed regional theaters to look for models amid the large, state-supported European companies -- Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, East Germany's Berliner Ensemble, and the Moscow Art Theater. Such models lacked federal support here, however, and eventually proved untenable.

Now the recent ``Ongoing Ensembles'' grants from the National Endowment for the Arts are providing a financial boost to those dogged companies that could be as pivotal to theater as was the founding of the Endowment 20 years ago, which was the catalyst for the regional theater movement.

Nine ensembles grants, which provide for five one-year grants to each company, have been awarded to such theaters as ART and New York's Wooster Group to enrich their core companies of artists, particularly actors.

``The ensemble grant is sheer brillance,'' says Fichandler. It takes us back to putting the artist at the center of our theaters.'' The actors

Despite such grass-roots enthusiasm for the ensemble companies, they employ only a tiny percentage of the nation's actors, who still live a largely nomadic existence. And, although the regional theaters now offer actors more employment than all of Broadway, the fact remains that more money can be made in film and television than on the stage.

As a consequence, many actors no longer make a once-and-for-all choice among Broadway, the regionals, or a film career. They increasingly pursue all three. It is a trend that involves such well-known performers as William Hurt, Kevin Kline, and Meryl Streep and such lesser-known artists as the Wooster Group's Spalding Gray, and Chicago actors John Malkovich and John Mahoney.

``It used to be that an actor could make a living doing Off Broadway in New York,'' says a former actress now living in Los Angeles. ``But you can't anymore; [the cost of living] is too expensive. Besides, even the nonprofit theaters are interested in stars. So you go to L.A. to become a star.''

``The actor is the tragic animal in our culture,'' says ART's Brustein. ``He is the victim of a system that offers him tremendous [financial] goodies in exchange for a pitifully small part of his talent.''

``The big difference is money. Do you want to make $450 a week or $15,000?'' asks Charles Dutton, a recent graduate of Yale University's School of Drama, who has performed to rave reviews on Broadway, in regional theater, on film, and on TV. ``Moneywise, it's no contest. . . . I look at my life the way an athlete does: I'm going to take the best [paying] jobs while I can. You can always come back and do a play.''

With the exception of a few theaters committed to the acting ensemble, noncommercial theaters, from large Off Broadway theaters such as Circle-in-the-Square to tiny showcase houses, are increasingly using name actors to lure an audience.

``People want to come and see Mark Harmon 10 feet away,'' says Ted Schmitt, producing director of the CAST Theater in Los Angeles. The playwrights

And what of playwrights? How are they faring when few new plays are being produced on Broadway? Are regional theaters taking up the slack?

``Theater has few new plays, and most of them are bad,'' playwright David Mamet told an audience Harvard University recently. ``Critics seem to thwart originality. . . . Television buys off the talented.''

Indeed, few dispute that writers are increasingly lured by television and film. Many say it comes down to financial opportunities. Others insist that the supply of talented writers outstrips demand for their work in the theater.

``There is almost no playwright in the US who does not write for another medium,'' says David LeVine, executive director of the Dramatists Guild. ``They do it to make the bucks. At $35,000 to $40,000 for a screen assignment, you'd have to be crazy not to.''

``Theaters are just doing a lot less plays,'' says Keith Reddin, a promising young playwright, author of the recent ``Rum and Coke.'' ``They're doing one-third the plays they were doing five years ago.''

Indeed, the theatrical opportunities for writers are mixed.

The number of regional and showcase theaters has skyrocketed over the past 20 years, providing a new platform for playwrights. ``It is now possible for writers like John Guare and Wendy Wasserstein to make a living from the regional theaters,'' says Mr. LeVine. Some theaters, such as the Actors Theater of Louisville, have established their reputations as new-play forums, while others, such as the South Coast Repertory Company in Orange County, Calif., regularly commission new plays.

At the same time, however, the number of Off Broadway theaters has dropped dramatically. In 1962 there were 21 Off Broadway theaters and 69 Off Off Broadway houses. Today there are 10 Off Broadway and 56 Off Off Broadway. Writers further suggest that among both New York and regional theaters the number of productions is on the wane.

``Playwrights Horizons used to do 12 productions a year; now they do four,'' says Mr. Reddin. ``Manhattan Theater Club did, say, 25 a season; now they do four or five. There is just less work.''

As a consequence, well-known and lesser-known playwrights find it difficult not to turn to film. ``It is possible to write both [films and plays],'' says writer John Patrick Shanley, author of the recent play ``Women of Manhattan,'' who in the past year has written a stage play, and a screenplay. The idea of `selling out' is a little misleading.''

``I never met a playwright who gave up the theater exclusively to go into movies,'' adds ART's Brustein.

Indeed, two recent changes within the industry -- one involving playwrights' royalities and the other removing certain financial disincentives from new plays -- should improve both the playwrights' and the theaters' incentives to write and produce new work.

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