Nonprofit theaters grapple with social and artistic demands

When the nonprofit professional theater movement began in America two decades ago, with a fresh artistic agenda and fueled by fistfuls of public funding, it faced an uncertain and unprecedented future. Today, the several hundred regional theaters comprising that movement are confronting a new set of challenges to their artistic and financial well-being. Persistent deficits, aging subscriber audiences, and shifting funding sources are among the fiscal issues confronting America's not-for-profit theaters.

Meanwhile, new challenges to the theaters' artistic foundations are causing additional concern: the impact of television, a persistent lack of indigenous political drama, and the growing need for a new generation of theater artists, including better integration of minority actors and directors. Some question whether theater in America is becoming an elitist art form that caters only to a certain class of artists and audience.

``Every year it is annually asked [in the media] whether theater in America will survive,'' says Lloyd Richards, dean of Yale University's School of Drama and president of the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), a New York-based service organization for noncommercial theater. However, he continues, ``there never has been a time more needful of a fresh vision [for American theater] than right now.''

The exact nature of that vision as well as the current challenges to it were explored at a five-day conference here sponsored by TCG. One of the few national forums for nonprofit theaters, this most recent biennial conference aroused both passion and protest among its nearly 400 participants. While previous conferences focused largely on finances, this meeting was more reflective.

``This is the first time that . . . theaters are able to look beyond themselves,'' says Arvin Brown, artistic director of the Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, Conn. ``It's not that we've solved all our financial problems, but we are sufficiently established to look down the road a bit.'' Indeed, many of the questions raised reflected this growing perception by artistic directors of their need to look beyond the theaters' persistent financial worries to the quality of the art form and its relevance to their audience. ``Because of that tremendous [financial] worry, we have abdicated our responsibility to our audience,'' says Tony Taccone, artistic director of San Francisco's Eureka Theatre Company. ``It is not just the playwright's responsibility to deal with content, but the theater's.''

Many voiced concern over the lack of a ``vocabulary for political theater'' in the US. ``Because most political problems in this country don't enter the living room, it is terribly hard to even think how to write about them [in a dramatic form],'' said Wally Shawn, actor and playwright.

``We trap ourselves if we simply blame the audience,'' said Gordon Davidson, artistic director of Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum. ``We are not doing all that we should, well enough to penetrate that [public] amnesia.''

According to Davidson and other observers, much of theater's current disconnectedness stems from rapidly changing artistic forms -- forms largely determined by television. Not only are theater audiences increasingly influenced by the electronic media but theater artists themselves are modifying their art in response.

``Theater once held the edge over real life and literature in terms of fleshing out events,'' says Joshua Meyrowitz of the University of New Hampshire. ``But now the standard is TV. As a result, theater seems even more distant than reality itself.''

``There is a feeling that the play is no longer enough,'' says Mark Lamos, artistic director of the Hartford (Conn.) Stage Company, ``To let the audience know there is a different ideology at work [on stage], many productions are moving toward an exaggerated effect. That is what is happening to classical theater in this country.''

Indeed, many observers cite the current trend toward performance art as one of television's major impacts upon noncommercial theater.

``We're living in a post-literate culture,'' says Ping Chong, performance artist. ``Much of our perceptual reality has to do with the media now.'' As a result, ``we're more interested in a kinetic rather than textual-based theater.''

But other observers insist regional theater's current artistic challenges stem more from internal ideological changes than any external pressure. ``The reason nonprofit theater has backed off as a social forum . . . is primarily economic,'' says Margot Lewitin, artistic director of New York's feminist Interart Theatre. ``And it has to do with the [increase in the use] of the corporate model for our theaters.''

Indeed, if anything arouses passion among the nonprofit theater community it is this growing inability to reconcile the institutionalization of regional theaters, many of which have multi-million-dollar budgets and tens of thousands of subscribers, with their need to be on the cutting edge of both the art form and current social issues.

``There is a myth of what theater is in our culture and whether it belongs only to a certain class of people.'' says playwright Corinne Jacker. ``One part of that myth is that women cannot write, another is that blacks cannot do certain things, like direct the classics. [As a result], many of the most creative woman theater artists are turning to performance art.''

``If less than 10 percent of all regional theaters are doing a black production, then we as a movement have not advanced,'' adds Woodie King, artistic director of New York's New Federal Theatre, one of the country's oldest black theaters.

``Theater is a meritocracy, not a democracy,'' maintains Robert Brustein, artistic director of theAmerican Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. ``Put pressure on society, not on the arts.''

Still other directors insist that the future of nonprofit theater depends on better integration of minority and mainstream artists.

``Beyond looking at next year's budgets, we need to be concerned about developing the next generation of directors,'' says Yale's Mr. Richards.

``We're talking about developing a tradition that involves a give-back system by those directors already working in the theater. But that [commitment] is still very hard to come by.''

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