Cooperation -- wave of the future for regional theater?

In the commercial theater world, touring road shows have long followed the runs of successful New York plays. But in America's splintered regional theater movement, productions seldom used to move beyond their city of origin -- unless they were fortunate enough to be Broadway bound. Now that situation appears to be changing.

Across the United States, nonprofit theaters are increasingly working together, co-producing and hosting each other's work. Companies, from the Seattle Repertory Theatre and Chicago's Goodman Theatre to a handful of smaller theaters in upstate New York, are collaborating in new attempts to cut costs, improve production quality, and extend the life of their plays.

Robert Holley of the Theatre Communications Group, a New York-based umbrella for noncommercial theater, says the trend ``during the past three to four seasons . . . to pick up other companies' productions on a touring or co-production basis'' is ``part of the improved climate among regional theaters for cross-fertilization.''

Other industry observers say the trend indicates a continuing shift in new drama from the commercial to the noncommerical arena. Already the several hundred regional theaters across the country offer more work weeks to actors than all of Broadway.

``We should be aware of the work of new playwrights on a national basis, and that does not happen now except on Broadway or in television,'' says Lloyd Richards, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater and dean of the School of Drama. ``This [trend] is an aspect of that recognition. . . . We do know there is a major national audience for this work.''

Mr. Richards is currently directing one of the more significant co-production efforts -- ``Joe Turner's Come and Gone,'' the new August Wilson play that opened at Yale Rep last spring. Like Wilson's earlier work, ``Fences,'' which also premi`ered at Yale under Richards's direction and subsequently enjoyed a cross-country tour, ``Joe Turner'' is playing at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company and is slated to play in Seattle. Stops may also include Los Angeles and Chicago.

``Normally what happens is that, if a play first goes to New York and does not do well, it is tainted as a failure.'' says Micheal Maso, managing director of the Huntington Theatre Company. ``We're talking about developing a national reputation by presenting the work to those audiences that want to see and support the work.''

Co-production poses artistic and economic challenges as well as advantages to both the originating and host theaters. The opportunity to continue honing a production after a regular four-week run is often lost in scheduling conflicts and difficulties in signing up actors. And, though the host theater often realizes a savings of about 25 percent over mounting the same production on its own, the savings has to be weighed against the relinquishment of artistic control.

``There are obvious economic advantages in pooling resources,'' says Ben Moore, managing director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where ``Joe Turner'' will be seen and where ``Fences'' was seen last season. `` `Fences' was so well received here that doing `Joe Turner' this season will certainly promote theatergoing.''

However, the chief advantage of a nonprofit tour, according to participants, is the opportunity to nurture a playwright. ``When a show is on a commercial tour, the producer wants a finished product,'' says Benjamin Mordecai, managing director of the Yale Rep. ``But a tour among the regional theaters is a continuation of the artistic process.''

``Once a production goes to New York it is stamped with a certain imprimatur,'' Richards notes. ``Here, the possibility of rewriting exists, and the actors may continue to reexamine their work.''

The advantages of co-production for the playwright also range from artistic to economic. ``The exposure to different audiences is good,'' says Wilson. ``Not only do more people get to see the work but different kinds of people. That is beneficial to the writer.''

``Forget about New York,'' says Mordecai. ``August earned more money from the regional tour of `Fences' than he did during the entire Broadway run of `Ma Rainey,' '' a Wilson work on Broadway in 1984.

Nonetheless, some participants are less than sanguine about the process. ``There is no advantage as an actor to be in touring show unless that production plays in Los Angeles or goes to New York,'' says one of the principals in ``Joe Turner.'' ``Those regional theaters aren't going to hire me for my next job.''

Yet others insist that such cross-fertilization is indeed the way of the future. Says Richards, ``It is this kind of artistic interaction that will ultimately make this [network of] theaters truly an American national theater.''

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