Directors point out theater's changing patterns

Theater in the United States is more localized, more diverse, less New York-dominated, and better off than at any time in 40 years. It is true that certain of its foundations are crumbling. But theater is being forced to redefine its role to both embrace and compete with what television, video, and film offer. Theater is also being pressured to reflect the concerns of ever-more-involved minorities.

Those are among the observations of six of America's most articulate and creative theater directors, who discussed the state of US theater at the Los Angeles Theater Center's Big Weekend, the last event in the center's eighth yearly festival here. The symposium, ``Six Directors in Search of an Audience,'' ended eight weeks of mainstage productions, staged readings, and symposia.

Held last weekend in one of the four theaters of the center's renovated downtown bank building, the discussion was loosely centered on the maxim that the quality of American theater ultimately has to be judged by the quality of the questions it raises, such as:

What is being done to encourage the work of minorities?

Why does US theater remain mostly nonpolitical?

How do artistic directors design a subscription season?

How can good work that hasn't had a successful run in New York be validated?

Participants were the Los Angeles Theater Center's Bill Bushnell; Robert Falls, formerly of Chicago's Wisdom Bridge Theatre and now at the Goodman Memorial Theatre in that city; Des McAnuff of the La Jolla (Calif.) Playhouse; Peter Sellars, formerly of Washington's American National Theater; Gary Sinise of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago; and Stan Wojewodski Jr. of Baltimore's Center Stage.

All are former artistic directors for AT&T festivals, sponsored by the telecommunications company in conjunction with outstanding performing arts groups in cities of marketing importance to the company.

The panelists did not ignore the problems of skyrocketing production costs, funding cuts, and increasing competition with human service organizations also looking to fill in the gaps behind Reagan administration funding cuts. Mr. Falls of the Goodman Theatre, for instance, lamented producing theater under these difficult circumstances, while ``playing straight man to corporate America for funding.''

But many were quite optimistic on a number of fronts. Mr. McAnuff sees encouraging signs in the number and quality of young people entering theater. The turbulence of the times gives theater the dynamism it needs, he says. The eclecticism of America - a negative word when applied to the arts elsewhere, he adds - gives it richness and cultural diversity. The threat of nuclear war gives it immediacy.

``American theater is more thrilling, stronger, greater than ever,'' said Mr. Sinise, ``with more funding, more corporations behind us than ever. New York was where theater was 40 years ago. Now it's everywhere.

``You only have to look 3,000 miles to see that [this] dinosaur has rolled over,'' added Falls. ``When I was young, I thought having a successful New York play was what it was all about. Now I realize trying to get validation from New York is like a rat swimming toward a sinking ship.''

Mr. Sellars, however, sees the theater in a catastrophic state and thinks it will be saved only by minorities. ``Traditionally [theater is] the way in which a minority establishes its own identity in the world. And I think it will be saved by minorities having to do it, because they don't have access to [production of] TV and films, because they're too expensive.''

To save theater, Sellars called for directors to move away from theater language and mechanisms that are 100 years old. ``Movies got started by taking a lot of vocabulary from theater. The next step is: We take a new shot of vocabulary from video and film and TV and the new possibilities of electronics, because the electronic extension of the actor is the most important development of the last half of this century,'' he said.

Lambasting TV and Hollywood for their ``safe'' use of technology to create ``smooth and comfortable'' entertainment, he called for use of more technology in live situations - cameras, miking, lighting - to duplicate tricks seen on film.''

When asked how a theatrical season was put together, the directors described complex efforts to respond to the wants and needs of their various communities while pleasing their own personal vision and broadening the concerns of the audience. Those audiences are changing, too, to reflect more minority cultures.

``We should be constantly looking for material that challenges audiences to examine questions they were not examining when they came in the door,'' said Mr. Bushnell, echoing an oft-heard remark. ``If we've done that, we've succeeded on some level.''

``The greatest danger is that [theater] become a forum where we reinforce our own prejudices,'' said McAnuff, ``where we would decide what we like, based on what we liked yesterday.''

Overall, the forum was upbeat, constructive, thoughtful. Directors defended the recent trend of theater to include more minorities and women, both on and offstage. And they admonished one another to keep theaters both entertaining and relevant by dealing with local issues.

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