One of the Hottest Acts in Town: Local Theater Companies

Broadway shows like "The Lion King" may dazzle, but many believe the heart of American theater beats elsewhere. In major cities across the United States, professional not-for-profit companies have sprung up, prospered, and matured, changing the face of the whole art form slowly but surely over the past few decades.

New visions have taken up permanent residence in regional theaters like the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC), and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. These companies and many others pump the lifeblood - the new plays - of American theater back and forth across the landscape, and feed New York, too.

The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles launched "Angels in America" and "Kentucky Cycle," both of which won Pulitzer Prizes for drama, with "Angels" Parts 1 and 2 raking in Tony Awards in 1993 and '94. Last April, David Mamet's "The Old Neighborhood" got its start at the American Repertory Theatre before moving to Broadway.

"Plays [used to be] developed in New York and then went out to the regions," says Donovan Marley, artistic director of the DCTC. "But in the '60s, the change began and was certainly complete by the '80s. It's all economic."

Mr. Marley points out that the cost of mounting a Broadway show is so great these days that producers must look for sure-fire hits. "People who are making decisions about returning a profit for their investors will not approach a new play that is challenging or that is not told in an easily recognizable form. They won't risk it. So there can be no innovation."

Theatergoers have responded to regional companies' efforts. At the DCTC, for example, attendance rose from 9,481 in 1995-96 to 11,005 in 1996-97, and is already well ahead of the latter figure this year. And at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, attendance has doubled in the last five years, from 10,000 to 20,000.

Besides producing new plays, theater companies across the country are collaborating, thereby increasing the exposure of new plays and reducing the price of producing them.

Marley likens it to scattering seed. The DCTC, for example, sent an original show developed in house, "It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues," to the Arena Stage in Washington. Then the Arena returned the favor with a fully mounted production of Eugene O'Neill's "A Touch of the Poet."

Likewise, the DCTC sent its original "Black Elk Speaks" to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and the Mark Taper sent "Nine Armenians" to Denver. So the shows each got double runs - and the performers double exposure - almost for the price of one, and each city got a taste of another theater company's wares.

As creative as these collaborations can get, theater is essentially a social experience. One of its natural enemies is the seeming isolation brought on by the electronic age, according to Marley and other artistic directors across the country. From the sense of community fostered on the Internet to the fully equipped home entertainment centers that seem to make going out less attractive, electronic entertainments can keep people away.

Eleven regional artistic directors interviewed all voice their conviction that theater has a special function in society. Theater still matters, they say, because of its humanity, the significance of its literature, and the sense of community that lies at the heart of the theatrical experience, for which they feel there is no electronic substitute.

Exploring human nature

"Theater at its best explores the metaphysical and spiritual nature of humankind ... the spiritual implications of our being alive," says Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. "Greek drama was an extension of Greek religion. The subjects that were explored were subjects of divine significance." What is the nature of the divine? What is the nature of the divine to man, and human beings to one another? These, Mr. Brustein says, are the big issues that people want to understand and relate to others.

"The theater requires communication between actor and audience," says Ricardo Khan, artistic director of Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J., one of the preeminent African-American theaters producing the new work of black playwrights.

"In determining how theater matters, you have to recognize what a live experience accomplishes," says Mr. Khan. "People want to engage in meaningful dialogue. They need the opportunity to engage in community. The theater elevates communal spirit and consciousness.... Our theater helps to create community; it is a gathering place."

Several directors spoke of the role of the audience in the artistic process. "The work is not finished until the audience sees it and responds," says the DCTC's Marley. He explains how viewers affect each performance, as actors respond to the emotional state of the audience and know when the audience is "with them." "The finished piece does not exist in the rehearsal hall," he says.

Says the DCTC's resident director-actor Anthony Powell: "David Mamet said that the theater is one of the last places where people can go to hear the truth. With film and TV, we're hearing Warner Bros.' truth or Rupert Murdoch's truth. I like the movies. But when you look at those diagrammatic grids about who owns media and see how few people control it, it frightens me philosophically.... Not-for-profits tend to be more mouthy - you tend to get competing voices."

He points out that the way nonprofit companies put a season together involves balances - choosing crowd-pleasers along with plays that require a little more thought, that offer different points of view.

Racial, cultural bridge

"Theater brings us closer together, across our racial, cultural, and generational differences," says Kenny Leon, artistic director of Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta. "Artists are not afraid to talk about these things: to tell the truth, to be brave and say what's on their minds. There's just the artist and the audience in front of them."

"Theater is handmade," says Jon Jory, artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville. "That's why it is touching.... I know that most of the things that have changed me have been conversations in a room, and that is what the theater is."

Unlike many movies, regional theater is not just a commercial product. It has, in many ways, a nobler calling, as Marley points out: Art can't always be about money. "If making money is our criterion for valuing art, how can you justify a free library system or a public university?" Subsidized theater helps keep the great literature of theater alive and fosters youths' new visions as well, he says.

"The theater will not only survive," says director Khan, "it's going to become more and more essential across the country. And we are currently nationally engaged in a level of reinvention that [underscores how] people matter. More and more people will be going to the theater because there has been a reemergence of the value of community. They know this is important."

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