Founding Visions: Margo Jones and the Need for New Plays
This is the second of an 11-part, weekly series in which the students in my theatre history class at the University of North Carolina at Asheville respond to articles in Todd London’s anthology An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art. You can read the series announcement here.
Today, Nathan Singer writes about Margo Jones who, in the opening of her amazing book Theatre in the Round, passionately expressed her belief in the importance of seeking out and producing new plays. In the essay that follows, Nathan finds inspiration on Jones’ words, and wonders where that commitment has gone. I hope that you will share your thoughts below in the comments section, so that Nathan and the other students can benefit from your insights.
— Scott Walters
In the ten years I’ve had the privilege to work within the theatre world, I have only experienced about a handful of (near, by and for me) productions that I found to be artistically and intellectually stimulating. And after speaking with my peers and colleagues, I can see that this is not just a personal problem of mine. In fact, the struggle would appear to be all too real for many of us here at the local level. I use the words “problem” and “struggle” because I have associated the stunted growth and cultural diversity within the regional American theatre to a lack of original work produced. As a result of this drought in originality, we at the local level seem to be experiencing an onslaught of nothing but the same old Shakespeare and Broadway classics. Now while I don’t intend to demean any work that fits into the boundaries of those descriptions, I do hope to stir up an open call for something new to take over our main stages. In general, I truly believe we should be looking to update and revitalize our preconceived models for localized and regional theatre groups, and the best way we can accomplish this would be through the production of something new.
American theatre director and producer Margo Jones (1911-1955) firmly believed, “We need progress, and the seed of progress in the theatre lies in the new plays.” To share this hopeful manifesto with the nation of her time, she created a theatrical company built on the premise of producing “contemporary theatre.” That company was Theatre ‘47, a Dallas-based playhouse constructed for the young theatre artists of America. Its name symbolized her mission to remain relevant to the present, as it changed with every new year. Across the world were examples of theatres attempting to create culturally relevant work, and elsewhere in the United States were the Broadway theatres proudly leading the way in new plays and experimental productions. Generally speaking, Jones applauded the bravery of Broadway’s endeavors, but likewise noted the absurdity of its place in the American theatre world–one city existing as the center of the nation’s artistic integrity. While they may have produced new and interesting works, that sort of creative production was still in high demand around the country. And is it not the duty of all theatre artists to go out and bring theatre to the people? To decentralize the experimentation, and bring good new theatre for all to appreciate and experience. For as Jones also said, “Every town in America wants theatre!”
However, there must be a standard paired to that desire for theatre. Jones stressed the necessity of professionalism within our world, and the importance of meaningfully written work. After all, good performances can always be possible, but “Our theater can never be stronger than the quality of its plays. We must, therefore, have a great number of good plays.” Especially if we hope to see younger generations of audiences within our houses. These “good” plays must be culturally relevant to the now. As a blossoming educator, I can say confidently that younger generations will not find interest in stories that are whitewashed or virtually irrelevant to their daily lives. That point alone may already eliminate any further performances of Cabaret, A Doll’s House, West Side Story, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or, looking to the current Broadway season, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The King & I, or The Crucible.
But why would we continue to show these classics, anyhow? What benefit is given to the audiences that view them today? The human experience can be just as well displayed in a play created after the year 2000. So what other purpose would these productions have than to serve as history lessons? If all theatres existed in academia we would not have a problem, but that’s most certainly not the case here. And yes, while mainstream Broadway is continually tackling new performances and “world premieres,” very few are truly new stories. Many are just reboots of blockbuster hits and Oscar-nominated films, now put into a “live-action” medium: Aladdin, American Psycho, Tuck Everlasting, Groundhog Day, Amelie, August Rush, Freaky Friday, The Honeymooners, King Kong, Magic Mike, Shakespeare in Love, and believe me the list can go on. Where did our ability as storytellers go? If it’s inspiration we need, we can look to social media where thousands of stories are shared daily by means of video, blogging, posting and creative imagery. If it’s new playwrights and storytellers, we can look to movements like #BlackLivesMatter—an organization built on the frustration of being silenced. There are opportunities out there waiting for us, but they need to know they can come in.
We know that trends in culture change, so, as a whole, theatre should better complement that fact. Clearly, we’ve seen the cinematic industry evolve over the years. So by contrast, tell me why the theatre seems to be transforming into a history museum? When did the theatre stop being a place of entertainment and awareness? And when did performance art become a cookie-cutter format? For all these questions I’d like to say never, if I’m being honest, but our recycled storytelling seems to be saying the opposite.
Nathan Singer is currently a senior at UNC Asheville seeking a Bachelor’s Degree in Drama with a K-12 Theatre Arts Teaching License. Generally, he hopes to one day become the best theatrical educator he can–led by a life of experience, education and diversity.