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

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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.

margo jones

Margo Jones

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!”

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cabaret2

Does Cabaret offer 21st-century audiences
anything more than a history lesson?

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.


Headshot2Nathan 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.

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  • poorplayer

    Nathan,

    Thanks for this article. I find myself in perfect agreement with your idea that we need to see and hear more new plays. We most certainly do! But let me offer these observations on your essay.

    The first is this: I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Getting new plays produced nationwide does not necessarily require throwing out the great plays we already have. As someone who is currently preparing a production of “Cabaret,” I find many reasons why this show is as relevant today as it was when written. We live today in a society where left-leaning elements of our culture are declaring open approval on issues surrounding gender and sexual fluidity and identity, much as in the Berlin of 1933. Likewise, we are also coping as a culture with elements of right-wing fascism as represented by the likes of Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and others seeking the Republican party nomination for President (keep in mind that Hitler’s National Socialist Party rose to power through the German electoral process before he took over absolute power). And believe me when I tell you, the 21st century can use many, many other history lessons – history should always be taught carefully and well, or we continue to be doomed by George Santayana’s famous quote about people who do not learn their history. I find the parallels in “Cabaret” to 21st-century America startlingly real and startlingly frightening.

    My second observation is that the problem is not that there are no people writing plays. The problem is rather that there are not enough theatres willing to PRODUCE new plays. Playwright Adam Szymkowicz has a blog where he has interviewed over 750 playwrights as of June 2015 (http://aszym.blogspot.com/2015/06/750-playwright-interviews.html), and more since, so clearly there are playwrights out there writing new plays. There is no dearth of new plays – there is a dearth of places to produce them. Certainly we can debate about the quality of these plays, but we can only have that debate once plays are produced. The institutions most guilty of not producing new plays for playwrights are universities. They are uniquely situated to be the place where new plays come to life, because they are in so many small and medium-sized towns and cities in this country, and have the best facilities available. Another factor that comes into play is the dilution of the playwriting process itself. Where once there were relatively few people writing plays, now there are thousands (or at least hundreds) all vying for the same dwindling resources in American theatre. When you are faced with this kind of dilution of the product, and when you add on top of that the continued fracturing of the American theatre scene to satisfy diverse cultural groups demanding attention and fair representation, you truly have a massive problem on your hands. It is not one that will be solved merely by asking for more new plays. I think we have many new plays from which to choose; we just have limited institutions ready and prepared to produce them.

    Lastly, the comparison between theatre evolution and movie evolution is an “apples to oranges” comparison. Neither their creative process nor their distribution process are the same. Theatre is a location- and time-specific activity requiring the immense contribution of time and resources by many people in a specific place at a specific time. Movies are much more asynchronous; scenes are shot in any order one wishes, editing is done later by a different collection of people, B-roll is shot apart from main production, stand-ins and doubles are common, and distribution is now not even on film, but rather via digital disk media (and who knows, someday just streaming). Asking for theatre to evolve in the same manner as movies have is asking the wrong question, in my opinion. We need to evolve theatre to something more locally sourced and produced, but that will require teaching and training future theatre artists to abandon dreams of Broadway and consider turning the hopes and dreams of their neighbors into theatrical reality.

    Margo Jones’ basic principles I think remain relevant, but I believe her call for new plays has actually been answered – the plays and playwrights are out there, just diluted, and with no places to produce. What we need to concentrate on today is more of a sense of Jones’ vision of regional theatres, of theatres that would be reflective of their regions and the people that lived there, and that hired regional people to produce and present plays relevant to the lives of the people in that region.

    Again, thanks for your article. Keep up the good work, keep writing, and I wish you the best in your career aspirations – they are noble indeed! -twl