This is the eighth of an 11-part, weekly series in which the students in my theater 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.
Caroline Dischell’s essay today takes its inspiration from Zelda Fichandler‘s 1970 article “Theaters or Institutions?” Fichandler’s essay, which I wrote about in this column a few years ago, is interesting because of its split personality. It begins with a vision of the value and importance of art, and then about halfway through, it leaps into a pit of despair and frustration as Fichandler bemoans all the extraneous work she must do to keep the institution afloat. Caroline, unlike me a few years ago, focuses on the inspirational part, and makes a good case for the centrality of childlike imagination in the soul of the regional theater movement. — Scott Walters
When we were children we loved to play pretend. The branch that fell down in a storm was a fortress and the family dog became the dragon that must be hunted down. It was so easy for us, then, to use our imaginations, suspend our disbelief, and fully immerse ourselves into a mind-built world. One would think, then, that children would grow up loving theater. Where else can you find buildings constructed just to play pretend and imagine?
And they do. Children’s theaters are so common, filled with eager young actors ready to share their work and play with their parents, relatives, friends. When the children grow up, some of them stay in the theater. Acting professionally or adding to the huge talent lying within so many community theaters. What concerns me is not the actors. These people have kept their imaginations alive. I worry about the people who never enter theaters.
Somewhere along the line people lose this value of the arts. Branches are no longer the set of a knightly adventure. Dogs are simple pets. Over the course of rules and homework and being told to grow up people lose this ability to express themselves and enjoy watching their peers do the same.
This is why the regional theatre is so important. This is a theater supported by the community in which it lives. It thrives by serving the very public that acts in it, builds it, imagines with it. Zelda Fichandler, in an essay about her Arena Stage in An Ideal Theatre described the human need for good theater. It must have “roots in human soil” and really form a connection with the audience. This connection is absolutely vital, and it seems to me as if it has a direct link to the near universal experience of childhood make-believe I described above.
Many people transfer their experience of make-believe to film and television. Fichandler doesn’t see this as a problem for the theater. Indeed, she says this cannot be a competition. Movies are bigger, faster, but they do not have the same connection to the audience that good theater can have. With a play you experience things with the characters, you are in the same room with them, breathing the same air. Going to theater ourselves and sending our children to the theater needs to stop just being something “that happens because it is ‘good for them,’” Fichandler writes. “You have to go to the theater for the same reason you read a book or fall in love.” We need to build a world where theater is done for love and seen for love.
“Imagination is the nose of the public: by this, at any time, may they be quietly led” Edgar Allan Poe once said, according to Fichandler. We need to turn this love of the playful and imagined into a nostalgic smell irresistible to the public nose. By this I do not mean that all plays should be about their intended audience’s childhood. No, I mean that we must have regional theaters that uphold the sense of community and local wonder that makes children’s theater so magical. We need to connect back to something built by us, for us, about us, and near us. Let the branch become a fortress and watch out for that mighty dragon.