In Search of a Vision for the American Theatre (Part 1)


This is the first part of a seven-part series on Todd London’s recently published book An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art, published by Theatre Communications Group. My intention is not to “review” the book, but rather to use it as a point of inspiration, a leaping off point for thoughts about the situation of the current American theatre. My hope is that others will be inspired to do the same – to find those things in his book, or any other book for that matter, that set off mental fireworks.
My introduction to this series inspired by London’s book is here.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

The Search for Inspiration

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Jane Addams 1896
Jane Addams c. 1896
Photo via the Swarthmore College
Peace Collection

The earliest essay in Todd London’s 500+ page anthology, An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art, is one written in 1897 by Jane Addams about “The Hull-House Dramatic Association;” the latest is a 1986 newsletter for the Cornerstone Theater Company. Encompassed within that 90-year span are visionary writings by those who built the regional theatre movement.

Conventional wisdom is that the regional theater movement began in the late 1950s or even the 1960s. In the same way that many believe that the American theatre sprang, Athena-like, from the high forehead of Eugene O’Neill, all too often today’s historians present the regional theater as dancing from the mind of Tyrone Guthrie, often shockingly bypassing entirely the groundbreaking work of Margo Jones, Nina Vance, and Zelda Fichlander and many others. London avoids this trap, extending the movement back to its rightful starting place in the late 19th century. A corrective to be applauded.

Despite its length, London admits his anthology leaves out a lot of important theaters. However, the reason for their absence is significant: “The founders of these companies either didn’t write enough down or their writing wasn’t strong enough to hold up in book form. In other words,” London goes on, “the quality of writing has been a guiding principle for this book almost as much as the uniqueness of the vision itself.”

I think these words send, or ought to send, a message to the artists of today. Who is putting into writing a vision for the American theater? In this world of Facebook statuses and 140-character Twitter updates, of grant applications and season brochures, London asks in his introduction, “Where is our sense of unique, passionate mission in a world of nearly identical mission statements, in which we leave the articulation of visions to fundraisers and vet them in marketing departments?” Where indeed. London says that his motivation for the creation of this anthology was “a search for inspiration and influence,” undertaken at “a moment of searching in my professional life, when I felt my own lack of inspiration, and looked around the country in the hopes of feeling a jolt from my contemporaries.” But he didn’t find it – instead, “I found the jolt I was looking for in the past…”

Reading these essays powerfully reminded me of the books that brought me into the theater in the first place. Books like Herbert Blau’s Impossible Theater, for instance, or Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, or Harold Clurman’s The Fervent Years. Or later, Robert Gard’s Grassroots Theater and Alfred Arvold’s Little County Theater. Do we have anything comparable today? Books that set one’s imagination alight?

Unlike theater artists in the past, artists today have the opportunity to freely distribute their ideas throughout the world with the click of a button. Shouldn’t we be living in a golden age of theater inspiration? Perhaps London’s book will remind us why such writing is valuable and necessary.

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Big Questions

Federal Theatre Project - Power poster
Poster from the production notebook for the Federal Theatre Project’s 1937 Seattle production of
Arthur Arent’s Power.
Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division, Federal Theatre Project Collection

Chapter 1 of An Ideal Theater is entitled “What Is America? / What Is American Theater?” This subtitle alone opens up the audacity of these visions. Jane Addams and Hull-House Dramatic Association in Chicago, Frederick H. Koch and the Carolina Playmakers in North Carolina, Robert Porterfield and the Berter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia, Hallie Flanagan of the Federal Theatre Project which spanned the nation, Robert E. Gard and the Wisconsin Idea Theater, Dudley Cocke and Roadside Theater in Kentucky, Bill Rauch and Alison Carey and Cornerstone Theater (here reflecting that theater’s early commitment to residencies) – all artists with a broad vision of America, one that encompassed all parts of the country. They spoke of theater as an art form that has the ability and responsibility to define who we are as a nation, while simultaneously reflecting the unique stories of a region.

This, after all, was the original vision of a decentralized regional theatre movement that would, as Gard writes, “create a favorable climate in which a worthwhile regional expression may grow,” one that would also break down “the traditional barriers between the rural and urban people” and result, in the words of Flanagan, in the development of “playwrights who would build up a body of dramatic literature, each for his own region.” Indeed, she goes on, the Federal Theatre Project “laid a great deal of stress upon the development of local and regional theater expression, rather than on the New York conception of theater…” The aim was:

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to set up theaters which have possibilities of growing into social institutions in the communities in which they are located and…to lay the foundation for the development of a truly creative theater in the United States with outstanding producing centers in each of those regions which have common interests as a result of geography, language origins, history, tradition, custom, occupations of the people.

Surely we haven’t forgotten this, have we? These “voices from the past that call us to our future,” as London puts it, that remind us of the power and sheer energy of idealism, and of a greater artistic purpose that has scope and power. These visionaries, even in their most reflective moments, convey a faith in the power of theater to make a difference. They are the antidote to the deadening books and newspapers that speak of theater as a “business,” one that can only be done the way it is being done today.

Not so.

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New Approaches

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Robert Porterfield’s essay about the founding of the Barter Theater was probably the most inspiring part of Chapter 1. In it, he describes in charming detail the birth of a brilliant idea that became the Barter Theater. It was the depths of the Depression, a time not only of rampant unemployment, but also a disastrous drop in farm prices. Porterfield, riding a train back to New York after touring in a play starring actor-manager Walter Hampden, looked out the window and saw “crops piled outside of farm doors” rotting away “because nobody had any money to buy it with.” Then a “wild idea” hit Porterfield: “To anyone who ever grew up on a farm…the idea comes naturally to swap what you can’t buy. It occurred to me that we had something to swap, too – culture, entertainment, spiritual nourishment for body nourishment.” The next morning, he went to Hampden and said, “people aren’t buying tickets because they haven’t got the money. Why don’t we let them pay for their tickets in farm produce, things we could eat – vegetables, eggs, corn, turkey, ham…” Predictably, Hampden told him that his idea, “though novel, was completely impractical.” He wold be told this many times over. But to Porterfield, it seemed “that my idea was the most positive, the most concrete solution anybody had to suggest for meeting the crisis of the theater.” He kept trying to get people interested in his idea, telling them:

There are two kinds of hungering…hungering in the body and hungering in the soul. I wanted to bring together the actor who was hungry in the stomach and the people I knew best, the people of the Virginia highlands, because I had a hunch that they were hungry for spiritual nourishment the theater could bring them. I thought they were hungry enough for it to pay in the vegetables and chickens and jam they couldn’t sell.

His hunch was right. Even in a town as small as Abington, which at the time had a population of around 3,000, he was able to bring in enough bartered produce to feed a company of twenty-two “mature men and women of the theater.” Twenty-two! In a town of three thousand! Porterfield was violating all the conventional wisdom of the time, which like today was focused on New York. Many people told him he was insane, that it would never work. But it did, and the Barter Theatre continues to produce to this day.

Federal Theatre Project - Macbeth
Poster from the Federal Theatre Project’s Indianapolis production of Macbeth
Credit: Library of Congress, Music Division, Federal Theatre Project Collection

I wrote in my first article here at the Clyde Fitch Report that we need a new business model for a new theater. Well, maybe it doesn’t have to be new – maybe we can steal from Porterfield, or at least steal the kind of creative thinking that leads to such an idea, and the courage to see it through. We are in the midst of our own Great Depression, one that sees the creativity of our artists stacked up and rotting outside the doors of our theaters like the crops of the 1930s outside of barns. We must reinvent our approach, and reignite our sense of purpose. We light our candles on the candles of our predecessors.

We see an example of this in Dudley Cocke’s essay, which quotes Robert Gard’s thrilling vision:

I felt the conviction then that I have maintained since: that the knowledge and love of place is a large part of the joy of people’s lives. There must be plays that grow from all the countrysides of America, fabricated by the people themselves, born of toiling hands and free minds, born of music and love and reason. There must be many great voices singing out the lore and legend of America from a thousand hilltops, and there must be students to listen and to learn, and writers encouraged to use the materials.

In the next paragraph, Cocke quotes Hallie Flanagan’s simple yet powerful statement that the Federal Theatre Project sought to create a theater “National in scope, regional in emphasis and democratic in attitude.” You could do a lot worse than to use these words from the 1930s and the 1950s to describe Dudley Cocke’s and Roadside Theater’s mission of forty years.

It isn’t necessary to reinvent the theater from the ground up. There are the spirits of our ancestors and our elders that can inspire us to reclaim the energy and courage to take our rightful place in American society, to fight against the corrosive cynicism that typifies so much of our conversation about the arts, to speak with the confidence necessary to be heard in the cacophony of our culture. And so I will conclude this first essay with these words: if you are, for whatever reason, in need of inspiration, of a vision of what theater could be; if you are in need of the courage to follow your dreams beyond the beaten path; if you have forgotten why you got into the theater, or need a light to illuminate the path to the future – I urge you to buy Todd London’s An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art.

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I am hoping to set up an online “hangout” to discuss this book. I have to work out the details. In the meantime, if you are interested in participating in such a discussion, please email me at walt828 [at] gmail [dot] com. I will get back to you.

Two weeks from now: Chapter 2: About Us. By Us. For Us. Near Us.