Heart of an Amateur (Part 3)

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This is the third 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 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.
Read: Part 1
| Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7


There are three chapters in An Ideal Theater that have a question mark in their titles:

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  • Chapter 1: What Is America? / What Is an American Theater?
  • Chapter 3 (and the focus of this post): Amateurs or Professionals?
  • Chapter 5: Theaters or Institutions?

In many ways, each of these chapters focuses on a crossroads moment for the regional theater movement, when leaders made decisions that had an important ramifications for the future of the art form.

Neighborhood Playhouse
Neighborhood Playhouse

Most of the theaters examined in the “Amateurs or Professionals?” chapter represent the important but all-too-often ignored Little Theater Movement of pre-World War I America. These include the Chicago Little Theater (founded 1912), the Neighborhood Playhouse (founded 1914), the Washington Square Players (founded 1914), the Provincetown Players (founded 1915), the Theatre Guild (founded 1918), and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (founded 1935). All of these except the Theatre Guild (which could be said to be an outgrowth of the amateur Washington Square Players) began as amateur theaters, and most became professional theaters later in their histories.

As I read the reminiscences of Maurice Browne, Alice Lewsohn Crowley, Lawrence Langer, Susan Glaspell and Angus Bowmer, I found myself thinking of two things. The first was a statistic that I often (perhaps too often) repeat to whoever will listen: that 56% of Actors Equity Members didn’t make a dime in theater last year — a figure that leads me to question whether a “professional” theater actually exists in America. When I look at my Facebook friends and Twitter followers, I see that most of them are, in fact, passionate amateurs in the sense that most of them do not make their primary income from working in theater. Nevertheless, like those from a hundred years ago mentioned above, one might argue that they, working against all odds, are in fact making the most important contributions to the development of the art form. The nod that Tracy Letts gave to the Chicago storefront theater artists when he accepted his most recent Tony Award was an acknowledgement of their importance today. The list of actors, directors, playwrights and designers that worked for these Little Theaters of the past changed the face of American theater forever: Eugene O’Neill, Robert Edmond Jones, Katharine Cornell, Lee Simonson, Philip Moeller, Lawrence Langner, Susan Glaspell, Maxwell Anderson to name just a few.

Richard Schechner
Richard Schechner

The second thing I found myself thinking about was an article that Richard Schechner wrote in TDR (behind paywall) in the summer of 1995 entitled, “Transforming Theatre Departments.” Speaking to a group of students at the Claremont Colleges, Schechner began by outlining the same dismal statistics that I constantly remind my own students of, that “for those who think they are being trained for a lifetime career, their education is a cheat, a fraud. That 10 or 20 years after graduation, 80 to 90 percent of the people in the room would not be earning their living in theatre, television, or movies as actors or directors.” He then goes on to propose “a new mission for theatre departments, a new structure and stance, something suitable to current and future circumstances, more honest in relation to their students, and surely better for theatre.” He proposes three “tracks,” which could as easily be mapped onto the art form as onto the educational scene: performance studies, amateur and professional. Of the latter, he suggests we ask “in a most serious way”:

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What constitutes the professional theatre world? Isn’t that world mostly the production of popular entertainment such as TV soaps, commercials, talk shows, etc.; dinner theatre and light theatrical entertainments; movies ranging in quality from pot-boilers to high art? Isn’t only a small proportion of the performance world concerned with “serious drama”? If so, the curriculum of those theatre departments preparing students to enter the professional theatre should face facts and train their students for the world they are soon to inhabit. What’s needed are more courses in emotive acting for soap operas, mugging and “sincerity training” for commercials, training in two-minute auditions and quick character studies suitable to the four-week rehearsal periods common in the regional theatre. As with any profession, students must be prepared for the market. Those departments wishing to emphasize the “art theatre” should concentrate on the performance studies or “amateur art theatre” tracks. This will be the majority of departments within a short time.

This would mean cultivating “an appreciation for and the practice of “theatre art” as a lifelong amateur activity — amateur but highly skilled, able to contribute to the “history of theatre.”

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Recall that Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre and Antoine’s Theatre Libre were “amateur” theatres at their inception; and that many people around the world do theatre of excellence and yet do not depend on their theatre work to put bread on the table. Remember that amateur, by origin, meant “lover of.” An amateur theatre practitioner is a lover of theatre, one willing to devote her life to the art regardless of monetary payoff.

When one reads the words of the Little Theater pioneers, one becomes quite aware that the ground-breaking nature of their work was built on the artistic freedom that came from paying their rent from some other job. As a result, they were able to maintain a high level of idealism that resulted in a revolution in the American theater. The Provincetown Players, devoted to the “Will to Form the Beloved Community of Life-Givers,” focused on giving “American playwrights of sincere purpose a chance to work out their ideas in freedom.” The Washington Square Players, as one critic wrote, was built on virtually no capital.

Their stock in trade [was] boundless enthusiasm, indefatigable energy and a wide variety of talents…They are all young and they are all idealists. They have convictions and they have the courage to carry them out. Their convention is unconventional and their motto is DARE!

Do those of us who teach young people instill them with this attitude? Or are we focused on preparing young people to “sell themselves” in the “industry?”

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“What a sense of freedom there was,” wrote Neighborhood Playhouse founder Alice Lewisohn Crowley, “unshackled by ‘what ought to be,’ unconscious of anything but the image that moved us.” It grew “out of an intensive urge of the amateur to realize an image of theater which could not be found along the highways and byways of the professional stage.” Sheldon Cheney wrote of Maurice Browne, “No one has more consistently refused to compromise over what he believed to be the foundation principles of the art of the theater, and no one has been the center of more spirited controversies.” Sure, a lot of the emotional heat of this movement produced a great deal of hot air, but I would rather that than the cold gruel of the “business.”

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Angus Bowmer
Angus Bowmer

Compare the words quoted above to “firm convictions” of Oregon Shakespeare Festival founder Angus Bowmer about what his new, professional theater should be like:

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  1. It should be a people’s theater — that is, it should belong to its audience.
  2. It should be a theater operated by professional theater experts.
  3. It should have a clear, thoroughly efficient internal organizational structure.
  4. It should be a theater which presents its audience with a wide variety of theatrical experiences, including those provided by the world’s great playwrights of all ages.
  5. It should be exciting.
  6. It should be unique without being quixotic.
  7. It should be solvent.
  8. Above all, it should be an instrument of communication, utilizing trained artists in a theatrical environment to entertain, and at the same time to make clear to its audience, by means of visual and auditory data, ideas and emotions concerning the interrelationship of Man and Man, Man and his Environment, and Man and his Gods.

Admittedly, not everybody is a visionary, but somehow I find it hard to throw my hat in the air and shout “huzzah” over a vision of solvency. Bowmer’s is a vision that is dryly “professional,” “thoroughly efficient” and based on a careful, non-“quixotic” aesthetic sense that is responsible and “expert.” What it isn’t is inspiring. Nevertheless, I would submit that it is Bowmer’s rather technocratic list, more than Browne’s or Crowley’s or Jig Cooke’s heartfelt idealism, that has become the norm for our regional theater movement. And my question — to alter somewhat the question asked by London with his chapter heading — is whether what we need right now in the American theater is more of the passionate idealism of the amateur as exemplified by these leaders of the Little Theater Movement, or more of the pragmatism exemplified by Bowmer? If London’s question mark does, in fact, represent a crossroads moment, I would submit that it is we ourselves who are being asked to chose a direction. Which ideas will make theater vibrant, relevant, exciting and alive? Amateur idealism or professional pragmatism?

Of course, it isn’t an either/or proposition — the goal should probably be some sort of mix of the two, which should not be confused with an equal balance. Rather, I think we ought to seek — and we ought to teach, and we ought to reward — a vision that will restore what Patrick Overton called the “deep voice” of the theater to its primacy within our art. That vision seems to be more frequently found in the free heart of an amateur.