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When the Center Does Not Hold Regional Theatre, Decentralization, and Community Robert Marx At this point it comes as no news that America's regional theatres are a permanent fixture of our theatre scene. After twenty years of intense growth as an arts movement, the idea of a decentralized national theatre network is fixed as a genuine presence for audiences, funding sources, the press, and-most importantly-artists. To crib a line from critic Julius Novick, we still do not have classic theatres that can do Shakespeare as well as Broadway does Neil Simon and Abe Burrows, but even so, the life that radiates from these young stages remains genuine. In almost all ways, this non-profit theatrical landscape has been annointed A Good Thing, and few people would argue against it at any fundamental level. Certainly, the legitimate list of regional theatre/New York non-profit accomplishments is impressive: large-scale employment in all theatrical crafts across the continent; the construction of scores of new theatre buildings and perhaps hundreds of renovated performance spaces; the sustained development of indigenous producing organizations ranging from children's theatres to classic repertory; a huge growth in the new play industry ; a radical reconception of the nation's image of theatre-pulling it away from Broadway and the commercial "Road," while becoming something more local in its production mechanisms, if not in its play choices and casting policies. That's not bad for twenty years, even though the negative aspects of the movement are also pronounced: heavy institutionalization, with all the trappings of volatile boards and lethargic subscription audiences; a compromised wage-base for working artists in relation to management salaries; the national absence (outside of the experimental arena) of world-class ac99 ting companies or true classic repertory theatres; the failure (so far) to nurture stage directors of international stature. Of course, such positive and negative laundry lists can be far less generalized , and many essays have already covered that territory. (In this journal alone, see Novick's "Regional Theatre in America-A Generation Comes of Age in PAJ 10/11, and Richard Nelson's "Non-Profit Theatre in America: Where We Are" in PAJ 19.) But among many central aspects of the regional theatre field, certain questions still loom large-particularly matters of artistic isolation and community. If it istrue that theAmerican theatre is spread out three thousand mileswide and eight inches deep, what constitutes that shallowness? At its most fundamental level, the difficulty is not just with the production of so many mediocre shows or the high visibility of corrosive administrative issues. Those problems are all real enough, but much of that will get solved over time through the potential growth of talent and skill. While it is true that the regional theatres have not created companies to equal France's Th6btre du Soleil or Italy's Piccolo Teatro di Milano, the basic level of mediocre work is probably no better or worse than what is seen regularly in most other countries . And in any artistic field, ongoing mediocrity is often necessary to create the soil from which opportunities can arise for real creativity. Far more central to the American situation is whether a real artistic community exists within those three thousand miles. Can decentralization across a continent allow for it? We now have a situation in which our theatre has a vital periphery, but no core. Although New York remains the center of what is left of the commercial theatre, the fundamental marketplace has collapsed. Apart from musical spectacles and regular transfers from off-Broadway, regional theatres, and London, only a handful of new productions originate on Broadway each season. The great commercial environment that made both The Solid Gold Cadillac and Long Day's Journey Into Night simultaneous and profitable successes is long gone. With the collapse of that arena as both professional altar and artistic marketplace, the community of artists that fed it also disappeared. The unity of place that allowed for artistic competition, steady employment, substantial wages, and an informal theatrical apprenticeship system (George Abbott, for example, serving as mentor to both Jerome Robbins and Harold Prince) disintegrated without a true counterpart emerging in the non...


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pp. 99-105
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