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Southern Theatre and the Paradox of Progress James Flannery The weight of history lies heavy in the South. No one understood that better than William Faulkner with his great saga of a doomed land suffering a burden of guilt for a history of wrongs and injustices. As a newcomer to the South I was, of course, aware of the startling transformations that had taken place over the past twenty years in the realm of social, economic and political progress. But as I drove towards Atlanta, my new home, three years ago, I found it difficult to reconcile the familiar images of oppression, retribution and redemption with the futuristic vista that lay before me, rising like a mirage out of mile upon mile of plangent rural landscape. Even now the contrasts between past and present faced on an almost daily basis in the South are a source of amazement and tension. What I was to discover is that the contrasts that so startled me as a transplanted northerner are equally perplexing to southerners. This was nowhere more evident than at a May 1985 conference on the future of professional theatre in the South sponsored by the Arts Management Institute of Virginia Polytechnic Institute under the co-direction of George Thorn and Paul Distler. In attendance were a group of leading artists and administrators representing a wide range of interests. Most of the conferees were in agreement that the problems of theatre in the South are unique for a variety of historical reasons. But there was sharp disagreement on how to overcome these problems. What is most interesting is that the disagreements focusec' on deeply felt philosophical differences concerning the role of culture in American, and particularly southern, society. 106 Perhaps the most radical viewpoint of any of the participants was that of Ruby Lerner, the Executive Director of Alternate ROOTS, who described herself as utterly pessimistic over the increasing gap between the haves and have-nots in southern theatre. Backing her case with an impressive range of statistics on the disparity of support available for a few large organizations as opposed to a multitude of small grassroots and experimental companies, Lerner argued that this policy was both socially and artistically indefensible. According to Lerner, the South is "caught in a hideous moment in time in which we seem to be trying to catch up with economic structures supportive of huge monolithic institutions that elsewhere are recognized as obsolete. What is needed is not imported cultural systems but a recognition of the value of our own indigenous institutions and their particular ways of functioning. In turn, this will require a drastic change in our understanding of culture as it relates to every aspect of life. That understanding is not likely to come from the so-called major institutions which bear a striking resemblance to dinosaurs in their inability to adapt to change." For Lerner and others, like Robert Hull, Executive Director of the Southern Council of Foundations, who share her views, the possibility of new funds for southern alternative theatre companies is extremely unlikely. Not only are there proportionately fewer foundations or wealthy individuals than elsewhere in the country but, according to Hull, their predilections are conservative . This is reinforced by a tendency to view the arts as merely a showcase to attract business. This "Chamber of Commerce approach to funding" results in the idea that "a city such as Atlanta needs only one major gallery, one major theatre and one major orchestra in order to achieve cultural maturity and recognition." Vince Anthony, the Executive Director of Atlanta's nationally recognized Center for Puppetry Arts, explains that a major reason for the success of his organization is precisely that it is seen as unique. "Given the fact that most corporations are attuned to business values, what they seem to think is that there can only be one best chicken packager, one best baseball team and one best theatre in a city. If the idea of a pluralistic culture means anything, we must teach them that so far as the arts are concerned there ought to be many versions of the best." II Alternative ROOTS (Regional Organization of Theatres South) closely reflects this...


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pp. 106-116
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