The Paradox of Plenty: Can There Be Too Many Theatre Festivals Blooming?

By Gener, Randy | American Theatre, October 2008 | Go to article overview

The Paradox of Plenty: Can There Be Too Many Theatre Festivals Blooming?


Gener, Randy, American Theatre


In the theatre nothing is certain, except for death and festivals. Wherever theatre people with brains, talent, resources and chutzpah feel the driving need to be seen and heard, the spur to "festing" cannot be held back or denied. This impulse--as bone-deep a habit as the drama festivals that evolved out of the ancient rituals at City Dionysia in honor of the Greek god of fertility and wine--moves us to action as primally as the search for identity and the need for assembly.

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Festivals are so ubiquitous a phenomenon that invoking their importance invites skepticism. It doesn't help that our critics and news junkies have degraded the conversations around the relevance of theatre festivals, reducing them to the bottom-line language of "commercial hit" or "Broadway standards"--loaded measures of success. Trend-spotting is another favorite sport that disguises laziness and ennui: Writing about the venerable Humana Festival of New American Plays has become a parlor game among reviewers and reporters to propose theories and designate themes running through all the plays. In recent years what has elicited notice is the establishment of fringe festivals in the U.S.--those frequently uncurated smorgasbords, usually modeled after the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and created in anarchic opposition to the hegemony of well-established festivals. Of course, the spirit of democracy or egalitarianism that provides the philosophical or journalistic basis for supporting fringe festivals would be a good thing in the best of all actual cultural worlds--if those other alternative festivals, based, say, on ethnic identity or peripheral cultures or sexual affiliations, weren't frequently ignored or overlooked in the mainstream media.

Let's not come down too hard on hard-line aficionados who partake of festivals, however. Certainly many new-play festivals are too imitative of past models; many play selections are either too traditional or too eclectic; others refuse to take real risks (why not produce new plays instead of just reading them?). There is the question of financial security: For instance, without the Humana Foundation's acknowledged support of the festival Jon Jory founded, and without the national awards and international tours that validated ATL's reputation as one of the leading progenitors of new plays, the future of its festival would have remained uncertain, and its ability to later expand its repertoire, incorporate new genres and make bolder choices would have been encumbered.

The proliferation of festivals, each one seeking to enliven the imagination and enrich our sense of human possibility, could be a sign that too many flowers are blooming. Rather than denoting the health and vibrancy of culture, this profusion might actually mean less cultural diversity than meets the eye. In "Curating New Work Festivals: Diverse Disciplines, Common Questions," a panel discussion I moderated and co-organized with Actors Theatre of Louisville, it became clear that commissioning and developing new works is a complex mechanism that calls for a particular creative energy and is deeply misunderstood by hit-seekers and drum-beaters. It also turns out to be a very American tendency, an institutionalized quirk not fully shared by our European brethren.

The panel revealed that a fissure or wedge exists between presenters and producers, even though both presenting organizations and resident theatres profess their belief in originality and innovation. Jargon confusion reigns: The ethos of new-play development differs from that of new-works development--the latter focuses on individual artists and ensemble theatres that develop and support their work by touring, usually to alternative spaces, contemporary art museums and presenting institutions. …

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