Courage & Conviction: Not-for-Profit Theatre and the NEA

By Samuels, Steven | American Theatre, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Courage & Conviction: Not-for-Profit Theatre and the NEA


Samuels, Steven, American Theatre


Memory is short; history fades. At the end of the American century, oversaturated as we are with sounds, words and images we mistake for "information," we have a hard time distinguishing the contemporary from the permanent. Not-for-profit theatre, for instance, now covers the continent, making it difficult to imagine any other way. But this nationwide dissemination of the arts was hard-won over decades, and its continuance depends on a confluence of factors the citizenry and its representatives would do well to appreciate as Congress contemplates the millennial disposition of arts policy in these United States.

No there there

The first 150 or so years of American theatre were a hodgepodge of erratic efforts - everything from contemporaneous English imports to Shakespeare for cowboys and miners - the most stirring intimation of a distinct sensibility made manifest primarily in innumerable presentations of Uncle Tom's Cabin. By the end of the 19th century, a potentially intriguing diversity had been reduced to the dominance of melodrama, light comedy and burlesque on stages across the U.S., enforced in large measure by the Syndicate, a monopolistic acquirer of theatres which drove even the traveling troupes which had once brought versions of the classics to remote outposts out-of-business.

In essence, Broadway entertainment was all, but if it seemed sufficient to our needs when this century was young, its sufficiency didn't last long. After World War I, a Little Theatre movement was born of amateur enthusiasm for a truer reflection of what America had become and hoped to be - the notion that theatre could broaden understanding and help shape public debate. Professional manifestations of this impulse (the Theatre Guild, Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Rep, the Group Theatre) were organized traditionally but embodied the tenets we now identify with not-for-profit companies: resident troupes, repertory staging, a mix of classics and new plays, the primacy of art over commerce.

These theatres brought us the greatest actors, directors and designers of the age. They alone could foster and sustain an O'Neill, and with him the dream of an American drama worthy of world attention. Yet even before the days of competing media, such theatres could not support themselves economically. If the hope of these inadvertent altruists was to establish a theatrical culture which would at last bring forth an American Shakespeare or Moliere, the fact had to be faced: Historically, great theatre art required subsidy. Theatre was too much a handicraft to support its artists consistently with box office alone.

When subsidy arrived in the U.S., it recognized not this need but the need for jobs in the midst of a Great Depression. Whatever the intention, for a very brief moment the Works Progress Administration helped art and artists be perceived as central to the American experience; and the decentralized productions of its Federal Theatre Project not only entertained but engaged the populace with new voices, new techniques, and previously unknown admixtures of politics and race. Controversy was inevitable; support was withdrawn. The grand experiment ended, but not before employing or inspiring the likes of Arthur Miller, Orson Welles and Tennessee Williams, whose subsequent successes owed much to the vision and artistry of the forerunners of not-for-profit culture.

Clawing theatres out of the ground

A mere handful of regional outfits (such as the Cleveland Play House, Chicago's Goodman Theatre, the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and the Oregon Shakespearean Festival) preceded and survived World War II, but even they would be reconceived in light of a new generation determined to establish meaningful theatres beyond the Great White Way. The pioneering Margo Jones (at Theatre 47 in Dallas), Nina Vance (at Houston's Alley Theatre), Zelda Fichandler (at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.), Jules Irving and Herbert Blau (of San Francisco's Actor's Workshop), and Joseph Papp (of the New York Shakespeare Festival) founded and propelled their companies with obsessional courage and conviction. …

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