Saturday, March 10, 2012

A New National Theatre

A few months ago I was having a conversation with my friend Nolan about the state of theatre in this country. We got on the subject of the Federal Theatre Project (a program that was part of the New Deal, the initiative funded theatrical performances and arts development all over the country). What, we asked, would such a program look like today, and how could it work? As fair warning, when this conversation was fresh in our minds, I suggested Nolan help me write a blog post on the subject, and then we both got busy and then we forgot. So my apologies if things are a little disjointed now or if references are a little vague.

Theatre is an art that I have always believed needs to focus on the local. When you try to say something universal, you often fall into the trap of being so generic you don't say anything at all. On the flip side of that, being so local is leaving theatre out of the national conversation. We live in a world where distance is often becoming less and less of a challenge. I can go on twitter or facebook, countless blogs, email, skype or (if I'm old fashioned) my cell phone, and discuss ideas, music, movies, television, books and countless other topics, with people around the country and around the world. We can't however, talk about theatre, at least about a specific production.

At the Time of Nolan's and my conversation there was an article in Newsweek that included a list of challenging intellectual things happening "right now." One of those things was a production of Arcadia. I remember reading the article and thinking, "That's nice, but how many people who are reading this magazine will actually have access to that production."

Wouldn't it be great, Nolan and I discussed, if there were a national theatre? It wouldn't achieve the goals we have in mind if we used the model of the National Theatre in London; no matter where we placed the venue, it would be out of reach for the majority of the country. The model of the old Federal Theatre Project wouldn't work either. Funding random programs around the country is nice, but doesn't do much that the regional theatres don't already do, and sending around touring productions is nice, but doesn't facillitate a national conversation when it may be months and months between different regions seeing the show.

Our idea for a new national theatre would involve an initiative where the NEA (or another national organization) would choose a show and then offer it, royalty free, to theatres around the country, with the catch that the production must open around a uniform date. Ideally theatres all over the country would pick up the show, and allow audiences from hundreds of cities to join a conversation together about themes, ideas and different artistic takes on the same script. Each theatre company would naturally bring their own aesthetic and local spirit to their production but the single script would allow them to express local perspective as part of a larger national conversation.

Logistically, I believe this could be done incredibly cheaply, or even at no cost at all. Playwrights and publishers, I imagine, would be happy to participate with very little upfront compensation. The sale of scripts, and the national promotion of both the writer and the play, and likely appearance fees would provide enough compensation to make up for a small royalty.

As a side benefit, I imagine a project like this could also facilitate the communication, and collaboration of  formerly separated theatres and arts organizations. Giving a theatre in DC a reason to start a discussion with a theatre in Seattle might foster further communication, collaboration and artistic innovation.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great idea! I found your blog through pinterest and its really cool hearing about the projects.