“Regional theater” has always been an uncomfortable term for the network of professional nonprofit theaters that are found throughout the United States. One of the movement’s pioneers, Nina Vance, said the term made them sound second-class, and although many agree with her, no one has coined a better term. Some theaters tried the term “resident theater,” but that implied a resident company that they did not have. “Repertory theater” was tried as well, but performing plays in repertory means alternating the same shows throughout the season, and most of the theaters were not doing that. As uneasily as the title fits, “regional theater” has become the catch-all term for most theaters outside New York City that use professional personnel but operate as not-for-profit businesses. Other theaters outside New York City include community, college/university, or professional commercial theaters such as dinner, touring, and outdoor theaters.
Hundreds of fine regional theaters exist across the United States, producing interesting revivals of the classics as well as provocative new plays and experimental works. Most regional theaters owe much to the communities that support them, and in return they offer an array of services such as school performances and tours, training for young people, and other educational programs. Like the city ballet and orchestra, the regional theater now enjoys a foothold in the cultural landscape of most American cities and of many smaller towns and rural areas. Unfortunately, however, this was not always the case. It has taken nearly one hundred years and the efforts of some very determined artists for professional theater to spread its wings and escape the confines of the commercial theater district of Broadway to earn the reputation it enjoys today.
Early Twentieth Century Roots
At the turn of the twentieth century, American theater was very much a commercial venture. It had evolved from the colonial days of British touring companies into a network of theater “circuits” that were controlled and operated, at first, by prominent family companies. Early pioneers of American theater brought the English tradition of a resident company to the shores of the United States in the early 1800’s. Throughout the nineteenth century those companies concentrated their performances in certain areas of the eastern United States. These circuits relied on a series of theaters in towns of close proximity, and the companies would perform on a regular basis in the theaters, moving from town to town. By the mid- to late nineteenth century, the theater had become a prominent social gathering place. Theatergoers often cared less about the play and more about seeing certain actors, thus giving rise to the American “star system.” By the end of the century, resident companies were a thing of the past and managers were casting star players to tour the circuits for a purely commercial audience. These circuits were eventually taken over by an unofficial “family” of powerful theatrical producers who came to be known as New York’s theatrical “Syndicate,” a cartel of sorts that controlled first-class theatrical production in the United States for a period of time.
Meanwhile, European theater experienced an artistic revolution during this period. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen introduced a new kind of play genre known as “realism ,” in which actors had to behave more naturalistically onstage. Punctuated by themes of social significance and psychological depth, this new approach inspired directors like Konstantin Stanislavsky , who formed the Moscow Art Theatre with writer Anton Chekhov in the late 1890’s. Stanislavsky realized that realist plays required a new kind of actor, and over a period of several decades, he developed his “method” of teaching actors, which evolved into standard practice in Europe and in the United States. It was the touring of Stanislavsky’s “independent” art theater company (and others like his)...
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