American Regional Theater Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

“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

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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) in the United States that inspired the movement toward artistic theater in America.

The Rise of the “Little Theater”

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Around the time of World War I, the United States’ commercial theater experienced a decline. The advent of film excited mainstream audiences, and many flocked to each new release, leaving conventional theater behind. The Syndicate dissolved, and instead of theater circuits and live performances, “moving pictures” were appearing in most of the old theaters. Theater artists who witnessed the touring performances of the European companies became enthusiastic about this new kind of theater, and the Little Theater movement was born. In emulation of the European independent art theaters, more than fifty groups formed their own “little theaters” across the country—notably in Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Provincetown, Massachusetts. From 1912 until 1920, members of the Little Theater movement studied and reproduced new drama and production methods and contributed greatly to the artistic life of American theater.

A need for funding eventually dampened the artistic goals of most of these theaters until they came to be known as “community theaters,” relying on recent Broadway hits and pageantry to survive. On the positive side, however, the Little Theater movement introduced the idea of producing professional theater outside of Broadway’s commercial companies, and by 1925, there were almost two thousand community theaters registered with the Drama League of America, a group started in 1910 that supported and encouraged local development of theater.

Former members of the Little Theater groups, especially the Washington Square Players and the Provincetown Players, went on to lend their extraordinary talents to developing several resident or repertory theaters. After the Washington Square Players split up, some members formed the Theatre Guild , a highly respected group dedicated to producing professional theater without regard to commercial value. The Provincetown Players began in 1916 in Massachusetts and soon moved to New York City, becoming a highly prolific company in the following decade. Although the Provincetown Players, the Theatre Guild, and groups like them finally succumbed to financial pressures and either turned to commercial ventures or completely disbanded by the late 1920’s, they made valuable contributions to the revolution toward artistic theater in the United States.

The Federal Theatre Project

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Another important contribution to the American theater revolution came from an unlikely source—the government. With the United States suffering through a long economic depression in the 1930’s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a national program to revitalize the country’s economy by putting Americans to work on federal projects. One of the most remarkable sections of the WPA was the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). Centered in New York and headed by a college drama professor named Hallie Flanagan, the FTP initiated a tremendous number of programs throughout the country. It ran training programs for directors, playwrights, and actors; created new theaters dedicated to ethnic groups and minorities; and encouraged theaters to be established in odd places such as warehouses, high school auditoriums, and outdoor parks. Although it lasted only four years, the impact of the FTP on American theater, especially the regional theater movement, is undeniable. Without these new theaters and theater artists who gained their training and experience in an FTP theater, the future of the noncommercial theater would have been an uncertain one. Many of those inspired by Flanagan and the FTP soon became directly responsible for making regional theater a reality.

Regional Theater Pioneers

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

By the end of the 1930’s, drama curriculum was being offered in colleges and universities, nearly every large township had a community theater, and the American public had been introduced to many new forms of drama and production techniques. However, the best theater, the professional venue, remained in New York City on Broadway or in professional touring companies that emanated from it. It would take the efforts of three adventurous women to begin a serious movement toward decentralizing American professional theater.

Although an organization known as the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) was chartered by Congress in 1935 to help establish theaters outside New York City and an academy to train theatrical personnel, it received very little funding and became, instead, a center for networking news and information about the American theater. Yet ANTA stalled after the FTP took the lead in theater matters and, later, as World War II occurred. A woman named Margo Jones, however, picked up the torch in 1947 and opened the country’s first professional arena theater (theater-in-the-round) in her native Dallas, Texas. She had served as assistant director for the Houston Federal Theatre, which failed to succeed but initiated an adult performing group started in 1936 called the Houston Community Players. Jones eventually made the theater her full-time job. It was with this group that she introduced the arena staging method, which, along with being recognized as the mother of regional theater, would become her “claim to fame.” In 1944, she received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop her plan for a professional nonprofit theater in her hometown of Dallas.

In June, 1947, she opened Theatre ’47 , a name that changed each year (Theatre ’48, Theatre ’49). The theater closed four years after her untimely death in 1955. Her book, Theatre-in-the-Round (1951), outlined her ideas about arena staging as well as her strategies for creating and maintaining a professional...

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The Actors’ Workshop

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

A theatrical revolution had clearly begun, and other groups sprang up across the country, emulating the style, format, and function of the Alley Theatre and the Arena Stage, but each with its own distinct leader and vision. Some of the most notable include the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, The Charles Playhouse in New England, and the Actors’ Workshop of San Francisco. The latter deserves special mention in any overview of the early days of regional theater. Founded by two college professors, Herbert Blau and Jules Irving, in 1952, the Actors’ Workshop held the dream of many for becoming a “national theater,” something that still eludes American society. Notably, it was the first company outside New York to sign an Off-Broadway contract with Actors’ Equity, and although important historically, this was not a force of stability for the actors, whose salaries were extremely low. With their first grant from the Ford Foundation, however, the Actors’ Workshop became financially viable and in 1960 started rotating its repertory. This was a risky move for that era, but the Actors’ Workshop was making history with its approach.

Although the Actors’ Workshop did interesting experimental work and maintained its professional status, it never formed a true bond with its community. While other regional theaters were finding ways to give back to their cities through educational programs aimed toward cultural enrichment, the Actors’ Workshop made no effort to compromise, serve, or break down the wall of apathy apparent in its audience. In 1965, Blau and Irving were invited to head the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in New York City. Perhaps they saw this as a chance to finally establish a national theater, but Blau soon discovered he was unsuited to management and left Irving to carry on. Irving left the Repertory Theater in 1972, abandoning the dream that he and Blau had pinned their hopes on years earlier.

The Guthrie Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The 1963 opening of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, signaled the significant evolution of regional theater. The Guthrie was founded by Sir Tyrone Guthrie, Oliver Rea, and Peter Zeisler, all of whom left behind prosperous theatrical careers because of a growing dissatisfaction with their work in London and New York. Instead of relying on their hometowns, the trio did an exhaustive search for the right locale in which to situate their theater. They decided Minneapolis had the right cultural climate to support a theater that focused on revivals of classic plays. The three men, however, demanded that most of the money needed would have to be committed up front before they would take residence in the city. The locals came through with more than $2 million plus a grant from the Walker Foundation for the land and money for construction. Unlike Vance, Fichandler, Blau, and Irving, who started theaters using unorthodox locales such as a beer factory or judo academy, the Guthrie founders created their own complex. A volunteer organization sold thousands of subscriptions and secured an audience of nearly 200,000 for the inaugural season. The Guthrie’s opening is thought by some to have been a defining moment in the history of regional theater. The idea of a classical repertory of plays done in a new facility with the brightest of professional theater’s talents had an undeniable impact on theater in the United States.

One of the Guthrie Theater’s major impacts came in the area of actor training. Before the Guthrie introduced performances of such demanding literature, there was little attempt to help actors understand the psychological nuances of contemporary plays such as those by Williams and Edward Albee. Very little, if any, training was offered in voice production or movement. Because of the physical demands of plays by William Shakespeare, Molière, Sophocles, and others, new actor training programs recognized the need for a more comprehensive curriculum in preparing the actors’ instruments of voice and body for the stage. Since its opening, the Guthrie has enjoyed a prestigious reputation, critical success, and audience support. It remains one of the foremost regional theaters in the United States.

Regional Theater Comes of Age

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although the regional theater movement has seemed at times like a disparate band of independent thinkers chasing their own visions of the perfect theater, several of the original objectives held by Jones, Vance, and Fichandler have remained the same. The first, and probably most important, vision was to create an atmosphere in which quality professional theater could flourish outside Broadway’s commercial enterprises. The idea that good theater is for everyone and should not be confined to one area of the country stayed central to the movement in all stages of its development. This philosophy helped give birth to a number of theaters that meet the needs of a diverse, multicultural American community. Independently, many regional...

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Support and Advocacy

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The League of Resident Theatres (LORT) was established in the mid-1960’s by Peter Zeisler of the Guthrie Theater, Thomas Fichandler from the Arena Stage, and a lawyer, Morris Kaplan, to serve as a trade organization for resident theaters. It negotiates contracts with the various theater unions and serves as the main regulating body for the country’s network of professional nonprofit theaters. LORT’s objectives are to promote the general welfare of resident theaters in the United States, to encourage community interest and effective communication between theaters and the public, to assist resident theaters in dealing with labor relations and legal activities, and to inform government agencies of theaters’ needs. The membership requirements are minimal but include provisions for the following: that all member theaters be incorporated as nonprofit Internal Revenue Service-approved organizations, that each self-produced production be rehearsed for a minimum of three weeks, that the theater have a playing season of twelve weeks or more, and that the theater operate under a LORT-Equity contract. As of 2001, LORT boasted a membership of seventy-five theaters spread across the United States, including the Arena Stage, the Alley Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, and the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, as well as other prominent theaters such as the Long Wharf Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum, and the Goodman Theatre.

Another organization that has given support, encouragement, and advocacy to the United States’ professional nonprofit theaters is the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), which began in the early 1970’s to serve the broader needs of the country’s professional nonprofit theaters. Its list of board members over the years has featured prominent personalities of the American theater scene. Past presidents include Nina Vance and Oliver Rea. At the turn of the twenty-first century, TCG had more than four hundred member theaters and seventeen thousand individual members. It offers an employment search network, legal advice, and lobbying power in Washington, D.C.; publishes American Theatre magazine; and supports workshops, new plays, conferences, and all other services pertaining to the support of regional theater.

University Programs

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

One final aspect of contemporary American regional theater is its support of university training programs for theater artists. The FTP of the 1930’s encouraged the development of university drama programs, but it was not until the emergence of prominent regional theaters that training took a more professional direction. The availability of professional theater jobs outside New York City created a new demand for more professional degrees to be offered in the university setting. The combination of university training programs with regional theaters was a natural marriage of convenience during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Degrees such as the bachelor of fine arts (B.F.A.) and master’s of fine arts (M.F.A.) are now...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Beeson, William, ed. Thresholds: The Story of Nina Vance’s Alley Theatre. Houston: Wall, 1968. An account of the founding and development of the Alley Theatre in Houston. A good reference for those wanting details of the earliest regional theater development.

Berkowitz, Gerald M. New Broadways: Theatre Across America, Approaching a New Millennium. Rev. ed. New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1996. Traces the development of American theater since 1950 with special attention to Off-Broadway and the rise and spread of regional theater.

Blau, Herbert. The Impossible Theatre: A Manifesto. New...

(The entire section is 389 words.)