The budding identity of American regional theater is fresh ensembles creating devised work. Restructuring the conventions of traditional venues or reimagining the presentation of performance, these companies, such as Progress Theatre (Houston, TX), New Paradise Laboratories (Philadelphia, PA), Nature Theater of Oklahoma (Long Island City, NY), or Teo Castellanos D-Projects (Miami, FL), are breaking the proscenium and thrusting their work out towards the audience. They’re creating new structures of collaboration, story, casting, touring, outreach, and inreach. Working collaboratively, they have returned to the initial regional theater acting company model, where, as Zelda Fichandler once noted, actors have a home of artists that are rooted in a community. And like Fichandler’s early Arena Stage or Nina Vance’s early Alley Theatre, these new companies—while still being rooted in their respective homes—exchange their work with other communities across the country, and even the world.
Younger ensembles are returning to the inceptive intention of regional theater, fixated on why work should be done with a community. Now, larger legacy organizations of the regional theater are fixated on how to get the funding, the attention, the audience, and the accolades. We can look towards the younger companies to reclaim the charge of making theater the art of experience, debate, and from Shakespeare, “holding a mirror up to nature.”
After receiving a degree in theater from a school that prides itself on innovation of the communicative arts, Emerson College, in a city known for its revolutionary push, Boston, Massachusetts, I wonder: how do I move forward in the field of American regional theater? It’s important to brainstorm two base components: place and people.
Place as in location. Where? What region and why? Place also as in venue. How will work be presented? What will the communal interactive space look like? How will audience interact with artist, and vice versa? Also, place as in nest. Where will the work be conceived, built, and developed?
People as in community. Which community do I want to serve and why? Where will my voice mean the most right now? Where will my listening ear be most intrigued? Also, people as in collaborators. Who do I want to work with? Do their intents align with mine? Do they offer something different from me? Will they challenge me? Will I challenge them? Will we respect each other?
My place is New Orleans, Louisiana. I was born and raised there. My people are New Orleanians. Since 2005, when the federal levees failed and flooded my hometown, my community has been fighting; fighting to redefine what the city is, fighting to regain what was lost, and fighting to hold on to things newly found. New Orleans is a culturally stimulating city whose environment fostered one of the only true American art forms—Jazz. What makes New Orleans remarkable is that the culture of the city dances, it doesn’t sit idly on a shelf in a museum—it lives in the streets of the people.
Despite the lush cultural landscape, theater exists on the periphery of the famous New Orleans culture. Music, food, and visual arts are the brassiest of New Orleans’ artistic assets. The way these forms are mainly consumed by the public are through festivals. Celebrations. If New Orleanians are comfortable with the festival style of artistic consumption, how can the theater react? How can we respond in a way that serves the community, but also participates in a national artistic conversation?
New Orleans needs theater and theater needs to be a bigger player in the city’s common dialogue. As a city rebuilding, New Orleanians need to think about the big questions and challenges of daily life in the city (crime, climate, politics, education) through the lens of theater—the lens of narrative, character, debate, design, and art. The discourse of theater is vital for the city’s collective awareness.
New Orleanians have proven that we love gathering (and are good at it), we love art, and we most certainly love costume and character. It’s time the theater responds to that. The theater of New Orleans needs to exist in the festivals, in the streets, in the communities.
There are companies already doing the work. Mondo Bizarro and ArtSpot devise work that is frequently performed in outdoor spaces and that typically speaks about the health of Louisiana’s natural environment. The NOLA Project does Shakespeare in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Statue Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art; they have also performed along the banks of Lake Pontchartrain. The New Orleans Fringe Festival flourishes year after year, producing newfangled works mainly in found, nontraditional spaces across the city.
New Orleans is the ideal American garden for this work. With a low cost of living, a culturally engaged populace, a community of artists, and a microphone to the nation—and indeed, the world—New Orleans is the modern American muse and frontier.
By creating in New Orleans, I hope to be a charger for the new American theater movement. A movement where regional theater returns to the idea of what theater can be: art designed to serve community through text, voice, and design, a speaking art that listens to the voices around and speaks with unrestrained amplification.
However, as I type these words, my peers are desperately applying to internships, fellowships, and apprenticeships at theatrical institutions across the country. That’s where the new American theater artist is directing his/her energies. For those of us who decided to study theater in higher education, after four years of training and experience in creating art, and after being exposed to multiple collaborators of the same age, my peers are vying for positions at institutions that will use their labor for disproportionate financial compensation. Their positions have expiration dates. In some extreme cases, the institution actually charges the apprentices to work for them.
I am a new artist stepping into the American theater, and I trust I am not alone. Where is your place? Who are your people? Where is theater needed? We don’t need to knock at the doors of the established institutions, because we can open the doors ourselves. As new American theater artists, we can create the new American theater.
The new movement will redefine the terms of success. The romanticized rise towards “fame” will be demystified. The new American theater artist will produce and generate material that listens and responds to community through working art that is fine where it lives. Because where it lives, is where it was born to be.