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The Myth of the American Theater Pipeline



At a recent summit of DC-area artistic directors, Ryan Rilette of Round House Theatre made a reference to the infamous “pipeline” of new talent that runs from New York and London to America’s regional theaters, claiming that there are not enough plays by women in this pipeline for his theater to produce. The idea of this pipeline is nothing new, but importantly, it is not inviolable.

Pre-Revolution, the colonies actually had three equally important centers of theatrical production—Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—all of which primarily presented British plays. Theater in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania was limited by the Puritan philosophy that writing your own worlds into being is an offense to God, the ultimate playwright of our theatrum mundi. New York, on the other hand, being primarily a center of commerce, managed to develop a theater culture that continued through the Revolution (even when it was illegal) and beyond.

As the young Republic expanded, theaters founded without reference to one another sprang up in other parts of the country. It wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth-century, when railroads allowed the exportation of both commerce and culture, that these theaters became stops on tours of shows created in New York. Then, in the early twentieth-century, a locally-sourced Little Theater Movement began in Chicago and took hold throughout the country, spawning a generation of dramatists that did not live in New York. Federalism reasserted itself in the sixties, when local theaters of a certain size joined together under LORT, an organization based in New York, and regional theaters once again became aesthetic subsidiaries of Broadway, Inc.

Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, local artists are again asserting control over the means of production and claiming American theater for themselves. The huge Twitter response to the reference to the pipeline made at “The Summit” revealed a deeply felt frustration at the unwillingness of artistic directors to recognize that forty-year-old notions of what makes great theater are no longer relevant. Sure, New York still has more theater than most other places, but there is no longer any reason to believe that it is any better.

Furthermore, by limiting themselves to plays, playwrights, directors, and actors based in New York, non-New York theaters run the risk of presenting material that has little relation to the lived experiences of their audiences. As anyone who follows politics can tell you, inhabitants of different regions often hold sharply distinct if not altogether contradictory beliefs. The primary industries that drive the economy in America’s various regions are vastly different, meaning that the work lives of the people who live there are vastly different. Even the environment itself, from the weather to the landscape, has an influence on the thinking and values of people who live in it.

Sure, New York still has more theater than most other places, but there is no longer any reason to believe that it is any better.

Additionally, theaters that insist on relying on talent that has already proven itself in New York perpetuate a theater that is inevitably elite. New York City is expensive. Self-producing, acting in showcases, assistant directing for free, and interning all require steady income streams from elsewhere. Very few people are able to do this without significant family support. Companies that aim to produce theater for a diverse audience cannot expect to do so while only producing plays written and directed by people born into privilege.

Of course some artists not born into privilege who work three jobs and do theater for free in New York do manage to find success in regional theaters. But even those people, unless they happened to grow up in New York, have uprooted themselves from their communities and families and transplanted themselves to one of the most difficult cities in which to live in the world. Yes, some artists are inspired by New York. Yes, some are glad to leave their previous lives behind. Others are overwhelmed and exhausted. How much American talent are we actually crushing by needlessly requiring that people spend years of indentured servitude in New York for the privilege of having their plays produced in theaters not in New York?

New York does have at least one quality that sets it apart in terms of its theater community. In New York, the big theaters pay attention to the small theaters. Even a small show can get reviewed, and if it does well, it can get the attention of the legacy theaters. The artists who created it will often be invited to remount the production at a bigger theater, or they may be hired, based on that success, to work there on something else. This is why a few emerging artists can develop a national reputation by working in New York.

But the synergy of the New York theater community is not an argument for regional theaters to only do plays that come out of New York. It is an argument for regional theaters to develop the same level of synergy with the other theaters in their cities. In fact, regional theaters could save a ton of money by developing new work with artists for whom they don’t have to provide housing and a per diem.

The lack of men of color and women in the pipeline is an excuse used to justify seasons that fail to achieve diversity and gender parity. But New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world. If success there is the barometer by which plays are chosen for regional productions, LORT theaters would be producing plays developed by Intar, The Women’s Project Theater, and the National Black Theatre, to name just a few New York institutions devoted to developing work by underrepresented groups. Rather, the same dated notions of who and what makes good theater that lead artistic directors to rely on a mythical pipeline also keep them from recognizing the surfeit of diverse talent in New York and across the country.

Though New York remains the center of American commercial theater, companies across the country need not largely rely on plays created in that place for that audience. Today, the pipeline flows in many directions at once. Theaters genuinely interested in serving their communities would do well to develop twenty-first century ways of making theater.


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Good insights. Also, New York, despite its pretensions, is very provincial. Certain subjects, critical of the banks and corporations that own and control the city, among other places, and their agendas in any number of areas, have a difficult time being heard.

Cannot say AMEN any louder to this. The constant ridiculous supremacy of the "New York" brand is exhausting. Especially after you've lived and worked there and know the jig is up. You see as many turkeys in NYC as anywhere else. Regional theatre should be just that, REGIONAL and not simply a fall back for NY actors not on Broadway. The comment regarding people of color is also on point. The demise of Studio Arena in Buffalo was due in large part to this NYC actors only nonsense. Ignoring your community is suicide.

Hurrah to HowlRound for fostering such an interesting discussion. No mention here of Boston which has a thriving "little" theater scene. It's a great town for local actors, directors and playwrights (of all genders) to live and work in the theater. It's also in striking distance of NY almighty which can be a good thing, career wise, for those artists. Of course, Artistic Directors here are still too much in the mindset of surfing for the latest NY "hits" - and we get into ridiculous rights wars where the biggest fish usually wins. But there is also much great local play development (thank you Kate Snodgrass.)

Something that always seems to get ignored in these conversations is how so many plays that are produced in NYC come from playwrights who don't actually live there. I tell ya what, if you'd rather the non-nyc regionals don't do plays from nyc, don't submit your plays to nyc theaters and leave room for those of us who actually live and work there. Or, my preference, we can all work everywhere. That's not to poo-poo the advocacy that the non-nyc regionals should get a little more local and creative... Yes please. I'm just asking we acknowledge it's not so cut and dry. Also... The touring model is where it's really at so I hope more artists will tour their work to nyc and we to you.

Yes to all you've said. And one needs to remember that "we" all pander to the notion that New York is "it." Stop serving the monster, I say. Look around you and validate the experiences grown out of your own geography, ethnicity, etc. And realize that if you've resonated with any audience, you've made it, and that it counts just as much as if it were produced within the confines of Manhattan. Today's digital environment can get you a huge....and yes, international...audience, so let's go for that and bypass the elitist, "academic" in the worst sense, herd-mentality of "New York Theater". Make the theater you want to see. Get off the couch and go tell people who you think want to see it. Tell people who would never think of seeing it. When they do, they might be surprised, and spread the word. You'll be happy, living in a pleasant climate without selling your soul for the rent, and getting emails from Poland and India about people wanting to see your work. If enough people stop serving the gods of "legitimate" ...whatever that means...theater, and start producing, writing and acting in work that has personal meaning, we'll all be happier. Then we can engage in some real conversations regarding the infinite variety of the human condition.

While I agree with your article, I would pause at your history lesson a bit. Excuse me if I expound a bit much, but your post inspired me a bit to look back at the history:

I would object that Philadelphia was held back by "Puritan" beliefs--as the Puritans did not settle in this region at all. I should know my ancestors were among them on both sides of my family tree. The German Lutherans and Reformed Lutherans, as well as the English Quakers might be misconstrued to our modern eyes as "puritan-like" but to do so ignores the history of intolerance actual Puritans held against those who did not share their beliefs such as Quakers (which is why Rhode Island and New Hampshire were founded because the Puritans couldn't tolerate those who thought differently than they did for very long, typically excommunicating them and banishing them from the colony), which prompted Philadelphia and Pennsylvania itself to be founded as a colony of religious tolerance and to help inspire our freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights (along with Jefferson's dealings with Pennsylvanian Anabaptists moving into Western Virginia after the Revolution). In fact Pennsylvania became so tolerant that the Quakers quickly became outnumbered--though still continued to hold a strong sway over the city of Philadelphia itself--by the slightly more conservative German immigrants from the county of Neuss (which later became the source of the Nyce/Nice family surname in the Greater Philadelphia region) and the town of Krefeld in the Palatine region of the Rhineland (who founded Germantown, and those who moved further north and west would later create the Pennsylvania Dutch culture of Pennsylvania when being associated with all things "German" became less than acceptable). It was also settled by the less than tolerant but fiery independent Scot-Irish who settled along the Appalachian frontier sparking many an argument with local Indian tribes whom the Quakers had managed to get along with peacefully before, and have since gone on to give us our modern redneck culture. The Welsh of course left us the Welsh Tract and attempted to found a small Welsh-speaking colony along the Philadelphia suburbs' Main Line, but they soon found that their most lasting legacy was with naming towns rather than establishing an actual Welsh-speaking colony within a colony: Bala Cynwyd, Bryn Mawr, Radnor, etc.

New York meanwhile was founded by the Dutch, and their legacy on the city has been long noted for making it the commercial capital it is that thus is open to theater. The diverse and multicultural city that exists on the shores of the Hudson does so because the Dutch as a colonial power promoted such ideas as mercantilism and allowed many different people of multiple cultural origins to settle in their colonies (what else were they going to do, given that they are a tiny European nation with not as many people as say a country such as England, France, or Spain). So early on New York was established as a diverse and commercial city thanks to the lasting legacy of the Dutch. By the time the Duke of York took the city, the number of Dutch residents were a small numbered elite (who would go on to found much of New York's Old Money society of Edith Wharton fame) out-numbered by the vast majority of Germans, English, and other European nationalities that had agreed to settle in the New Netherlands. What separates the wide-open Dutch from the slightly-open Quakers in Philadelphia was the emphasis on mercantilism, and slightly more "liberal" values on the Dutch side.

That American theater developed in the colonial days in New York is not at all surprising, the legacy of the Dutch has left their mark. But as for Philadelphia, I would ascribe it to the "English" (Quakers and non-Quakers) who controlled the city feeling outnumbered by the sheer number of Germans in Pennsylvania. Benjamin Franklin actually wrote a pamphlet in 1750 where he talked about the subject in terms that remind one today of how certain people freak out over Mexican and other Spanish-speaking immigrants: that there were signs in German and English all over the place, that the Germans weren't adopting English customs or the English language, the Germans were threatening to "germanize" Pennsylvania before the English settlers could "anglify" them, and it should be noted that Colonial Pennsylvania actually did hold a vote on whether or not to make German an official language of the Commonwealth--it lost by just one vote. In response Franklin founded Franklin and Marshall College to help "educate" the German children--but really as a process to "anglify" the children of the German settlers--which the Germans figured out all too quickly and stopped sending their children to the college. This power play dynamics in colonial Pennsylvania of course was going to spark a desire to preserve English traditions and stick closely to English theater traditions in the city itself not only comes from the colonial relationship Philadelphia had with England, but also because many of the English settlers' descendants felt was a stronghold against the rising threat of German immigrants, and that thus to embrace everything English would hold back the tide of Germans.

And besides, at this point in theater history, German theater wasn't as, well nationalistic for lack of a better term, as it would become at the end of the 18th Century thanks to Goethe and his contemporaries, and it held a lot in common with French Neoclassical traditions, while the English theater tradition was in the Colonial period really French Neoclassical tastes transplanted thanks to the Restoration of the monarchy to England. Sure there was an English character to the plays (anyone who's seen or been in The School for Scandal--George Washington's favorite play, She Stoops to Conquer, or The Beggar's Opera could hardly argue that English bawdiness didn't survive well intact), but the style and presentation was all based on the French Neoclassical tradition--from converting old Renaissance era tennis courts into theater spaces, to its demands of holding to Aristotle's unities whenever possible. It was the Enlightenment and an era which held order and structure as espoused by the Neoclassical movement to be the pinnacles of society, and the French set the tone early on thanks to Voltaire and his contemporaries. Of course there was a counter-movement developing being inspired by taking interest in Shakespeare and reviving Elizabethan and Jacobean plays and trying to force them into the French model (only later to completely break the mold), but that break with the Neoclassical tradition would come later, turning eventually into 19th Century Romanticism.

Lessons from history often explain more than we think.

The pipeline exists and it will undoubtedly continue to exist. The NNPN is a good thing, although there are theatres within it that will not accept play submissions [along with many other regional theatres] unless they are agent submissions. And it's very difficult [nearly impossible?] to get an agent unless you have at least one professional theatre production. So with that delightful catch 22 it's amazing to me that new work from new writers gets seen at all. I can imagine that bottom line issues involved with season selection are financial. Is there a perspective within regional theatre and theatre companies of plays that have 'made it' in New York will be reliable ticket sellers? Probably yes. Is that a reason to stay stuck in that pattern? No. If it becomes important enough for theatre companies to offer work outside of the 'pipeline' network, then they will find a way to do so, including creative avenues to promote the work. If it's a good play, and a good production, the audience will generally respond to that. So my perspective is don't moan about the pipeline, educate local theatres in your area of how it serves their artistic scope and integrity, and the community as well, to offer broader options than they have been. And to the NNPN theatres that don't have open submission policies except through agents, maybe you can branch out also by having an open window policy for new writers that don't yet have agent representation, even if that window is limited [say one month].

While I wasn't at The Summit, one of the things I found really interesting, was that one of the panelist (I think it was Ryan) mentioned how smaller or indie or non-LORT theatres in the area were making great strides in parity and equality. That they were doing much better than those that were on the stage. Yet, in DC at least, we see very little of that work move from the indie houses up to the LORT houses? That it seems is at the heart of your article, creating an environment in which the pipeline of growth for playwrights is the same as the pipeline for growth of actors in a community. Where they work at indie houses and then are seen by the LORT theaters and brought up to their stages. We see some of that, but a better "Pipeline" or conversation or connection between that divide is very much needed. Thats a great thing to point out, that I got from your article. Thanks.

You mentioned that at the Summit it was said that smaller or indie or non-LORT theatres were making great strides in parity and equality. Here in the Bay Area actor Valerie Weak is tracking stats on gender parity (http://sfbayareaactor.blogs... ) in the productions happening here. She too found that the smaller houses were doing much better than the larger re the issue of parity. But that exposes another problem: when there is no money or hardly any to pay people (at those smaller or indie theatres) then you have parity. But as you go up the ladder to theatres with larger budgets parity takes a dive. That's an employment/living issue, IMO.

I totally agree that is a major issue, which is why creating new pipelines or clearing pipelines or whatever metaphor you would like to use is important. Building that connection between the community seems to be a larger part of what is needed or grown, IMHO. Looking at the numbers in places like Bay Area, DC, Boston, Chicago, Philly we see there is a disconnect, Its important that there is a connection between those larger houses with money and the smaller houses without that can transfer or transport artists back and forth.

I enjoyed the historical context presented in this piece, and I think discussions about how plays get done should happen much more. But I think there is some nuance missing here: As a NY playwright, I'm neither subsidized by family "money" nor working three jobs to make ends meet. I chose to come to NY because I crave the culture, and cultures, of NY. It's broadened me as a writer, and as a human, and actually has given me a distance and perspective that has made me much more able to write about where I grew up. Thanks for the piece, though -- and for keeping the conversation going.

Many theater companies in smaller markets to prefer program their seasons according to what played in New York in in the previous season, even if it received consistently poor reviews, rather than operate an actual open submission policy and run the risk of discovering something new.

The pipeline is not a myth in the sense of it being a falsehood; The pipeline does exist-- it's simply historical contingency that it exists and it need not continue to exist.

I see here once again the kind of anti-New York attitude that I wrote about last July on Howlround when the regional theater Tony Award was opened to NYC non-profit theaters. (http://www.howlround.com/is... Is NYC Part of America?)

I love the historical context in this piece, but isn't it absurd to talk about "LORT, an organization based in New York" federalizing (as in colonizing?) local theaters throughout the country? And, excuse my bluntness, but it's laughable for you to talk about how NYC uproots, crushes and enslaves artistic talent who want nothing more than to live peaceably in their hometown among familiar folk. NYC as halfway between Genghis Khan and Godzilla?

Let us get over this knee-jerk effort to knock down NYC in order to build up the concept of regional theater. You can reject the idea of a pipeline, and advocate for the necessity of locally conceived productions, without putting down what remains the strongest theater town in America. And yes, we ARE part of America.

The National New Play Network and its rolling premieres provides one of the best answers to this whole "pipeline" nonsense.

The Inkwell is working hard to connect playwrights with theaters around the country both physically and digitally, as well. Its important to find as many pipelines as possible. Utilizing places such as Playpenn, New Dramatist, and various others to become angels in your choir singing the gospel of playwrights work!

Yes. Yes to all of this.

I had the opportunity to be at Arena for the Summit and this provides some wonderful context for many of the questions I had after the idea of the pipeline was raised. About two-thirds of the playwrights I've had the privilege of teaching have been women. When they ask how to get produced in D.C., am I supposed to tell them they need to get produced in NYC first?