The Myth of the American Theater Pipeline
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.