Essay by

Setting the Stage for a New Regional Theater

Essay by

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?

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.

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.

Actor sitting in a sculpture garden
NOLA Project's 2012 production of As You Like It, directed by Sam Dudley.
Performed in NOMA's Besthoff Sculpture Garden.

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. 

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Thank you for your thoughts, Alex. I am right with you with feeling unfulfilled by the current role of regional theaters. I think too often a regional theater acts as a satellite of New York City culture within a region instead of being a bastion of its region's culture. A sort of supply-model of culture that provides its audiences with what it believes they need instead of partnering with the community as co-collaborators.

You point out that a lot of the theaters with a "community-serving" mission are ensemble-based, which I think is vital to this sort of work. Because a theater can best serve its community by leveraging its creative capital to create "wealth:" social wealth, cultural wealth, human wealth. When a theater has an ensemble, it can use that ensemble in creative partnerships and residency programs. I am inspired by the works of Sojourn Theatre and the Center for Performance and Civic Practice in how they support artists forming partnerships in their communities to leverage their creative capacity to create change in their communities.

how do we legitimize these types of endeavors so that we can fund and sustain these roles as professions?

There is always a generational exploration and push back on what WAS the norm (?) and what could be... that is the nature of the beast. Yes we made stuff in the Black Arts Movement; suddenly funds showed up. I would have you reference Douglas Turner Ward's letter in the New York Times that created the Negro Ensemble Company... As well, young artists are supposed to and should be encouraged to buck the system. It is not the world of the 1980's now. And you are the brokers of the next wave. However you decide to push forward, do it. And know that some of the "interns" who make coffee will be directing films and producing on Broadway inspite of the low level entry points. dance in the streets - but welcome the opportunity to be recognized by your peers as doing good art.

the previous generation's model of regional theatre was often: create great art, find a space, raise millions, build a temple, keep raising millions, keep raising millions, keep raising....

It certainly does seem to be a kind of nonprofit industrial complex that has a clear power structure and one door in--at the very bottom. I agree with Alex on the (for the most part) futility of many of these internship programs for people that are 22 and 23 years old with expensive degrees in hand. I once had a wonderful television producer professor at NYU tell a class "You don't get to make television by taking an internship at ABC and make Diane Sawyer's coffee. You just get to make Diane Sawyer's coffee. We live in a wonderful time when anyone with a camera and editing software can make television. So if you want to make it, make it. And may the best product win."

To some degree, the same can be said of theatre. Many of the companies Alex mentioned at the top have made their way into a national spotlight not by working their way up through the nonprofit ladder of a major institution, but by creating specifically engaging work in their own community and garnering the attention of many.

I would encourage other post-grads to make their way to New Orleans or other like cities (but let's be honest, for better or worse, there IS no other 'like' city) in order to experiment, devise and stretch their creative muscles. You want to make theatre, then find some friends and make it.

Great article!

Beautifully said. I've felt this movement slowly forming in New Orleans for the past few years, and it's exciting to no end. Needless to say, I'm on your side. :-)

- Matt Standley