Theater and the importance of being local: Part two (Mead Hunter)

Local theater: "Crazy Enough" at Portland Center Stage/Photo by Owen Carey

By Mead Hunter

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we revere the local. So much so that throughout Oregon, the term “locavore” has escaped its foodie origins to extend to everything from television and software to music and philanthropy.Reasons for applying the same ethic to the performing arts in general, and to theater in particular,  abound nowadays. The notion is catching on fast. Portland’s very own Trisha Mead covers this territory expertly in this edition of Oregon Arts Watch; Marshall Botvinick speaks persuasively about this on American playwriting’s most active water cooler, HowlRound, and none other than Carey Perloff, artistic director of American Conservatory Theater, recently expounded on the success of analogous efforts in San Francisco.Rather than repeat what they’re already said so well, I’ll simply stress one main point about all this. The creation and production of local theater is good business.

Portland has already proven this with a string of Oregon-specific hits: Portland Center Stage’s Sometimes a Great Notion (adapted by native Oregonian Aaron Posner), Storm Large’s rock bio Crazy Enough (also at PCS), Honey in the Horn at Artists Repertory Theatre, and Sojourn Theatre’s Brechtian romp Good, which was set in a Subaru service center and boasted a cameo appearance by the city’s real-life mayor.

Not only did these homegrown shows generate conspicuous box office bonanzas, they also hired largely local talent, brought their respective theaters new audiences and garnered national attention along the way. Win-win-win.

And there are many more cases in point. So how come all theaters don’t embrace this vision, or  do it more consistently? At least with the larger theaters, it may come down to ongoing confusion over what they exist to do. As Trisha, Marshall and Carey all suggest in the aforementioned articles, the dream of the regional theater dies hard. In this paradigm, there is New York and then there are outposts throughout the nation awaiting cultural colonization. In the original regional model, this meant the goal was to bring the titans of Western dramatic literature to a thirsty populace; Chekhov, Shaw, O’Neill and of course Shakespeare were to enrich the provinces by sheer dint of availability. Over time, this mission  broadened to include whatever new or newish plays got admitted into The New York Times pantheon.

Now: It’s important to acknowledge that the regional imperative originally represented an investment in local artists and audiences. Ideally, each theater would draw on the talent of its own region, and then subscriber civic pride—combined with state and federal support—would foot the bill. In 1961, this model made beautiful sense in every way except for the actual … content.

Fifty years later, it’s easy to see that the idea of producing “classics” should have been a point of departure, not the standard bill of fare.

The credo that audiences would pay year after year for whatever costume drama a theater cared to present wore out its welcome long before administrations started wondering whatever happened to their audiences. Of course there were and are many theaters who junked the colonial model decades ago and went their own way, or who never adopted the model to begin with. But some of these too are culpable.

Too many theaters continue to be founded on the vague agenda of producing whatever work they feel like doing, without giving much thought to why audiences should feel compelled to come see it. To this day, Los Angeles is lousy with new companies formed by recent MFA grads whose concept of programming extends no further than finding scripts that show off their own strengths. In LA as elsewhere, showcase venues like that are usually short-lived; they find themselves starved for spectators because they fail to ask themselves what’s in it for their audiences.

We could posit other reasons for the bankruptcy of self-serving artistic missions. But instead let’s turn our attention to the good news: theaters that are cognizant of the audiences they want to reach, and that regard their programming as an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with their constituents, are doing just fine. One case in point is Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage; this revered venue boasts African-American play attendance of greater than 30%. That’s high. While it’s true that D.C. has a large African-American population, most comparable cities do not enjoy the kind of patronage the Arena does.

That audience has not come about accidentally. Over the decades, Arena Stage has carefully cultivated its audiences by commissioning and reviving work that spoke to the audiences it sought to have, not just by catering entirely to the people who were already coming. Arena’s savvy and progressive insight over the years was that people no longer attend the theater out of a sense of cultural duty. Audiences now need to know the theater will be a civic forum—their forum.  After all, if they want entertainment that doesn’t actually require their attention, there’s always television.

Closer to home, Oregon Shakespeare Festival has undergone an impressive evolutionary transformation. OSF was always a successful enterprise, which makes it doubly impressive that it reinvented itself when it didn’t even have to. The first thing the new Bill Rauch administration did several years ago was to assertively re-frame the way the classics were regarded and contextualized. Perhaps more far-reaching, however, was the company’s insistence that contemporary classics be borne out of the specificity of their content.

OSF’s ambitious American Revolutions commissioning program emblemizes this belief. Fueled by the goal to commission 37 new plays, each of which spring from “a moment of change, inspiration or conflict in United States history,” the intention is to reflect American culture during   a period of seismic shifts in the national climate. That period being today—right now. Hence the lens of history is meant to illuminate contemporary struggles and triumphs.

By the way, it’s worth noting that OSF and Arena Stage did not just impose their tastes and aspirations on the theater-going public. They asked their audiences far-reaching questions, and they listened to the answers, which wasn’t always easy. But consequently, they metamorphosed gradually, and their audiences came along with them. This is all the more remarkable because OSF and Arena started out as regional theaters in the codified sense of being non-New York cultural outposts. Yet they have found new life by reconsidering why they create theater in the first place and who precisely is supposed to benefit it from it.

If every producing venue in Portland did the same, going to a neighborhood theater could be as natural as knowing the seasonal brews, attending First Thursday art shows or following local film production.

And if theater was like that more often, wouldn’t you want to go? Wouldn’t you want to be part of it? If so, ask for it. This doesn’t often happen all by itself. Patronize the venues that seek your engagement, participation and intelligence. Ignore the ones that expect you to be a passive spectator.

Because let’s face it. What would you rather see:  your 13th production of a museum-quality “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” or a song-and-dance Brecht adaptation set in your neighborhood Subaru service center?

LINK to Trisha Mead’s essay: Theater and the importance of being local: Part one


Mead Hunter is an editor and dramaturg at large. He runs SuperScript Editorial Services, a writer’s resource.

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