I believe the title of Teresa Eyring’s article “How Theatre Saved America, Part I” is misleading. “How Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble saved Bloomsburg, PA,” would have been entirely more appropriate. I applaud Eyring for highlighting BTE, but this topic is too massive to be covered in a two-part, two page article. To highlight only one of seven listed theatre ensembles and then tell readers that the American theater is “saving America” is incredibly insufficient. If American Theatre magazine and TCG are truly concerned about this problem they should devote an entire issue to it. Interview both sides talking with everyone involved including board members, artistic directors, actors, playwrights, etc. A good place to start is the blogging community as there are many artists, practitioners and educators sharing their struggles and points of view. Also highlight more theaters outside the major metropolitan hubs showing how they are accomplishing ensemble work and providing a living wage for the artists. As well, if permission is granted, the issue should also include Mike Daisey‘s monologue How Theatre Failed America, which would serve as an additional source for this contentious issue.
Contrary to its title, in Part I of her article, Eyring does not explain how theatre has saved America. Instead, she attempts to hold on to the ill-conceived notion that nothing is wrong and thus believes we should “stay the course”. Conversely, in his monologue, Daisey asserts that the regional theater has sold out. Its focus and cash flow are directed to the creation of buildings instead of using resources to support an ensemble of actors, directors, playwrights and technicians. An even bigger problem is the issue of fundraising and donation. The American public would not give money to a theatre company attempting to raise money for an ensemble of artists, but plenty of wealthy donors are willing to give money if it ensures the placement of their name on a theatre’s toilet. As Daisey states, a more apt title for his show would be: How American theater has become America, signifying a capitalistic model that places the value of things over the value of people.
At the roundtable discussion following Daisey’s final show at the Barrow Street Theatre, Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, said that ideology will always trump experience. Current ideology runs counter to the possibility of ensemble artists making a living in regional theatres across America. However, as Eyring points out, experience shows that it is happening. Therefore, we need to work to change the ideology that rules both the American public and the boards of regional theaters who approve the spending. This is an extremely complex issue that can be examined from many different angles. So let’s concentrate on dissecting this topic; lets continue to talk and write articles from more than just one perspective.
As Eustis emphasized at the roundtable, we should applaud the gains of the American theater and give it some respect. Currently we have many more theater buildings than fifty or sixty years ago and so the public undoubtedly has more options to see and experience theater and artists have more spaces to work. We must also concentrate on how we can change the ingrained perception of what is considered important. How can we make the public understand that the people they are most willing to overlook, the theater artists, are the life and soul of the theater. My generation will soon be taking over the leadership of the American theater (and the nation as a whole) and for us to implement effective and meaningful change the ideology shift needs to begin now.
*UPDATE: Nick over at Rat Sass make an additional observation that I missed. Again, another reason that shows that this article did not live up to the title.