From the Magazine / WIT Magazine

Oh Pioneers

By Joan Channick

Millie Barranger’s article on the origins of the American not-for-profit resident theatre field is a good reminder, or perhaps for younger readers a revelation, that women were at the forefront of that movement, playing a central role in the invention of a new theatre model for the 20th century. Like theatre itself, our collective memory is evanescent, making the League of Professional Theatre Women’s efforts to document and preserve the stories of women who make theatre, through the Women in Theatre video oral history series, exhibitions, and publications such as this essential.

The pathfinders’ dreams of a decentralized American theatre are amply realized by the theatres portrayed here. Taken together, American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Miracle Theatre Group in Portland, Oregon, the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project, the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, the Ensemble Theatre in Houston, the Hip-Hop Theatre Festival, Clubbed Thumb, the Living Theatre, and HERE Arts Center in New York, Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, Arena Stage in Washington, DC, Brava Theater Center in San Francisco, and the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta represent an extraordinarily wide-ranging spectrum, diverse in mission, aesthetics, ethnicity, geography, size, and organizational model. Taken individually, each of these theatres is distinctive, with very particular artistic aims and leadership styles.

Amidst all of the differences, however, it’s apparent that a strong sense of community is the animating impulse for the women leading these theatrical organizations. Every artistic leader talks about her theatre being grounded in its particular community; that word “community” jumps out, unprovoked, in every interview. For Susan Booth’s Alliance Theatre, for example, community means a city, Atlanta, with a decidedly Southern culture and an enduring identity as the center of the civil rights movement. Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Martha Lavey is similarly adamant that her company produces its work primarily for its home community of Chicago, Broadway transfers and other successes notwithstanding. For Kamilah Forbes’ Hip Hop Theatre Festival, community means the hip hop generation, a community of shared interest bound by sociopolitical ideology, youth, race, culture, and class. Olga Sanchez’s Miracle Theatre Group is rooted in the ethnic identity and language of Portland’s Latino community, while Eileen Morris’s Ensemble Theatre serves Houston’s African-American community. Raelle Myrick-Hodges’ Brava Theater Center defines its community as a neighborhood, San Francisco’s Mission District, with a mix of low-income, multicultural, and LGBT residents. The LA Female Playwrights Initiative is a virtual community of advocates for female theatre artists, and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre defines its community as those who share the political beliefs of anarchism and pacifism.

Theatre has always been a community gathering place, but today it is one of the few places left in an electronic age where we can come together to share a live experience. In a world where people are increasingly isolated, staying in our wired homes and ordering in entertainment, searching for contact with other people over the Internet, and creating online communities, places such as theatre where live people can come together to engage in social discourse with other live people are becoming increasingly rare. Liveness creates an element of risk but also holds the promise of electrifying moments that come from the interplay between artists and an engaged, responsive audience.

Although they each serve very different communities, the artistic leaders profiled in the articles that follow understand that we are in an era of innovation and reinvention, in particular the renegotiation of the relationship between a theatre and its audience. Audiences are no longer regarded as passive observers but as participants in and co-creators of the theatrical experience.

These artists know their communities very well and are eager to engage with their audiences in new ways which have the potential to alter profoundly the audience experience, the art form of theatre, and longstanding theatrical practice. Openly acknowledging that they are still figuring things out, and that the theatre world must constantly adapt to a rapidly changing world, this forward-thinking cohort is clearly more excited than daunted by the challenge and their innovations are meeting with considerable success. Diane Paulus at A.R.T., noted for her provocative stagings of classics, created a club-like venue where audiences do not have to turn off their electronic devices but are welcome to tweet, text, and otherwise participate in social media while simultaneously participating in the show. Kristin Marting’s HERE literally makes the theatre a social gathering place that can be part of its community’s daily life with its inviting café that encourages lingering and conversation, and also provides a source of earned income.

What makes these very talented artists effective leaders is that they are also incisive strategic thinkers. Almost invariably, those who describe the beginning of their tenure talk about how they assessed their theatre’s situation, redefined the mission, and made bold strategic changes early on to realign their organizations. Such powerful leadership is evidenced by Molly Smith, who made a graceful transition from running Perseverance Theatre, a small theatre she founded in her home town of Juneau, Alaska, to heading Arena Stage, the “mother ship” of American regional theatres. Moving from a tiny theatre deeply embedded in an authentic Alaskan identity to an iconic theatre with an enormous legacy, Smith spearheaded a major revamping of Arena’s physical spaces and of its artistic mission, putting American theatre, both classic and new, at the center, a fitting focus for an influential theatre in the nation’s capital.

Present-day female producers, once dismissively known as “the girls” in the testosterone-fueled commercial theatre world, prove that it’s possible to work on Broadway but be driven by what Margo Lion calls a “non-profit aesthetic.” Although commercial producers function in what might appear to be a disparate environment of individual entrepreneurs, they too are united by a sense of community – committed, as Elizabeth Williams says, to “supporting the vision of creative people.” Millie Barranger’s history reminds us that the early women producers like Cheryl Crawford moved freely between the commercial and not-for-profit worlds, whereas today we think of them as separate sectors of the theatre industry, albeit with increasingly permeable borders.

Decades ago, an earlier generation of groundbreaking women transformed the American theatre industry when they ventured to create a meaningful non-commercial alternative theatre, producing challenging and socially relevant plays for their communities. The landscape has changed and the challenges posed by this particular moment in theatrical history are different, but pioneering women are still leading the field.

Joan Channick is Associate Dean of the Yale School of Drama.

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