In my previous post, I described as the Second Wrong Turn the way the early regional theatre movement ended up following Tyrone Guthrie’s “classics only” policy of season selection rather than Margo Jones’s “violent preference for new plays.” There were other decisions made at the same time that were equally problematic, and I will elaborate on them later. But right now, I think I need to describe what I believe is the First Wrong Turn of the American Theatre.
But before I do (I’m such a tease), let me explain that I am not focusing on these two historical “moments” in order to cast retroactive blame on those who made these decisions. Each was made within a specific context and in response to specific conditions; each were likely made with the best intentions; each solved certain problems and, inevitably, created new ones. I mention them, however, to counter the idea that these developments were somehow Inevitable Historic Developments That Now are Irreversible.
I would argue that simply because a certain direction was taken decades ago does not mean that we must continue living with those decisions. As Tolstoy once wrote, we are making history from the moment we get up in the morning to when we go to bed at night. History is made, he believed, by “an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions.” When we are taught to accept the status quo as being “the best of all possible worlds,” we give up our power to imagine change. So the first step is to recognize that the status quo isn’t immutable and the second is to name the problem.
In an article in the Review of General Psychology, Yale professor Robert J. Sternberg (picture is at top of this post) created a taxonomy of different types of creative contributions, which he divided between those that “accept current paradigms” and those that “reject current paradigms.” Falling in the latter category is one he calls the “Reconstruction/redirection” type, which he describes as follows:
In using reconstruction, an individual suggests that the field should move backward to a point it previously was at but then should move in a direction divergent from that it has moved in. In other words, the individual suggests that, at some time in the past, the field went off track. The individual suggests the point at which this occurred and how the field should have moved forward from this point.Robert J. Sternberg, “A Propulsion Model of Types of Creative Contributions” (Review of General Psychology 1999, vol 3, No. 2. p 93)
In case it isn’t already clear, reconstruction and redirection describe the creative orientation of this blog. As I mentioned in my first post, I’m dissatisfied with the current paradigm, and I have spent many years trying to put my finger on how to address what I see as its severe problems. Sternberg’s taxonomy clarified the task of this blog (and my future book Pick Yourself: A New Path for Your Theater Career): using my knowledge of theatre history to point out where we went off track and created problems that are plaguing us today.
In summary, the second time the theatre went off track was during the early years of the regional theatre movement in the 1950s and 1960s; the first time happened more than fifty years earlier in 1896, when “a notable group of theatrical magnates met by chance at a luncheon at the Holland House in New York. They included Charles Frohman, whose offices booked attractions for a chain of Western theaters extending to the coast; A. L. Erlanger and Marc Klaw, who, as Klaw and Erlanger, controlled attractions for practically the entire South; Nixon and Zimmerman, of Philadelphia, who were conducting a group of the leading theaters of that city, and Al Hayman, one of the owners of the Empire Theater.”
As a result of this meeting, they formed the Theatrical Syndicate. I’ll tell you that story in the next post.