I recognize that it might seem counterintuitive for a blog called Theatre Inspirations to start out by looking at “wrong turns”–seems sort of negative to focus on mistakes of the past that we can’t change, right? One of the reasons I wanted to share these two moments in US theatre history is to make sure we understand that the current status quo was created by particular people taking specific, self-interested actions, not some mystical “invisible hand” of progress.
It’s important to clearly see that, in 1896, six rich men decided that it would serve their own purposes to wrest control of the theatrical scene from theatre artists, centralize all casting in New York City, only do plays that were proven money-makers, and force all theatre artists to ask them for permission to follow their profession. A century later, we are still following the Syndicate playbook. And over the years, instead of teaching theatre artists about those six men, we’ve taught them that “that’s just the way it is” and the way it has to be, and their job as an artist is to accept this without question and do what they can do to make a career within those rules.
Don’t believe me? Consider this.
In 2009, I attended the annual convention of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, which brings together more high school and college theater students than any other such conference in the US. There is always a keynote speaker who grew up in the southeast and had “made it” on Broadway—usually in Broadway musicals. That year was no different: the keynote was delivered by Beth Leavel, fresh off of her run as Frau Blucher in the musical version of Young Frankenstein. From the start, she had the assembled college and high school students eating from her hand. The message she peddled was potent: in her entire theatre career, she had only had to work at anything outside the theater for two weeks, because she worked hard and wanted it badly. I could see young girls texting their parents with this fact, proof that their choice of a major in theater was a sound business decision. I mean, anyone can save enough to cover two weeks of unemployment!
During the Q & A session that followed, Leavel was asked a question by a young undergraduate that started something like “In college, we’re often encouraged to go to Chicago or New York after graduation—” Leavel immediately cut the young man off. “Really? Chicago?,” she asked incredulously. “I mean, I don’t know much about Chicago, except there are some important rep theaters there. I suppose you can make a living there. All I know is that if I want to work in Chicago, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in Seattle, which is a great theater town, I have to be in New York; if I want to work in my home town of Raleigh, I have to be in New York.” These words might have been drawn directly from a Syndicate business card.
We have a tendency, over time, to forget that the status quo was made, not born. That human beings made choices that served them, and their vision won. It wasn’t handed down from on high.
This is why these wrong turns should be inspiring: if human beings could change the theatre through their actions in 1896, we can do so again today.
Back in the 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher coined the acronym “TINA” for “There Is No Alternative” in order to convince the people of Great Britain that the status quo was inevitable and eternal. TINA is just another way of saying “that’s just the way things are.” It’s the reification of current social and economic systems.
Reification: the act of treating something abstract, such as an idea, relation, system, quality, etc., as if it were a concrete object.
At school, artists minor in theatre, but they major in TINA. It ought to be on their resumes: MFA in TINA. They are taught never to question “the way things are,” just to adapt to them, work harder, want it more. We never teach them that the “real world” was created over lunch one day in 1896 by six guys who questioned the status quo, and we certainly never mention that they have the power to do the same. No, for them, there is no alternative.
Italian Marxist Antonio Gransci called this process “hegemony,” which D. Chandler defined as “the ability of the dominant class to project its own way of seeing the world so that those who are subordinated by it accept it as ‘common sense’ and ‘natural.'” Common sense, according to Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, is “the way a subordinate class lives its subordination.” Put another way, the winners write history, and the losers are taught to internalize it.
But six decades later, another group of theatre artists decided to question the 1896 status quo, and they began creating the regional theatre movement. People like Margo Jones, Nina Vance, Zelda Fichandler, and Herbert Blau provided a vision of a decentralized American theatre devoted to ongoing resident companies and committed to new plays. They were the new actor-managers seeking to resist the work of the Theatrical Syndicate and restore power and options to theatre artists.
The first two, Jones and Vance, were largely ignored–after all, not only were they women, but they were women in Texas, for God’s sake. Fichandler and Blau made mistakes: they allowed themselves to be lured by the siren-song of New York. Fichandler’s Arena Stage, founded in Washington DC in 1950, found itself with a major hit on their hands in 1967–Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope starring a very young James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander–and in order to raise money they transferred their production to Broadway, cast with the core of their resident company, a decision that Fichandler later rued because after the Broadway run she wasn’t able to reconstruct the ensemble–Jones and Alexander were on their way to fame in film and stage.
Blau and Jules Irving founded the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco in 1952, and introduced to American audiences the work of many avant garde European and American authors. In 1964, Blau published The Impossible Theatre, a brilliant and impassioned book whose opening paragraphs give a sense of the book’s overall tone:
The purpose of this book is to talk up a revolution. Where there are rumblings already, I want to cheer them on. I intend to be incendiary and subversive, maybe even un-American. I shall probably hurt some people unintentionally; there are some I want to hurt. I may as well confess right now the full extent of my animus: there are times when, confronted with the despicable behavior of people in the American theater, I feel like the lunatic Lear on the heath, wanting to “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.”
My friends, wanting to spare me my murderous impulses and practicing a therapy I respect and despise, tell me to calm down, give it time, things are happening. Things are happening: I want to look at them and see what’s really happening. And to those who share my view of what the theater might be but defer to the sluggard drift of things, I want to say what Brecht’s Galileo said to the Little Monk, temporizing in pity for those who, fixed in the old routines, scrape a living somehow–on the premise that if whatever is is not right, it is at least unalterable–“I can see their divine patience, but where is their divine fury?”Herbert Blau, The Impossible Theater: A Manifesto
A year later, Blau and Irving were lured to head up the Lincoln Center Theatre. So much for divine fury. By then, Tyrone Guthrie had dazzled the mainstream arts media with his multi-million dollar theatre building devoted to classics played by film stars. Once again, the resistance was contained.
Which seems sort of depressing, I must admit. And yet once again we see that things can be changed, even if only for a while, by individuals with the courage to question the way things are.
We do not have to believe in TINA. That’s the inspiration buried in the wrong turns.
Six people can change their world over lunch.