Thursday, September 08, 2011

a few thoughts on regional theatre.

I grew up in Seattle. My first play was, as I've said before, James and the Giant Peach at Seattle Children's Theatre in 1989. I fell in love with A Contemporary Theatre with Shadowlands, and then The Revenger's Comedies in 1992. With the exception of My Favorite Year in New York City (1992) and a few thrilling seasons of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (1996 and 1997), all the theatre I have known has taken place in Seattle. It did not occur to me that what was performed in my city was "regional theatre" until Intiman Theatre won a Tony Award for 'Best Regional Theatre" some five or six years ago. It did not really occur to me that "regional theatre" could be dirty words until Mike Daisey gave a benefit performance of How Theatre Failed America at the Seattle Rep last Spring.

Daisey was talking about how a friend of his - nameless, so it could be anyone, anywhere - felt as though being the artistic director out in the hinterlands was like being in exile. (That may not be quite what he said, but it's how I remember it). The arrogance of this nameless director made me furious. That was six months ago and dammit, I'm still pissed. I don't know who this friend was, which podunk city he was stagnating in, whose frontier dust he was eager to shake off his pant cuffs. It could have been Seattle, or it could have been Paducah. All he wanted to do was to head back to the bright lights of the Big City. The Big City is New York, of course. When it comes to Theatre you have London and you have New York City and if you are anywhere else you may as well be doing community productions with amateurs who should probably stick to their day jobs. This is bullshit.

The only way for regional theatre to transcend its label of "regional theatre" is to be produced by people who consider it to be the end unto itself, and not the means to an end. The latter treats his theatre as a ticket back to civilization, to his imagined Shangri-La. This shows only contempt for the audience, and in the end we will not weep when the hollow shell left behind falls apart. The former at least gives the impression that he is there because he cares about the place and the people who bring life to the theatre - the actors who live and work in this town, and the audiences who come to see them. Such people are Jerry Manning at Seattle Rep, Kurt Beattie and Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi at ACT, Greg Carter at the Strawberry Theatre Workshop, and Scott Nolte and Karen Lund at the Taproot Theatre, to say nothing of the collective passion of the actors who make up the New Century Theatre Company. These are just the people whose theatres I frequent regularly. This is Seattle, a theatre kind of town, and there are many, many more.

The more time I spend in the theatre - it is only September and I have seen at least twenty plays since January - the more I feel that three things are needed: Love, passion, and faith. I add one more thing - a sense of community. A sense that my city is made up of dozens of theatres large and small and one giant repertory of actors, many of whom I have loved since that first season at ACT in 1992. This is one of the great things about being a grown-up in the city of my childhood, of seeing the same actors again and again, growing and evolving as the years slip past, challenging themselves and me as well with every new part. That thrill when I see a familiar face - often many familiar faces - in my program, it never goes away. I hope it never does.

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