Capturing The National Conversation With Theatre

March 20th, 2013 § 5 comments

Humor me.

In the wake of my post yesterday about the pros and cons of theatre seasons looking like the New York season from the prior year, and some great responses to it, the beloved phrase “national conversation about theatre” keeps coming to mind. Surely you’ve heard this concept, the now decades-old plaint from theatre professionals of all stripes that media conversation can center on a movie, a book, even a song, but that – perhaps not since Angels in America – neither the act of making theatre nor any particular work of theatre has made that grade.  Mind you, there are conversations within the field of great value; I’m talking about something that breaks past American Theatre, HowlRound, 2 AM Theatre, Twitter and other resources into the general public consciousness.

This is due to many factors, but surely one is the fragmentary nature of the American theatre. With each company choosing its season independently, there may be coincidences in programming, there may be a handful of select plays dotting the country over the course of a year or two. But in essence, outside of one’s own community, all theatre is a one-off.  Perhaps, on occasion, a little – or a lot of – collusion would be a good thing.

By now we’ve all heard of communities that choose a book for a city-wide read, with a concerted effort to promote the idea that a metropolitan bonds if they can all have a conversation about the same thing. This has been going on for a number of years, though not in places where I’ve lived, so I can only admire it from afar, rather than share personal experience. But it is a compelling idea.

Am I now going to suggest everyone should read the same play? No. You’re getting ahead of me. While there’s some merit to that idea, theatre is meant to be seen. I’m thinking bigger.

I wonder whether, say, a dozen theatres, large and small, in different cities and towns, could agree on a single work of theatre (and I’d much prefer that it was a new work, not a classic revival), a play of social and political importance, that could be near-simultaneously produced across the country. Not a tour, not a handful of co-productions, but a whole bunch of theatres doing the same work within, say, an eight-week period.

Now I know that every theatre has to balance its season, struggles with its budget, weighs its logistics. I’m not saying it would be easy. But hear me out.

"Clybourne Park" at Playwrights Horizons

“Clybourne Park” at Playwrights Horizons

When Clybourne Park was first produced at Playwrights Horizons in 2011, it was followed within weeks by a production at Woolly Mammoth. The following season, it was featured in a number of seasons (as well as in London at the Royal Court), making it to Broadway for the spring and summer of 2012, and now playing in yet more cities in regional productions. Now imagine if all of those productions (sans Broadway, which is irrelevant to my proposal) happened in only a few months time. Think of the conversations that provocative play would have sparked.  The same holds true for The Mountaintop, and Good People, and Ruined, and Chad Deity and many others.

A challenge? Yes. Impossible? No. Let us look to history. Specifically, A History of the American Film by Christopher Durang.

"A History of the American Film" at Arena Stage

“A History of the American Film” at Arena Stage

In 1977, with Durang barely out of the Yale School of Drama, his pastiche of classic movies had a tripartite premiere, with productions in March and April of that year at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles, Arena Stage in DC, and Hartford Stage. It had been discovered in a workshop at The O’Neill the prior summer; it moved to Broadway, briefly, in 1978. But just imagine: a new play, by a tremendously talented up-and-comer, hitting a trifecta of productions out of the gate. I didn’t see it at the time (I was 14), but I sure remember reading about it.

If we want to be part of “the national conversation,” we have to look to a mashup of the Clybourne-History models, so the country will truly sit up and take notice, regardless of whether a New York berth is in the mix or not. We’ll either have to get over our deep desire to proclaim “world premiere” (or agree that everyone gets to say it); we’ll have to use a microtome to slice up the royalties normally given over to an originating company so everyone gets a share, but doesn’t overburden the play’s ongoing life; we’ll have to tacitly accept that the playwright might be working on the piece personally at only one theatre while revisions fly out to many. But remember that thanks to Skype and streaming video, the playwright can confer with disparate teams, and even look in on multiple rehearsals, without criss-crossing the country on planes. And no one need worry about cannibalizing audiences, since city to city overlap is fairly rare.

If many people are seeing the same play at once, we can at last have one show that’s reaching more people in a single night than any individual Broadway or touring show can; we’ll have a story that national press outlets can’t ignore; we’ll have a playwright who can dedicate themselves to working in theatre for a season without receiving an inheritance or a genius grant, since the collective royalties will be significant.

With theatres having just announced or on the verge of announcing their 2013-14 seasons, why do I toss this out for consideration now? Because it would take a year to get this together; for the intra-theatre conversations to begin and bear fruit; for a national sponsor or two to be signed up; for a single advertising campaign to be developed for use by all participants; to insure that a year from now, this grand idea could be unveiled to the public.

Collectively, the number of people who attend theatre on a daily basis in America is significant, but because it’s mostly happening in theatres of perhaps 500 seats or less, its hard for the country at large to get a handle on our significance. So let’s all hang together, since hanging separately doesn’t get us the impact we so desire, so need and so deeply deserve.

Now to find “the” play…


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  • Love this idea. A similar idea happened around the election last year with a play called 44 Plays for 44 Presidents. Nearly 50 productions from all around the country, ranging from high schools to colleges, amateur theatres and professional theatres (including Rochester’s Geva Theatre Center, Chicago’s NeoFuturists and Atlanta’s Dad’s Garage) mounted the show in the months leading up to the election. The Festival got press in American Theatre magazine ( and on ( but never reached the general public. More info on the festival:

  • Matt Slaybaugh

    Well, I suggested “Dead City” last time this came up.

    Then we actually tried to do it with Sean Christopher Lewis’s “Militant Language,” and a bunch of small theatres. That first attempt didn’t work out too well. I wonder if anyone else has tried it.

  • Very cool idea!

  • This is already happening in the dance world to some extent. This year is the centennial of the Stravinsky/Nijinsky masterpiece Le Sacre Du Printemps, that sparked riots in the theatre at its premiere in Paris, and dance companies around the world are mounting new and old versions of the ballet. And with public and private arts funding sources fast drying up, and the cost of mounting new ballets prohibitive, dance companies are collaborating on “co-productions,” such as the new Christopher Wheeldon ‘Cinderella’ for the Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. This makes great sense not just economically, but artistically – very interesting to see how different companies perform the same work.

  • While I see your point, I hate this idea. As it would greatly reduce the number of different plays that get produced across this country. And if we want our Art form to be fresh and exciting we need to give those slots to New Plays! Sure this plan would greatly benefit one playwright. But I don’t think it is enough. theatre is a local art. In your plan we would not be all sitting down to the same play on the same night. Each would have a different director, different actors, different set designs, and this is the beauty of out art. Live theater is not a movie, you can’t give everyone across the country the same experience at the same time.

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