An Old Dream Dreamed Anew: American National Theatre Proposed for Ground Zero

News   An Old Dream Dreamed Anew: American National Theatre Proposed for Ground Zero The American theatre has long distinguished itself from other leading nations in one negative respect: it lacks a national theatre.

Now, an ambitious actor and a raft of noted stage artists are seeking to erase that difference. Sean Cullen, a young actor whose credits include James Joyce's The Dead, is spearheading a movement to create a national theatre which would sit at Ground Zero and import a 15-play season from the country's regional theatres. He has marshalled support from such recognizable names as Harold Prince, Meryl Streep, Blair Brown and Arthur Miller.

The plan, which will involve a complex containing three stages ranging in size from 800 to 400 seats, will be submitted to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation this week. The corporation is in charge of the rebuilding of downtown Manhattan, which was devastated by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that destroyed the World Trade Center and decimated the local economy. A drawn out bureaucratic process has since ensued to decide what would rise from the ashes of the site—a process which is still underway. Several contentious competitions resulted in a winning architectural design by Daniel Libeskind.

Libeskind's plan calls for a performing arts center. The corporation has invited arts institutions to submit proposals for the site. Among those competing with the American National Theatre—as the new project calls itself—are New York City Opera and the 92nd Street Y, according to the New York Times.

Cullen has worked on creating the center for four years. His vision for a United States national theatre would differ from those of other countries, such as Britain's Royal National Theatre, in two major respects. Instead of originating work, at the RNT does, the American National Theatre would function as a sort of clearinghouse for the nation's best stage work. A jury of five stage professionals, serving 15-month terms, would canvas 150 theatre companies across the country in search of 15 worthy productions to constitute a season—five shows for each stage in the complex.

Secondly, the institution would not receive any public support. Cullen—perhaps cognizant that the U.S. government has long been adverse to financial support of the arts—told the Times the $17-$20 million annual budget would be culled from corporations, foundations and individuals. During the 20th century, several attempts were made to establish a national theatre. The first, and generally considered to be the most successful, was the Civic Repertory Theatre, created by actress Eva Le Gallienne, who produced, directed and acted in dramas (classics and originals), played in repertory. The organization expired in 1933, after less than a decade in existence. For three decades beginning in 1953, Producer T. Edward Hambleton struggled to create a steady forum for theatrical art with his Phoenix Theatre Company, but the troupe suffered from a spotty artistic record and a fluctuating vision. Similarly, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who formed a sort of repertory company around them, long dreamed of creating a national theatre.

Lincoln Center Theatre was built in the mid-60s with the idea of becoming the country's foremost house of theatrical creation. But it quickly floundered through several administrations, never seeming to hit on the right mission or tone. With the arrival of artistic director Gregory Mosher in the mid-80s, and his successor, Andre Bishop, LCT finally became a successful organization. Still, it is widely regarded as more of a powerful nonprofit, as opposed to a living representation of U.S theatre. Similarly, Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center, another intended cultural standard-bearer, is seen as rather a grand showcase for touring productions. (The successful Sondheim celebration of 2002 began to change that impression.)