Why America Needs A National Theatre — But It Might Look Different Than You Think

News   Why America Needs A National Theatre — But It Might Look Different Than You Think
 
The U.K. has a national theatre. So does France, Germany, even China. So why don't we have one in the United States? We put some theories to the test and came up with a solution to America's arts problem. 

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Why doesn't the United States have a national theatre? On its face, the question seems ridiculous. After all, we've only just arranged for national health care. 

Still, a national theatre is a dramatic way to bridge the divisions in America today. It could be the antidote we need to inject a sense of community into our newly separatist culture, where each person streams a different movie on their personal screen, "friends" those who agree with their opinions and de-friends those who don't. Perhaps, by turning a collection of individual viewers into an audience of Americans, a National Theatre of the United States could revive our credo E pluribus unum, "Out of many, one."

London's National Theatre
London's National Theatre

When we hear "national theatre," what probably springs to mind is the Royal National Theatre in London. The National positions itself as a cultural representative to its own citizens and other countries — a flagship of the British theatrical community. On its three stages, the company revives classic dramas and develop new works. In many cases, these works act as a State of the Union for the stage. And in the last few years, The National has broadcasted live performances to cinemas around the world to spread their brand of theatre. 

This institution follows roughly the same model as most American non-profit companies, with a small portion of income from government sources (in this case the Arts Council England) and the remainder from ticket sales, fundraising and other sources. Instead the theatre's status as the National Theatre comes from a government license. Yet, our federal government also plays a vital part in America's artistic culture. The Kennedy Center receives government money for its maintenance costs, although its artistic budget is covered mostly by ticket sales and private donations. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) supports artists and institutions with funding matched by state, corporate and private aid.

Still, unlike most nations (the U.K., France, Germany, Japan, China, and India among many others), the U.S. has no government-sponsored dramatic company and no single building that houses America's brand of theatre. Why? What would a national theatre look like in America? Or, are we better off without one?

NO BUSINESS IN SHOW BUSINESS

American politics present the biggest hurdle for a national theatre. Broadly speaking, the American right sees no need for government intrusion in the arts. They might point to Broadway's record-breaking box office receipts and annual audience growth as signs of a healthy and popular independent industry. Conservatives also view subsidies as a blockade to artistic integrity: The government could have the power to censor "disagreeable" art by withholding funds and promote "acceptable" work by awarding dollars. Add a strong utilitarian streak — "how are the arts practical?" — and the conservative movement argues that government has no business in show business.

Inside the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Inside the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Liberals argue for-profit arts culture creates barriers, shutting people out based on race, socio-economic status and gender. The high cost of mounting a Broadway production limits who can create and, subsequently, who can afford to attend. Without public funding, American liberals say, the arts become elitist, but with funding, they can serve and reflect the diversity of American life. Compare it to libraries and schools. Bill Rauch, artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — a company based in Ashland, OR — says, "A theatre is a vital community resource and should be accessible to everybody." 

While the American left has slowly gained ground on this debate, especially during the Clinton era, Rob Weinert-Kendt, the editor-in-chief of American Theatre, says "we just haven't had the political will" for more arts subsidies, much less for a full national theatre.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

If American established a national theatre, where would it go? Currently, American theatre is extremely decentralized and fiercely independent. This is in part because the country is so huge. Geography has always been a factor in America's cultural history. "London is the financial, artistic, cultural and political capital of the UK," explains Weinert-Kendt, "and we don't have anything comparable to that. Thanks to Jefferson and Hamilton's deal, we have finance and culture here in New York, politics in D.C." Plus, the center of dramatic production split in the early 20th century when film moved to Los Angeles while theatre remained in Manhattan.

What's more, there is a school of thought that believes a national home for drama ought to be accessible to everyone in the country. "If you choose a place, whether it's D.C. or New York or Kansas City, it's just not going to be accessible," says Greg Reiner, director of theatre and musical theatre at the NEA. "People would have to buy plane tickets to get there." 

Of course, there are destination theatres in America, like Rauch's Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Rauch notes that 85 percent of its audience drives or flies in from over 100 miles away, which affects the programming. "Because a majority of the audience comes from all over, we think about work that is national in scale."

But even if this hypothetical national theatre were to attract tourists, Lisa McNulty foresees difficulties. The artistic director of the Women's Project Theater in New York City points out, "The problem is, how to create a national theatre that feels like it speaks to someone in Des Moines and somebody in Tallahassee and somebody in Portland? By its nature, a theatre is tied to the city that it's in." 

Reiner compares theatre to the slow food movement. "If I go to Atlanta, I'm going to have a meal that's locally grown and can only have been made in that community. I think the same is true for theatre." These artists recognize a balance between local variation and national scale will be an ongoing challenge to any national theatre.

A NEW DEAL FOR AMERICAN THEATRE

Location and funding are practical problems, but it's important to note that they can be solved. In fact, for a brief period the United States had a national theatre. Back in 1935, the Roosevelt administration founded the Federal Theatre Project as part of its New Deal programs. The FTP, in the words of FDR's Brain Trust, promised Americans a "free, adult, uncensored theatre" by subsidizing a federation of regional companies. Its dual mission: to provide work for unemployed artists, and to deliver theatre to audiences throughout the country.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt

The FTP subsidized work in 40 states; at its peak, it employed 10,000 artists. Its theatres presented new plays and musicals, revivals of classic works, children's theatre, puppetry, circuses and non-English language drama. Roosevelt appointed Hallie Flanagan, a professor specializing in Europe's civic theatres, to direct the project. From 1935 to 1939, Flanagan used congressional funds to encourage experimental and progressive work that reflected local concerns and culture.

But Flanagan was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938, its inaugural year. Though HUAC faulted the Project for its spending, this was a smokescreen for its true concern: plays with left wing agendas. Within the year, Congress cut funding, the Project was closed down, and Flanagan left Washington. The first national theatre in the United States had finished its run.

FLANAGAN'S VISION

Without political or artistic support, the Federal Theatre Project was a dead end, but the idea of a network of theatres — rather than a singular playhouse — has clout. "The American spirit is that no one voice should predominate," says Weinert-Kendt. "In this country, no one entity can represent everything. And maybe that's alright," McNulty agrees. 

"At the Women's Project, I'm always asking, 'How do you identify the needs of the community? How do you honor place and also honor the larger national conversation? How you do show diversity and unity at the same time?'" asks McNulty. Her company, which at its broadest aims to represent half of humanity, must strike a similar balance between the specific and universal. So McNulty frames the question as How do you represent all within a few? "It seems to me that rather than one national theatre, a consortium of institutions could paint a national picture."

"I'm looking right now at the current grantees [of the NEA], and I'm struck by how broad the scope is. They're coming from such diverse locations and sizes of theatres, from the largest LORTs [League of Resident Theatres] to the small community-based theatres," says Reiner. "I think you see a nice cross-section, and that reflects what's great about our country."

Indeed, a federation of regional theatres overseen by a small but active government agency might be a better model than a single institution. It would encourage a spectrum of local work and engage a diverse audience while focusing the theatre's artistic and cultural goals. Individual theatres would focus on local flavors, but combine like a patchwork quilt of American culture. 

The Kennedy Center
The Kennedy Center

For this system to work, guidelines would likely dictate participating theatres offer tickets at a low price (and likely offer some free performances as the Millennium Stage at The Kennedy Center does) to solve the accessibility issue; choose work to represent regional character so that, nationally, they paint a portrait of American life; work with local artists to provide lesser known talent the opportunity for representation.

Flanagan had the intelligence to see the problems that a national theatre would face, and had the skills to organize a solution to those problems. Most importantly, she had a vision. She defined the terms of the conversation so well that, 85 years later, it still follows her lead.  

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