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Our Own New Deal: Planting Roots for American Theater

First things first: the talent must move. We must attract it by offering a drive and sense of audacity that is not true of the theater they have known...If they don't like what we have done, let them create their own theaters—there are places all over the country ripe for them. But let them not wait for the system to accomodate them when, after making their rounds, they are already deformed

— Herbert Blau, The Impossible Theater , 1964

In the 1920s, the country had a severe deficit of theaters outside of the big cities. Groups dispersed from their homes to new ones across the country all throughout the decade. This move was coined “The Little Theatre Movement” as community theater was born out of grassroots efforts made by one-time city dwellers. Troupes like The Provincetown Players and Samuel Eliot’s Little Theatre in Indianapolis in 1915 helped to shape this new movement. The Little Theatre Movement paved the way for The Federal Theatre project of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration as these “little theatres” became more popular. For the first time in American history there was widespread, non-commercial theater being produced across the nation at one time. The Federal Theatre was able to open the same show in 19 different cities on the same evening! A national network existed where theatrical practitioners were in constant contact, creating active discourse on subjects ranging from theater performances and innovation to local elections and societal issues. The advent of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1966 and tax law changes founded not-for-profit status, which resulted in extensive growth of resident non-profit theaters, and the market was flooded with new money—working to keep art alive as well as stimulate the economy.

And all of this was done without computers and the internet.

Could this not happen again? Yes. But a new strategy has to be formulated which takes into consideration our current climate, and also learns from the steps and missteps of our Federal Theater ancestors. We currently have no WPA, and the Federal Theatre Project per se is long dead, as is, sadly, the majority of public funding. But the country is still there, vast and large, and opportunities abound for the brave and modest theater artists who dare to set off into the great wheat fields, deserts and mega-malls of America, and begin laying a foundation.

The greatness and tragedy of the success of the FTP was how many people it inspired to become artists by offering opportunity, ad how these artists gave birth to other artists and clogged the pools of rich theater as they moved to cities once the money and opportunity dried up. But the audience did not dry up. It still exists stronger than ever, but is secretive, hidden, and underserved.

A modest proposal: finding where the grass roots

America is, as we have seen from the great swathes of red and blue on election-night maps, in many ways a divided country. People with similar politics tend, whenever they can, to bundle together. But in order to understand the people who we are studying and presenting representations of on stage, their land, their community, we must get to know them. We cannot achieve this through online connections, or through showing up in their towns once every 2-4 years and asking why they are the way they are, challenging them to change their minds, and asking for their votes. We must become part of their community. And not through infiltration as an army exercise. Through what we do every evening in our theaters. Through common human practice. This is the grandest sacrifice we can ask of ourselves. We move from New York City to the other parts of America. We move from our Cities to towns. We leave behind our comfort zones to find new ones. We move back to wherever we came from—not only to help mix the pool of red and blue, but also to evolve into the next historic move for American theater.

The Plan

Pick a town. Do your research. Let’s take, for example, the remote exotic locale of Wichita, Kansas. First, we check the demographics. Is there a viable need for theater, and can the community support it? When cast away into the sea of the unknown, we seek the spires of the known: Universities. How many are there, what are their theater programs like, what is their focus? Then we turn to power: Local Government. Who are the local officials, incumbent and running—do they have any interest in the arts? The complete the triptych of authority, we seek locally established peers: what not-for-profit theaters currently exist, what is their local support, and what is their aesthetic? Are there collaborations between theaters, or is it more a matter of each to its separate niche? And finally we turn to the audience: who comes to the theater, and what do they want to see? Most of this research can be done from a distance, email and phone-calls, and finally an initial visit.

From here, the steps are pragmatic. We search for work (theaters, teaching posts at universities or public schools). We locate an apartment. We make the necessary arrangements. We’ve all done it many times before, many here in New York, but this time…we move to Wichita.

Putting a face on it, let’s consider a Jew from New York moving to Wichita to pursue theater, or—to be more specific—me. Clearly I may be an outsider from the get-go. I’m away from my security base, and from that chance to suddenly hit-it-big with a big New York Times review—the carrot that lures artists in droves to the cities. But my goal is to work, to get involved, and to build a foundation which at once accommodates the local community and leaves space for the development of new work which speaks to their true interests. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be fast—that’s not the point.

First I get to know the community—I attend public functions, go out to eat, have drinks in bars. I get involved in local clubs, see local shows. I meet people. At the same time I am working on the school production. I have chosen a play that the community would like to see, and the students would like to be in, perhaps a musical—The Wizard of Oz, or Grease.  I teach after-school acting classes. Within a year or two, I’m meeting the parents of these students at the shows. I’ve become active in the local political scene. I’m working on a campaign for City Council. By this point I know many people in the community and am slowly earning their trust. They don’t think I am some crazy outsider (any longer). They see me as someone who genuinely wants to become a part of their community, which I do.

Theater should belong to those who love it for its own sake, the true amateurs…The amateurs: how much good they can stir up! The great mistake is to believe that any real man of the theater, author or actor, is ever a professional. The miracle which will transform the theater in France and elsewhere will take place among the amateurs and nowhere else. There can be no doubt that from the very day the ‘professionals’ control the stage, the theater is destined either to go astray or become entirely bankrupt.

—Aurélien Lugné-Poë

There may well be many Wichita residents who had theatrical ambitions of their own years ago, and some who still do. I talk with parents; perhaps one recommends that I get a directing gig at a local theater, or produce a show with their help. I don’t choose Ionesco or Beckett off the top; I choose a Williams or an O’Neill. The next year we spend putting on these shoes and developing an audience. We form a troupe and begin choosing shows together. We begin creating our own work. We collaborate with local universities using their facilities and equipment until we are able to open our own.

This trip is permanent

We may choose to leave after several years of work and turn the operations over to someone else in the community. And yet, this is but one town, one place. We invite our old downtown friends to see our work in this new place. The hope is that after seeing our success—and that we are able to be paid for our work much more generously than in New York, to have a home and a life beyond the city, to be making a serious change in our communities through our art—other theater artists will make the move as well. Entire troupes or companies can move together. Or, as The Subjective Theatre Company is planning to do in the next two years, some members of the company go and some stay, thus creating two factions in two different places, consequently expanding our audience, outlook and our work as a whole.

There is no need for our work to be produced to the proverbial choir. Liberals must present to Conservatives, and Conservatives must present to Liberals. Our work must be seen throughout the land and as often as possible. Otherwise the messages of our plays will fall on dead ears, stifling discourse and debate. Regardless of your mission as a theater artist, if you have been in NYC for less than 10 years, you should leave, now. Whether your goal is purely artistic, or if you seek a broader political goal, does not matter. Our city is clogged with theatrical artists, and more keep turning up. Increasingly there is no money or space to provide for over 1000 independent theater companies. Do we want to stuff our city until it bursts, while depriving the rest of our country of our art? To continually create new theater that challenges our audience, we must mix the pool on a more permanent basis. This new pool will only further our art as our audience and environment has changed, keeping our theater up-to-date and healthy. Our move begins as a sacrifice, and ends up as a grand opportunity.


Zachary R. Mannheimer

ZACHARY R. MANNHEIMER is the Artistic Director The Subjective Theatre Company.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2005

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