King helped us see that wherever we are, there is still more to do, and that we cannot rest until it is done. His exercise of free speech, while unpopular with some Americans, was his right as a citizen.
As the media has become a conglomerate, however, expressions of honest vision like King’s have become increasingly rare. Hardly any politician will venture out on a limb, and, more to the point, it is often difficult to raise the money necessary to get behind alternative voices.
For that reason, I believe that the theater plays a significant role in the future of American democracy. Grassroots theater, in particular, has the capacity to preserve the strengths inherent in a multicultural society, to teach trust and collaboration, and to develop new thinking that addresses the issues of the day. Projects that are successful in one locality can be held up as examples in another. Wildly successful projects will prove themselves as they gather stakeholders and enthusiastic audiences.
A little bit of history about recent developments in American theater is probably useful here. The regional theater movement in America grew first out of the vision of Hallie Flanagan, a theatrical producer, director, playwright and author who was hired in 1935 to create the Federal Theater Project as part of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration established to provide jobs to unemployed Americans during the Depression. Flanagan’s vision was to bring theater to the great majority of Americans who had never experienced it and to create new works in geographically-diverse parts of the country that were relevant to people in local communities. In 1938, Flanagan was brought to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee over concerns about the “content” and “messages” of the theater that was being produced and the Federal Theater Project was closed in 1939.
The regional theater movement began again in 1947 when Margo Jones founded Theater ’47 in Dallas, Texas. Though touring shows did exist at this time, there were no quality professional American theatre companies outside of New York. Jones believed in the decentralization of theater. She wanted her art to exist all across America, beyond the realm of commercialized Broadway. She reasoned that if she and her collaborators succeeded “in inspiring the operation of 30 theatres like ours, the playwright won’t need Broadway.”
In 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts was formed and along with the Ford Foundation was responsible for a new infusion of capital to support a growing network of regional theaters around the country. Of course, the condition for granting this money was that the theaters had to form Boards of Directors that were composed of local business leaders who would, ostensibly, be more responsible for managing the organization’s funds than the artists who had fostered and developed the regional theater movement.
This was probably the most critial moment in the movement’s history: at the same time that the financial capacity of the theaters was increased, the decision-making authority of the theaters’ original leadership was curtailed. In most cases, a Board President or senior staff person unfamiliar with the art form was put into a position to alter the artistic direction of the company. This was the moment when the regional theater movement stopped being about a vision of free expression and broad-ranging representation of American’s voices and became part of a commercial network that would ultimately be bent to serve Broadway and the film industry instead.
Insisting on fiscal responsibility is always a good thing. But the regional theater movement was built upon a larger principle than merely producing theater that generated a consistent bottom line from ticket sales. It was created to achieve an expanded dialogue with American citizens, wherever they lived, to give the most talented among them a vibrant platform for the expression of new and dissenting ideas, and to revitalize the theatrical repertoire so that people in the future would understand our experience. Lorca said it best: “Theater is the memory of a society.”
Under these circumstances, we are failing to achieve Margo Jones’ dream of a world that is free of the commercial constraints of Broadway; instead, we have ended up with dozens and dozens of smaller Broadways, each one subject to the wheeling, dealing and speculating necessary for survival under the current economic model. In the face of ever-increasing costs, these mini-Broadways have no more chance for success than the real Broadway in New York, and they are limited in how they can collaborate because they have been placed in direct competition with each other.
Theaters compete tooth and nail for local and national funding based on their individual records of success which usually entails the complete “lock-down” of plays and projects that might someday move on to Broadway or the movies. The regional theaters have, in some respects, become the tombs for extraordinary works of art and expression that may (or may not) have received a premiere production at one theater for three to six weeks and will never be produced again. Furthermore, there are almost no incentives for theater companies to produce second, third or fourth productions of plays because the economic model doesn’t currently allow for it and because there doesn’t yet fully exist a culture of trust and collaboration among theaters nationally and globally. It also makes sense that a play that will be embraced by several artistic directors, each responsible to their own constituencies, is likely to be more universally relevant and engaging than a play that cannot gather this kind of support.
This is where the Lark can make a difference in the world. First, we exist to open doors to new voices and keep them open. In an ideal sense, democracy’s main strength may be that it draws upon an entire society to enlist its leaders. If the democratic view of the world assumes that talent is as likely to occur in one citizen as another, then it is natural to conclude that the talent pool will increase as we give more citizens the chance to be heard and acknowledged.
Next, the Lark spends its days creating strategies to galvanize local communities around the important ideas of emerging and established writers who are striving to reach for more. Like the democratic process, the Lark’s process allows for dissent and open discussion, for consensus-building, decision-making, action and reassessment. Always the door remains open, free expression is encouraged, and the relationship between the individual and society is nurtured and deepened.
And, finally, we are committed to developing models for connecting successful local work to a global network. If the Lark is truly able to lead the field as “a mobilizer,” to provoke and support the creation of innovative new work on a local level and bring artists and institutional leaders together as part of a growing collaborative network of theaters, universities and community outreach organizations, we can change the face of theater in America and the world and give back to the regional theaters what they have lost as cultural institutions. We can expand every individual’s opportunity to be heard and, at the same time, ensure a new repertoire of innovative, rigorously developed works of theater that will achieve global distribution.
John Clinton Eisner