An Ideal Theater Blog Salon, Part 2

by August Schulenburg

in TCG Books

Post image for <i>An Ideal Theater</i> Blog Salon, Part 2

Last month we launched the first stage of the An Ideal Theater blog salon, responding directly to the essays, manifestos, letters and speeches from founding visionaries in Todd London’s An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art We’ve already shared responses from Anne Cattaneo on Lincoln Center Theater, and Sherrine Azab on Washington Square Players, and we’ll continue to roll out those essays over the coming months.

But we want to expand this visionary dialogue further, and invite anyone who wishes to participate to share their own founding vision for theatre. To that end, read on for how you can get involved and write An Ideal Theater visionary essay for this blog salon. If this sounds good to you, email me to get started!


The following questions and revolutionary ideals exist as prompts for thought, and you may engage as directly or indirectly with as many or as few as you like. You do not need to respond to them as if they were a check-list or an interview, though you are welcome to do both. This is your vision for an ideal theater, and it should take the form you need it take.

There is no word limit, though we find that the range of 300-1,000 words tends to be a good length for blog essays. Please send your essay as a Word document along with a picture and bio, and feel free to include any additional attributed photos or media items that you think will support your essay.  Email me with any questions, or with your essay if you’re already ready to go.


The following questions are provided here to help shape your essay. Feel free to respond directly and/or indirectly to one, a few, all, or none.

  • What is your vision of an ideal theater?
  • Why is this vision necessary now?
  • What was the genesis of this vision?
  • What steps have you taken to see this vision come to pass?
  • What challenges have you met along the way?
  • Who has influenced you in your pioneering work, or what theatres have inspired you to create your own?  In other words, what is your lineage?
  • What would the world look like if the vision, values and praxis of your work became widely adopted?
  • What are your own “revolutionary ideals”? 


The following “revolutionary ideals” from Todd London’s introduction are provided here to help goad/shape/inspire/challenge your own visionary essay. Feel free to respond to one, a few, all, or none.

Revolutionary ideal #1: in the words of the Federal theatre project’s Hallie Flanagan: “democracy speaks in many voices . . .”

In more than a decade of research, my biggest epiphany was this: The theater as we know it—the noncommercial, non-Broadway theater—began as an immigrant theater. Its first impulse was to celebrate cultural distinctions while searching for a common tongue. Specifically, it began at Hull-House, a settlement house for new Americans in Chicago’s urban ghetto near the end of the nineteenth century. The Hull-House Dramatic Association—or, as it came to be known, the Hull-House Players—made theater as part of making America. We cobble one world from the stories of many different. Multiculturalism, or whatever you call it, didn’t begin in the 1980s, though we sometimes behave as if it did. Hull-House reminds us that ethnic, racial and cultural diversity is, in fact, our theater’s foundation. Diversity was, simply, our field’s originating premise.

Revolutionary ideal #2, from W. E. B. Du Bois: about us, by us, for us, near us.

When Renaissance man—sociologist, historian, novelist, playwright, editor, activist, NAACP founder—William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois called for the formation of a Harlem-based “Negro Folk theater,” about, by, for and near his African American community, he was articulating a new idea of theater that was also as old as theatrical expression itself. Theater is local. It can help a people shape its identity. If a theater is to be for a people, it must be of them. If it serves a community, it must be near that community. To be about “us,” we must be its authors. Fargo, North Dakota, 1905. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1918. Delano, California, 1965. Central Appalachia, 1975. Who will tell our stories, if we don’t?

Revolutionary ideal #3: “the gifted amateur [has] possibilities which the professional may have lost.” —Susan Glaspell

We all begin as amateurs. So it has been for our theater. It was customary in the nineteen-teens, during the first great boom of art theater in America, to recount that the word “amateur” comes from the French for “love,” the love of what we do. The Chicago Little Theatre, the Neighborhood Playhouse, the Provincetown Players, the Washington Square Players were all passionately amateur in the beginning. Their beginning was, directly, ours. The great-grandfather theaters, founded before the regional boom of the late forties and after, all began as amateurs, too, though their intentions may have been otherwise: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Cleveland Play House, the Pasadena Playhouse.

“Life is worth play!” proclaimed the exultant George Cram Cook, known as “Jig,” who with his wife Susan Glaspell rallied their bohemian friends to form the short-lived Provincetown Players. Provincetown became spiritual godmother to every experimental theater after. It began as a fervently amateur enterprise and, as such, forged a community whose spirit- bonds are elusive for professional companies. In the amateur theater we are connected, adventurers together—audience, writer, player, all one.

Revolutionary ideal #4: “the individual can achieve his fullest stature only through the identification of his own good with the good of his group, a group which he himself must help to create.” —Harold Clurman

Sometimes the genius of a theater lives in an individual; sometimes it lives in the group. If a theater’s going to last, it had better live in both. There may be great examples internationally of theaters thriving under the visionary leadership of a single, prominent artist. In the U.S., however, it rarely works that way. Consider the nascent, soon-to-be mythic Steppenwolf ensemble, founded in a rolling fashion by a high school student named Gary Sinise and his friends and friends’ friends. They incubated in the basement of a suburban church, and out popped a miracle of talent: founders Sinise, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney; along with John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Moira Harris, Alan Wilder, and joined in short order by Joan Allen and Glenne Headly. How does such a startling convergence happen? What set the stage for the abundance of talent known as the Wooster Group (which sprang from the Performance Group, represented here) or seen in the early acting companies of Arena Stage and the American Conservatory Theater? Unlike, for example, a great massive novel, where the marvel is how capacious Melville or Tolstoy or George Eliot can be, the theater excites through the wonder of confluent gifts, the alignment of powerful individuals “harnessed to the whole shebang,” as John Steinbeck put it. Or, in Clurman’s words, “We must help one another find our common ground; we must build our house on it, arrange it as a dwelling place for the whole family of decent humanity.”

Revolutionary ideal #5: “theaters or institutions?”

Okay, that’s not a revolutionary statement. This time the energy is in the question. The interrogative form holds the principle. What is the relationship between a theater and an institution? What does it mean to live in a theater culture whose great accomplishment to date is the building and maintenance of hundreds of what Arena Stage founder Zelda Fichandler calls “instrumentalities”? What does it say about our ingenuity that American theater administrators are so excellent and its artists so confused? What does it say about the contemporary American theater if we believe, to use the phrase Fichandler lifts from Hamlet, that the art is in some ways still “fusting in us unused”?

Revolutionary ideal #6, from Julian beck of the Living theatre: “you must enter the theater through the world.”

We need heroics. At least I do. They pump us up, encourage our little selves toward magnificence. They urge us to action. Almost every political theater in America offers such incitement—the Living Theatre, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, El Teatro Campesino and the Free Southern Theater. “If there is a single driving force which characterizes the New York Shakespeare Festival,” that organization’s founder Joseph Papp said, “it is its continual confrontation with the wall that separates vast numbers of people from the arts—[a wall] spawned by poverty, ignorance, historical conditions.”

Both literally and figuratively, everyone who enters a theater—artist or audience—enters from and through the outside world, and to that world returns. Theater is no land apart. For theaters that take this contiguity to heart, theater practices must be, to steal another word from Julian Beck, “ameliorative.” Activist theater (aka political theater) exists not simply to put on shows, but to make the world better.

One more revolutionary ideal, the seventh but also the first. This principle runs through the genesis stories of American theaters. It might be the most challenging to our world-wise, pragmatic, quantitative age. From Sheldon Cheney, who founded Theatre Arts Magazine in 1916:

Revolutionary ideal #7: “idealism . . . may itself be put down as the first ideal of the art theater.”

Thanks for reading, and we hope that you’ll consider participating in An Ideal Theater blog salon!

August Schulenburg is the Associate Director of Communications at TCG. He is also a creative partner of Flux Theatre Ensemble, winner of the 2011 Caffe Cino Fellowship Award. He is a playwright whose produced plays include Riding the Bull, DEINDE, Carrin Beginning, The Lesser Seductions of History, Dream Walker, Honey Fist, Rue, Jacob’s House and Other Bodies. He is also a director (most recently Ellen McLaughlin’s Ajax in Iraq and Sol Crespo’s Old Maid) and actor (the recent film, The Golden Scallop and the play Hearts Like Fists). He serves on the board of the Network of Ensemble Theaters. Learn more here.