(Photo from the early years of People’s Light & Theatre Company. Learn more about the An Ideal Theater salon, and how you can participate, here. Abigail Adams is responding to André Gregory’s essay about The Theatre of the Living Arts in Todd London’s book, An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art. Excerpts from the book will be read as “Vision Bursts” at the 2014 TCG National Conference.)
“We must reexamine the structure and goals of the regional theatre.”
Yes, André Gregory, we must. That cry from your heart, written 47 years ago, has an echo in our own. How is this possible in such a different world? The Philadelphia region now supports more than 50 producing theatres. A robust community of actors, directors, designers, artisans and managers make their living here. No one theatre can yet support a company of actors, but many spoken and unspoken relationships create a network of care and professional development. New scripts find production, not as often as most of us would like, but as Gregory also said, “repertories are being developed that stretch tastes and span many interests in the community.” No Board has the power (or desire) to veto a production or to dictate programming. No artistic director in his or her right mind will produce work to alienate the Board—challenge? Yes. But not alienate. What would that prove? We’ve made great strides. There is so much more theatre here than when André Gregory, voiced his cry. But theatre for whom? And for how much longer? And to what end?
White and upper middle class men and women still dominate our board and leadership structures. Foundations and donor agendas increasingly influence, even dictate, programming, as does our need for ever more earned income. To make the budget, we delay required maintenance and renovations. Audiences are stressed, fickle, and wary of risk. Artists rarely influence local civic life. Plenty here to make us howl. We’ve managed to grow and survive. How? We created theatres that reflect the values and tastes of the people and institutions who support them—a group that consultants call the “inclined”. The inclined audience which has supported the regional theatre for the past 50 years has become less inclined, not least by dying off. But because we created a relatively homogeneous closed system fueled by the ‘inclined” we now face a crisis of sustainability and a no man’s land in which we wonder what to do next. In 1967 Andre Gregory assumed that there was an audience that could be provoked. We can’t make that assumption any more. But not because we’ve alienated or bored people to death. Worse than that, vast numbers of people have no idea that our theatres even exist. Call them the “uninclined,” though I think the “unknowing” would be more accurate–thousands of young people who have never had arts education, thousands of parents who think theatre is for somebody else, somebody richer, smarter, or different in some other way.
Still, I see great hope in those uninclined whom we don’t know yet. At People’s Light we think they may be our salvation. Conventional audience development doesn’t begin to describe our task. How do we learn what matters to those around us? How do we make work that addresses their desires, concerns, and needs? How do we become interested in what we don’t already know? To thrive artistically (never mind financially) we must include those that have never set foot in our theatre, we must create access for those who have been excluded for whatever reason. Our vision for the future imagines a new degree of reciprocity among artists and communities, new kinds of relationship that transform both. We must discover ways to engage communities in projects that lead to relationships in which inspiration and support flow back and forth between us and them. Such reciprocity will inform and inspire more and more of our programming. Does what we do make us more or less responsive to significant change ourselves? As we answer this question play by play, project by project, we will change the architecture of our buildings, the way we finance our operations, our ideas of excellence, even our most basic conceptions of theatre art. Our mission won’t change. In fact, by stitching ourselves ever more securely into the fabric of community life we may find that we actually do (to quote from our Mission Statement) “bring people together and provide opportunities for reflection, discovery, and celebration”.
André Gregory, wanted to make theatre that provokes. I think that means he wanted aesthetic order to expose the injustice, cruelty, alienation—those many wounds of society that he felt around him. We seem to live now in a perpetual state of pain, financial and spiritual. We need a theatre that heals—a theatre that uses our differences to bring us together and make us whole.
That might be the theatre André Gregory yearns for now.
Abigail Adams is Artistic Director and CEO of The People’s Light & Theatre Company. During her 38 year association with the Theatre, she has directed more than sixty plays, including The Rainmaker, The Trip to Bountiful, Dividing the Estate, Legacy of Light, Nathan the Wise, In the Blood, The Day of the Picnic, Getting Near to Baby, Theophilus North, Twelfth Night, Something You Did, Fabulation, The Member of the Wedding, The O’Connor Girls, The Miser, String of Pearls, Arthur’s Stone, Merlin’s Fire, In the Blood, The Little Foxes, Playhouse Creatures, Book of Days, The Road to Mecca, Sally’s Gone, She Left Her Name, Heartbreak House, A Perfect Ganesh, My Mother Said I Never Should, Misalliance, Three Hotels, Peter Pan, The Last Good Moment of Lily Baker, and Taken in Marriage. Ms. Adams has directed readings and workshops of new plays for Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, Circle Rep, New York Stage and Film, and the Public Theatre. Abbey served for ten years on the faculty of Swarthmore College and has also taught at New York University, Bryn Mawr College, Carnegie Mellon University, and The Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. She has served on a variety of national boards and panels and is an active advocate for arts education. She holds an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Ursinus College.