From the Executive Director

How Theatre Saved America, Part 1

By Teresa Eyring

Every so often, TCG is contacted by a reporter who questions how common it is for theatres in America to have resident acting companies. The purpose of such a call is usually to confirm that there are just a handful. Sometimes the idea is to highlight the achievements of the companies that do exist, but more often it is to point up the difficulties theatres have historically faced in maintaining year-round acting companies, or to expound upon the ways in which the nation’s resident theatres serve or don’t serve artists.

In fact, the answer to this question ain’t so simple. While permanent acting ensembles are indeed a rare commodity at major U.S. theatres, typically ignored—even by the popular monologist Mike Daisey in How Theatre Failed America, which ran Off Broadway through June 22—is the array of ensemble companies working across the country. What about, for instance, the long-term acting collaborations of Minneapolis’s Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Brooklyn’s Irondale Ensemble Project, New York City’s Wooster Group, California’s Dell’Arte International, Pig Iron Theatre Company of Philadelphia, and Touchstone Theatre, also of Pennsylvania? In New Orleans alone, a city that has no large resident theatre company, there are five operating ensembles. The Network of Ensemble Theatres, founded in 1999, now has nearly 100 members. Typically these companies are artist-driven, provide some form of regular income source for their members and act as “homes” for their artists. If they aren’t doing so already, many are working toward employing ensemble members year-round. They also tend to consider themselves “place-based,” meaning that they work primarily with local artists and respond to and serve their local communities.

A perfect illustration of “commitment to place” exists in Bloomsburg, Pa., a 138-year-old town of 12,000 that offers up a microcosm of how theatres can reflect and bond with their communities. At the center of town—along with a spectacular fountain, a Civil War monument and assorted 19th-century buildings—resides the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, occupying a restored movie theatre now named for Alvina Krause, the famed acting teacher who drew the original ensemble members to that locale. The 30-year-old group, which currently has seven ensemble members, is intricately interconnected with an ecosystem of Bloomsburg residents, businesses and public institutions, not to mention the area’s nature and history. As well as classics and contemporary work, BTE generates productions—such as Letters to the Editor and Susquehanna—that tell stories about the immediate environs. And while Bloomsburg may appear to be the classic picture of “small-town America,” it has also become an international crossroads, thanks to BTE. In the summer, the world-renowned Noh Training Project, masterminded by one of the company’s members, attracts practitioners from around the world. On a recent visit, I had the opportunity to witness the passion of the people of Bloomsburg for their ensemble—the advisory committee member from Bangladesh, who has a restaurant next door to the theatre; the county commissioner who serves on the BTE board; a philosophy professor who is passionate about BTE’s annual fundraiser, “The Taming of the Brew,” which raises money through a beer tasting; and, though I didn’t meet him, I heard about the support of the town’s 23-year-old mayor, who works at Starbucks.

So Bloomsburg stands as a shining example of a company that doesn’t get mentioned when the resident-acting-company question is posed by the press.

In larger cities, there’s another interesting dynamic at play in terms of how theatres and artists productively coexist. Many cities boast one or two major theatres that set down roots in the 1960s and ’70s, alongside a range of small and midsize companies that have sprung up within the community over time: think Chicago, Philadelphia, the Twin Cities, Washington, D.C. In many of these communities, a strong local acting, artistic and production community has also evolved. This group has in effect become a repertory company—not of a single theatre, but of an entire community. Many actors—instead of performing in several shows with a single theatre company in the same season—construct year-round employment by performing in different theatres throughout the year. Audience members get to know the actors of their community by seeing them in a number of plays at various venues. Yes, this arrangement still calls upon actors to freelance and lacks the year-after-year commitment of a seasonal contract with one institution; there can be frustrations when theatres hire too heavily from outside the community, or when there isn’t much opportunity for crossover between larger and smaller houses. But the fact remains that in these cities, the regional theatre movement’s larger goal of making it possible for theatre professionals to make a living in their own communities has in many cases been achieved.

These examples provide two views on how artists function within the framework of company today. Admittedly, the second example is more conceptual and lacks some key characteristics of an actual resident ensemble. But it helps illustrate that the ways that theatres interact with artists and community are far from monolithic—and, as with the ensemble theatres’ “place-based” philosophy, many are forging ever-stronger relationships, specific to the concerns of their region, both inside and outside the creative community. And this is just the beginning of how theatre saved America.