From the Executive Director
Getting to Know You
By Teresa Eyring
This spring, the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis devoted itself to a three-month celebration of playwright Tony Kushner. With the prospect of a single author covering three stages under one roof, a reporter called me to ask if and why this event was significant. Would people actually turn out for these plays, he wondered—or would this gambit mean that the Guthrie will have a harder time making its ticket goals in a tough economy? Why would someone choose to see a play called The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (his reasoning went) over, say, The Lion King?
Forgetting that perplexing choice of comparisons, the answer to the first of our reporter's questions—is this event significant?—is a resounding yes. Artistic director Joe Dowling realized a key element of his own vision for the new three-stage theatre complex on the Mississippi River: It was always his intention to present a single living writer simultaneously in all three spaces, and to provide concurrent context and opportunities for discussion through lectures and public events. "In this way, our audiences can engage with a major contemporary dramatist through a range of diverse work," Dowling avows.
And the Guthrie's total Kushner immersion did in fact give Twin Cities audiences—and anyone who cared to travel there—a unique opportunity to get to know both a body of work and a way of working, bumps and all. Kushner was in residence at the Guthrie for five weeks creating his latest play while other works from his oeuvre were rehearsed. This facility, beautifully infused with the spirit of the Mississippi, was also absorbing and exuding the soul and wit of Tony Kushner.
It is not entirely uncommon for a playwright to be fêted with several productions in a single season at a single theatre (especially at the many festivals devoted to the Bard). Signature Theatre Company in New York City builds its seasons on the work of one living playwright per year, and last season extended its reach to cover the work of the Negro Ensemble Company. In February, Chicago's Goodman Theatre produced a festival dedicated to Eugene O'Neill, in which a cluster of productions were performed by international companies, giving audiences an unparalleled opportunity to experience how artists from both the U.S. and abroad interpret an American master. And some theatres' commitments to particular artists span multiple seasons.
The venerable William Inge Festival in Independence, Kans., is named for the influential American playwright who was raised in that town, but the festival's annual mandate is to honor a living playwright and his or her contributions to the American theatrical canon. A weekend of events includes readings, workshops, topical breakout sessions and a video presentation that documents—in depth—the life, times and inspirations of the honoree. This year Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt were the chosen artists, and I came away with a new sense of the richness of their longstanding collaboration—with each other, with actors, with artistic teams.
These examples notwithstanding, the theatregoing population has not been encouraged, as a general rule, to track and contemplate the creative evolution of American theatre artists (or international ones, for that matter). In museums, retrospectives abound in which the arcs of artists' careers are displayed alongside their influences, bolstered by materials to illuminate their life and times. In the "subscribe now" world of contemporary theatre, though, the goal is to interest potential audiences in seeing everything produced by one particular organization. In some cases, this means understanding the aesthetic of an artistic director or ensemble—but often does not incorporate a larger look at the landscape of who's making the work and the full dimensionality of what theatre artists generate over time.
This kind of extended engagement with a single artist (why not a designer, director, multidisciplinary artist or actor, as well as a playwright?) has the potential to inspire in communities a deeper curiosity about theatre artists in general—their influences, their processes, their individual voices, where they succeed and fail. Creating a festival under a single roof is not the only way to do this. In fact, some technology mavens are developing social networking platforms that would allow individuals to follow and communicate with performing artists over time and as they move through their careers.
At this year's Inge Festival, I spoke with a group of schoolteachers who are regulars at the festival and described themselves as "professional audience members." Arts education was the topic at hand—not just the need for more arts instruction in schools but the need for a more pervasive understanding of, and appreciation for, theatre artists themselves. They went so far as to suggest a "curriculum for audiences," in which participants progress from beginner to intermediate to advanced to "professional" by increasing their knowledge of the art form and its key players.
Lately, the conversation in theatre circles has focused more on whether the field has inadvertently chosen buildings over artists. Add to that train of thought this question: What are the strategies for long-term audience development that build passion for theatregoing by cultivating a deeper knowledge of and relationship to the artists who are making the work?