The Importance of International Theater (Andrew)

I can only speak from the perspective of an audience member, but I did want to put in my two cents in about Yinzerspielen and international theatre.

I think that, without knowing much of the details of the rehearsal process and only seeing the in-America side of the production, I can confidently say that at least the idea of the project and international theater collaboration was very noble, immensely challenging and, all things considered, an extremely important and successful endeavor. While I’m sure there were difficulties involved, from my perspective the shows turned out well, and most importantly, I think the practice of “international theater” is essential to the continued vitality of stage drama as an art form, at least in the United States and likely everywhere. I wanted to mention, briefly, why I think so.

Theater in the United States, outside a few very large metropolitan areas, is in serious trouble as an industry and as a medium. For some harrowing but fairly typical statistics check out a recent City Paper article about the two major non-musical theater companies in Pittsburgh, City and the Public. The article mentions the immense financial strain experienced recently by theater companies across the country, including the closing of some major players in big cities, as well as the duress of many smaller ones. Even for the successful ones, the statistics are troubling: the article mentions that the Public’s average ticket holder is around fifty years old, and that the vast majority of subscribers even to the edgy City Theatre are over 60. I think the reasons for this are many, but a lot of it boils down to the economic recession on the one hand, and emerging entertainment technologies that, over the last ten years, have put even the film and music industry under difficult financial straits. In any case, the prognosis for non-musical stage drama in the United States, at least, is troubling– but I don’t think it’s hopeless.

I’ve done a lot of study as an undergraduate of American theater of the Great Depression, and the situation in the 1930s reminds me a lot of the circumstances of contemporary U.S. theater. Due to both the Depression and the emergence of talking motion pictures, between 1929 and 1932, literally ninety-percent of professional theater companies in New York City closed, not to mention in smaller companies in cities across the country. Academic drama departments shut down everywhere. Theater critics in some circles suspected that theater would die off completely in the United States by the end of the decade, replaced completely by motion pictures. But it didn’t, and that stay of execution had a lot to do with overseas influences.

A theatrical avant-garde emerged in 1930s United States that revitalized the way American theater was practiced. The government-funded Federal Theater Project, the Group Theater, and countless other smaller, independent theater groups began producing tons of experimental theatrical productions, from the Voodoo Macbeth to the Living Newspapers to the stark realist productions of Eugene O’Neill and Clifford Odets. Modern theatrical lighting and design were heavily influenced by this period, as designers moved toward sparer, more representational designs. And a generation of the biggest names of 20th century American theater were cultivated as actors, directors, and writers in this avant-garde: Lee Strasberg, Orson Welles, Arthur Miller, Paul Robeson, Elia Kazan, for example, all experienced their first professional development in this milieu.

The Group Theater

The Group Theater

 

The ideas, concepts, images, and aesthetic of these dramatic experiments were taken directly from the European avant-garde of France, Germany, and Russia. Stanislavskian acting, which now predominates in the United States, was first popularized by Lee Strasberg of the Group Theater in the 1930s after studying in Russia for many years. A number of experimenters such as Hallie Flanagan introduced the politicization of drama, as well as departures from non-linear dramatic structure, after watching the plays of Bertolt Brecht in Germany and agitprop in the Soviet Union. Many of the most important designers of the 1930s- who would work in and influence American design for decades- were profoundly affected by watching the design concepts and innovations of Vsevolod Meyerhold in Russia. In other words, the acting methods, the dramatic writing, and designs that would constitute the “Golden Age” of American theater in the 1940s and 1950s had their roots in American theater artists ‘borrowing’ from artists overseas.

Cory’s right that it’s especially important to collaborate internationally in today’s ever-shrinking world. But globalization, facilitated transportation networks, internet social communities do weird things: while it makes connecting with each other easier, it’s also easier to become more provincial than it was before, compartmentalized. It’s easy to get stuck into a particular cultural niche without having to branch out. I think that the future vitality and progressivism of theater (in the United States, at least) depends entirely on our ability as artists to break out of those cultural niches. I think the time is well-nigh for us to begin looking beyond our cultural borders for ways to make our chosen art newer, better, stronger, more exciting and more relevant, not just because it’s what we should do today, but because it’s what theater artists have done for decades (or even centuries). What if the new acting technique that revolutionizes theater comes from Paraguay? What if the next Brecht comes from Nigeria? What if we can bring brilliant new designs from Japan to our own countries? What if we find a playwright, genre, or director from another country whose work seems to speak well to cultural circumstances in our own country?

My own take on Yinzerspielen is that it was a very strong positive contributor to this very necessary goal. While clearly a first step, I suspect it was nevertheless a great leap forward– certainly for me as an audience member, and I’m sure much more if I’d participated directly. The more we practice international theatrical collaboration, the more productive it can become for everyone involved, the closer we can get to revitalizing our respective artistic communities and expanding our cultural horizons.

So I say bravo to everyone involved for a job well-done and a very important mission accomplished.

Andrew McNally directed the staged reading of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz to benefit Yinzerspielen at Te Cafe in August 2009. He directed a full production of the play as a supported lab at the University of Pittsburgh the following autumn.

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