Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists, has compiled a family Bible for the modern American theater. In the letters, speeches, and reflections collected in An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art, American drama’s founding spirits share their visions for 50 theaters from Los Angeles to the Lower East Side. This book is a guiding light for anyone striving to understand or make theater in the US today. The stories offer both a stirring account of the modern American theater’s genesis, and a prophecy of its future potential.
In 1970, Arena Stage founder Zelda Fichandler wrote, “The American theater has begun to have a tradition: a past, a present, a future.” London captures the beginnings and expansion of this tradition through the 20th century, focusing on companies dissatisfied with Broadway’s preponderance of capital and influence. The earliest theater represented is Jane Addams’ Hull-House Dramatic Association (founded in 1897 in a Chicago tenement house); the most recent, the nomadic Cornerstone Theater Company (1986). Accounts from the intervening 98 years chart a growing American Theater Movement’s evolving ideologies, challenges, and innovations.
In the combination of dreams and obstacles which propelled them, these theaters reflect a distinctly American artistic experience. London’s chapters, grouping theaters chronologically by central themes, reveal connections across decades and regions. The same goals appear and re-appear: Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park and The Free Southern Theater both sought urgently to reach communities unrepresented in high-paying Broadway audiences. The Yiddish Art Theatre and El Teatro Campesino presented plays for, and by, America’s immigrant populations. Driven by missionaries and pioneers, conquerers and refugees, these theaters reflect the founding stories of America itself.
Familiar ghosts haunt these stories, too. Contemporary theater-makers will recognize their predecessors’ unfulfilled desire for an American National Theater, frustrations with funding models, and a tension between high “European” culture and folk art. Looming large among these specters is the difficulty of justifying the theater to a culture which, by and large, doesn’t know how to value it. The book offers several choice articulations of this challenge; a frontrunner is Lawrence Langner’s (founder, Washington Square Players) account of visiting Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe with a friend from Dayton, Ohio. “How I’d like to take a sock at that guy,” the friend told Langner, pointing to ballet master Vaslav Nijinsky. “Why doesn’t he work for a living?”
Yet, the successes of troupes across the country reveal the explosive power and enthusiasm unleashed when drama is able genuinely to connect with American audiences. Victories include the riotous ending of Waiting for Lefty‘s 1935 premiere, with audience members on their feet yelling “Strike! Strike! Strike!” and the ability of The Federal Theater Project to reach more than 25 million viewers (a quarter of the national population) in the four years between its founding in 1935 and its disbandment at the hands of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1939. These stories emphasize the rich legacy left by American theater’s 20th century luminaries, and throw light on why so many strove against great odds to sow a dramatic tradition in native soil.
An Ideal Theater
Edited and Introduced by Todd London
Published by Theatre Communications Group
Reviewed by Robert Duffley
With its clippings from the past, the book depicts the American theatrical present with much-needed clarity. The most comprehensive collection of its kind since Julius Novick’s Beyond Broadway (1968), An Ideal Theater offers a necessary next chapter in the development of an American theater culture still finding its place. London outdoes his predecessor: his format of critical introductions coupled with primary sources combines historical fact with a sampling of the founders’ original fire. We see not only how these theaters exist or existed, but also why.
And at the beginning of a new century, the “why” is important. Just short of 100 years ago, Alice Lewisohn Crowley was preparing to found The Neighborhood Playhouse in Lower Manhattan, which would open the doors of its borrowed settlement house space in 1914. She saw around her a commercial theater in which, she wrote, “technique, in and of itself, is glorified, and the will to power has overridden the instinct of relatedness.” In response, she founded an amateur theater which was, in London’s words “radically local.”
These rousing visions—and their impressive results—present modern readers with a twofold challenge. First, they urge enlightened stewardship of the theaters which, like the Neighborhood Playhouse, continue to influence the development of American drama. Second, London and his chorus of marshalled voices challenge the reader to keep pushing, following in the footsteps of Cornerstone, the Free Southern Theater, and The National Theatre of the Deaf to bring theater where it hasn’t been before.
For its vehemence and its comprehensive clarity, this book is a must-have on any drama shelf. It inspires as it teaches, pointing the way towards a theater which might, in Hallie Flanagan’s words, become “not merely a decoration, but a vital force in our democracy.”
Todd London is also the author of
The Importance of Staying Earnest:
Writing from Inside the American Theatre, 1988 – 2013.