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Inside 50 Years of Regional Theater — Much More Than Broadway's Crash-test Dummy

In the midst of a busy New York theater awards season, regional theaters celebrate 50 years of "local art by local artists for local audiences."

Honorees and presenters at the 2013 NCTF Gala honoring the 50th anniversary of five regional theaters (pictured from left to right): George Takei, Jerry Manning, Michael Wilson, Ben Moore, Michael Gennero, Richard Thomas, Vanessa Williams, Darko Tresnjak, Curt Columbus, Jennifer Bielstein, Michael Stotts, Bruce Whitacre, and Joe Dowling
(© Lyn Hughes Photography)

As a breed, New Yorkers operate under the assumption that Broadway lies in the center of the theater universe, with all other theater outlets merely orbiting around it. As one of the world's most iconic theater destinations with the brightest lights and biggest budgets, this may very well be the case. However, this Broadway-centric model makes us frequently forget about the dozens of regional theaters that do important work beyond the small island of Manhattan.

A common misconception about regional theaters (or "resident" theaters as they are fondly called) is that they primarily function as pit stops on the road to the Great White Way. True, regional theaters do frequently serve as safe spaces for developing shows where writers and directors can stretch their creative legs before their productions hit the burning spotlight of Broadway. We've seen a number of these shows roll through New York (amassing a nice collection of Tony Awards) in just the past few years: Barrington Stage Company brought us The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2005, Disney's latest hit Newsies came out of New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, and Cambridge's American Repertory Theater (helmed by three-time Tony Award nominee Diane Paulus) was the original home of last season's Tony Award-winning productions of Once and The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, as well as the current Broadway revival of Pippin (nominated for 10 Tony Awards), and a production of The Glass Menagerie, scheduled to come to Broadway this fall.

Yet, in spite of these strong ties, Broadway is rarely the main motivation behind a regional theater's artistic decisions. Bruce Whitacre, executive director of the National Corporate Theatre Fund (NCTF), which represents 19 of the country's most prestigious regional theaters, says, "For most people in regional theater — and I think Diane Paulus would agree — trying out for Broadway is not [its] primary role. [It's] to express the art in their communities."

Regional theater has been grounded in this sense of community since its birth in the early 1900s. Before the growth of regional theater in America, actors had one of only two employment options: They could either work in New York City or travel with touring productions — no other form of professional theater existed. In the 1960s, vice president of the Ford Foundation W. McNeil Lowry championed what is now known as the "regional theater movement," funding the U.S.-wide establishment of several professional theaters, five of which are currently celebrating their 50th anniversary: Actors Theatre of Louisville, Guthrie Theater, Hartford Stage, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and Trinity Repertory Company. "From their very founding," Whitacre says, "regional theater was a combined effort by communities and artists to put together something that would be a permanent presence in that community. What we are now celebrating with the 50th anniversary is that these are permanent community companies doing professional theater." Upon the founding of Seattle Repertory in 1963, President John F. Kennedy wrote a letter commending Lowry's advocacy of the regional theater movement, saying, "The development of such theaters, soundly based in the life of the community and with permanent companies, is one of the most important and hopeful signs in our national cultural life."

Regional theater is just as beneficial to American culture today as it was 50 years ago — providing steady employment to actors outside the city of New York, while also planting a number of cultural hubs around the country. At a recent NCTF panel discussion where various regional theater artistic directors celebrated this landmark year, Seattle Rep's Jerry Manning commented, "I'm happy to be called a regional theater because there are regional stories to be told." "I want to put Seattle back in Seattle Rep," he said. "I want to invest in Seattle artists. There are amazing actors in Seattle…just as good as any Juilliard student…they just need the opportunity to work." Curt Columbus, artistic director for Providence, Rhode Island's Trinity Repertory Company, operates under a similar philosophy. "I want to reclaim the phrase community theater," said Columbus. "Not in the sense of schlocky provincialism," he joked, "[but] local art by local artists for local audiences."

As opposed to Broadway, which makes its bread and butter on mass market appeal, regional theaters can lend a finely tuned ear to the heartbeat of a specific community and tailor their bodies of work to resonate with local sensitivities. These local sensitivities speak volumes — most often in the dreaded language of ticket sales. Manning of Seattle Rep and Columbus of Trinity Rep discussed the productions of Boeing-Boeing they both, coincidentally, mounted recently at their theaters. While ticket sales soared in Seattle, the show did not fare nearly as well in Providence. Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, responded gleefully to this story (not to pour salt in Columbus' box office wounds). "It shows we're not doing McTheater," said Edelstein. "Each community is its own vibrant entity."

Having such strong local roots, many regional theaters have expanded their artistic contributions beyond the proscenium. Several have branched out into their respective communities, developing a number of arts-infused education programs with financial aid from NCTF's Impact Creativity campaign. Trinity Rep's TRAIN program (Trinity Rep Active Imagination Network), for example, offers theater classes that are specifically designed for children on the autism spectrum. Since 2010, the company has worked with six different Rhode Island institutions to help these children develop their communication skills and increase self-confidence. Meanwhile, Chicago's Goodman Theatre offers up its productions to students from the Illinois Institute of Technology who study the principles of physics at work in its set designs as part of the school's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) curriculum. Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater has even developed educational opportunities for adults, offering continuing legal education courses to local practicing attorneys. The classes utilize theater to delve into various ethical issues, presenting staged readings of legal transcripts and scenes from plays with related themes.

The footwork required to stay connected and relevant within these various communities goes largely unrecognized but is an intensive labor of love that all regional theaters undertake. "I deliver sermons at churches. I'll even do light dusting," Columbus quipped. "We're out there like we're leaders of a church." Edelstein agreed, saying "We will go to the opening of a tin can. [We're] constantly in conversation and constantly trying to excite."

Jennifer Bielstein, managing director for the Actors Theatre of Louisville, described a recent attempt to excite her typically less enthusiastic younger audiences. She instated what she calls "The Balcony," a portion of the theater where patrons are given the green light to turn on their cell phones and tweet the actors in the middle of the performance. Call it pandering, blasphemy, theater sacrilege, what have you; by the middle of the performances, Bielstein claims, she overhears patrons muttering, "I want to put my phone down…I just want to watch the show."