Guest Column by Jerome Davis: What Are We Doing?

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After 19 years at the helm of a small professional theatre, I am often flabbergasted by how few people in our community understand the difference between what our company does and what a touring Broadway production does. Beside the matter of scale, there are significant, intrinsic differences among types of theatres. Here’s a little information on the subject.

Professional theatre is theatre in which everyone gets paid. If you believe that because Tom Cruise makes more money than any other actor in America, Tom Cruise is the best actor in America, then you will probably next want to know how much an actor must be paid in order to be considered professional. (If you believe, as I do, that Mr. Cruise may not be the best actor in America despite his handsome salary, then you will probably agree with me that the fact of being paid is the only criteria worth considering in this discussion.) Professional theatre is theatre in which everyone gets paid.

Professional theatre is also theatre in which the ultimate goal is quality.

There are many different kinds of professional theatre.

*There is Broadway. Broadway refers exclusively to a certain set of theatres located on the island of Manhattan. Those theatres must have a certain number of seats (500 or above). If you are being asked to pay to see a “Broadway” production that isn’t being performed on the island of Manhattan, then you are not going to see a Broadway show. You might see a show that was at one point being done on Broadway, but you will not be seeing a Broadway show.

Broadway is professional, without exception.

*There is off-Broadway. Off-Broadway theatre takes place exclusively on the island of Manhattan. Off-Broadway contracts may be employed at a number of theatres as long as they contain between 100 and 499 seats and are located on the island of Manhattan.

Off-Broadway is entirely professional.

Then the picture begins to get cloudy.

*There is something called Off-Off Broadway. It sprang up in the early 1950s. Flush from the success of WWII and the rolling machine that was the post-war economy, American had welcomed home tens of thousands of young men and women who had not only seen the world but also conquered it. They believed they had a place in history, and they set out to make that place tangible. Some of them were theatre artists. Many of them went to New York City where they were astonished to find a steady diet of pabulum on Broadway. No one was doing classics. No one was doing serious drama. No one was doing any of the avant-garde theatre that many of these soldiers had heard about and even seen at places like the (post-war) Berliner Ensemble. They set about to build that type of theatre in the heart of Broadway. They found deserted buildings, alleys and parks. They converted abandoned libraries and even gasoline stations into performance spaces. They concerned themselves more with quality than the economics of the work. They called themselves “professionals,” even though most would never set foot on a Broadway or off-Broadway stage. And they paid each other subway fare.

They created an entire subculture, the do-it-yourself off-off Broadway movement. It was cheap, flexible, and often interesting. Sometimes it was even good.

One of these young men, fresh from an assignment in the US Navy, was Joseph Papirofsky. He would late shorten his name to Joe Papp. He was a dirt-poor first generation Jewish kid from the Bronx. He fell in love with Shakespeare and believed that other people like him could be convinced to do so, too, if only there were a vehicle to bring Shakespeare into their lives. He started touring Shakespeare in the back of a flatbed truck. One day that truck broke down while driving through Central Park. On that very site today stands the Delacorte Theatre.

Fifty years on, Shakespeare in the Park still produces high quality, professional theatre, free to anyone who doesn’t mind standing in line to see it. Papp would later convince Robert Moses and the New York City establishment to give him a dilapidated old library on Lafayette Street in the east Village.

This was in the mid 60s.

The mid 60s was not a time when one wanted to be wandering about in the east village. There were drug addicts and strange looking, long-haired youth strumming guitars and putting flowers in the gun barrels of beat cops and soldiers.

Joe Papp found a way to renovate the massive old library into a performance facility with not one but four theatres inside, and he opened it with a musical written by two out-of-work actors and a jazz pianist who knew nothing about rock & roll. The musical was drawn from the lives and concerns of those very strange-looking youths, just outside the doors of the Lafayette Street library, now called the Public Theater. The musical was called Hair.

***

About the time Joe Papp was deliberately sabotaging the engine in that old flat bed truck in Central Park, another movement was beginning to catch fire. It would come to be known as Regional Theatre.

Regional theatre is a slightly derogatory tone – for isn’t New York City also part of a “region”? It is also sometimes called “Resident Theatre,” a slightly less offensive but equally baffling descriptor. It essentially means any one of the now approximately 500 professional theatres operating across the United States.

These theatres come in all shapes and sizes. They have three things in common: 1) they pay, 2) they aim for quality above all else, and 3) they believe that all people deserve, even need, to see great theatre. PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill is a professional theatre. It is a regional theatre. It is also an URTA theatre: that is, a member of one of the dozens of professional theatres who are affiliated with universities that offer Masters in Fine Arts degrees in theatre. URTA stands for University Resident Theatre Association.

There are even more kinds of professional theatre. There is:

*Dinner theatre. There’s an old joke about mobile homes: “They are neither!” Some might say the same for dinner theatre, but it is a form that continues to exist and even to thrive in some parts of the country, particularly in more rural areas. Dinner theatre tends to be professional.

*There are outdoor theatres. The Lost Colony is an example. The American version of the outdoor theatre play was largely the brainchild of Chapel Hill’s own Paul Green, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who had an idea for what he called “symphonic drama.” These were and are essentially pageants, often telling of an historical event related to the region of the country in which the play is performed. I am not aware of an outdoor theatre that isn’t professional.

*There is something called an “industrial,” generally used with the word “musical.” An industrial is an event that contains some element of live performance, generally carried out by professional actors and performed before a group of people from a business or an industry. Industrials can also be filmed, but for our purposes, we’ll look at the live performances in this category. They are most always professional.

Then there is the subset of union vs. “right-to-work” theatres, often referred to as Equity and non-Equity.

“Equity” is a term that creates great excitement and fear in the minds of actors. Most of the general public couldn’t care less, I suspect. Actors’ Equity Association [http://www.actorsequity.org/] is a union of actors and stage managers that is very difficult to get into. There’s sort of a catch-22 built into membership: you can’t be in Equity unless you’ve worked at an Equity Theatre…, but you can’t work at an Equity Theatre unless you are a member of the union. That isn’t, of course, entirely true. Equity has a “points” system that allows you to accrue points based upon the number of weeks you have worked at an Equity Theatre and, eventually, get into the union through the side door, as it were. Any theatre can hire an Equity actor if they are willing to pay a set amount and sign an Equity contract. Only theatres that have met certain stringent criteria can give Equity points, though. Generally, young actors should avoid membership in this union unless they are regularly being hired by Equity theatres. Otherwise, they run the risk of going from being among the best in a pool of relatively cheap labor to being among the least experienced in a pool of actors for whom the casting theatre would be required to pay a much steeper salary. There are more than a few universities across the country that hand out Equity cards to their graduating students – often very much to the detriment of the young person who will frequently then find him or herself either having to “scab” (work non-Equity under an assumed name) or go for months or years without getting work. Neither option is a good one for a young person just starting out in the business.

***

I haven’t yet begun to talk about for profit versus nonprofit. Broadway is almost entirely (though not quite 100%) for profit. Off and Off-Off Broadway most frequently tend to be nonprofit. Regional theatres are mostly nonprofit, though they don’t have to be. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy (now Theatre Raleigh) was for years a for-profit theatre but would surely also quality as a regional theatre. Dinner theatre tends to be for profit, mostly because, in order to get families to attend, they have to do material that is fairly middle-of-the-road, so it is somewhat difficult for a dinner theatre to make the case that the work it is presenting is of intrinsic educational value to the community beyond its entertainment value. Outdoor theatres can be for profit or nonprofit, though most tend to fall into the latter camp because of the historic nature of the plays they generally present.

This is not to suggest any variation in value. All of these theatres collectively make up the rich tapestry of theatrical work happening across the United States. And there are many other kinds, as well. University and high school theatres continue to provide extraordinary opportunities for young artists and often challenge a community’s audiences in profoundly useful ways. Performance collectives have sprung up across the country in far flung places. Consider the Bloomsberg Theatre Ensemble in Bloomsberg, PA (population 5,000), Rude Mechs in Austin, TX, Pig Iron in Pittsburgh, and Radiohole in Brooklyn. These are groups of mostly young people who have decided that sitting by the phone, waiting for someone to cast them in a play, was not fulfilling enough – they decided to push forward with their personal goals as artists with a small group of like-minded artists.

All of these groups have value and add value to their communities. It is, I believe, helpful for the general public to understand the differences among and between these types of theatres so people may make educated decisions about where they want to spend their limited resources and time.

(Author Jerome Davis is the founding artistic director of Burning Coal Theatre Company.)

Guest Column by Jerome Davis: What Are We Doing?
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