Articles by Stephen JosephTowards A Self-Perpetuating Theatre
The Guardian, 11 February 1960
On this page last week, Stephen Joseph, director of Theatre in the Round, outlined new theatre building in the United States. In this, his second and concluding article, he goes on to discuss the changing pattern of theatre in America.
The different actor-audience relationships of new theatres in the United States indicate that architects have considerable knowledge of stage forms and that actors and public are at least prepared to accept what still seem to us to be highly unpromising experiments. It may even be that the public and the actors actually want the new forms which the architects are prepared to supply. The size of these theatres demands an organisation different from the familiar commercial, fully professional company. In fact, the terms amateur and professional have acquired an entirely new significance in America, and it is only by examining this significance that the appearance of so many new theatres can be explained.
The new Civic Theatre in Dallas, a highly original theatre design worked out by Frank Lloyd Wright, seats 350 people. The company is made up in a significantly eclectic way. Under the direction of six administrators, it consists of eighteen students from Baylor University; fifteen from other American University Drama Departments; five foreign students (from such countries as the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Colombia, Korea, and Japan); and six professional actors.
The company also receives considerable help from local societies and students.
From time to time a well-known professional actor or director will join the company for a specific production.
Here the mixture of amateur and professional is complete. Students from Baylor University and graduates from other colleges will have been through courses in drama. There is no standardised syllabus for the various drama departments, and students are likely to have had the benefit of a wide variety of teachers, All the same, they will have enough in common to enable them to work together as a team.
Further, most of the fully professional Equity members of the company will have received their training at universities as well, and the whole company will have something approaching a common background, The inspiration for the Dallas Theatre Centre came from the same source as the inspiration for Margo Jones's theatre in the round. Money has been more difficult to find. Something approaching a Texan crusade has been necessary to get money from oil men and big business men. But it has been found. The crusaders have been a small group of theatre enthusiasts, and such groups are common in large cities. Dallas is a rich city, and perhaps the surprising thing is not that the money has been hard to get, but that it has been got at all for a scheme as unconventional as this.
Clearly the theatre serves several functions. It is primarily a playhouse where the people of Dallas will be able to see good acting and good plays. It is also a theatre of unusual design that will attract nation-wide attention. It is a theatre where graduate students of Baylor can complete the practical side of their studies: where professional artists can practise techniques belonging specifically to the open stage; and where the whole relationship between actor and audience is itself especially devised to provoke new responses and a more sympathetic attitude to the living drama.
The Dallas Theatre Centre is related to Baylor University through its director, Paul Baker, who is head of Baylor’s drama department. Many other universities invite professional directors or writers to participate in their productions and courses: a professional designer teaches at Yale; a professional playwright at Iowa; and Iden Payne has for years produced at Texas State University. A professional theatre man often has a degree and may be grateful for the opportunities offered by university departments, in writing, designing, or production. The university theatres are not all brand new. That at Iowa has a conventional proscenium arch. But it is better equipped than most provincial theatres in this country, and the auditorium is small. The city population is about thirty-thousand and there are about ten thousand students at the university. The theatre offers a series of well-rehearsed, well-acted, and carefully chosen plays during the year.
Students apart, the audience is much like the audience at, say, Colchester repertory theatre.
But this is not only a community theatre. It is also the theatre in which students in the drama department undertake their practical work. The actors, designers, lighting crew, stage crew, costume makers, and so on are all students. Further, the schedule of courses is not restricted by the demands of a purely commercially run theatre. Not only are there experimental productions, but the department also has a theatre studio which can be arranged to accommodate any form of actor, audience relationship and can be used for no matter what experiment as the need arises.
There are very few professional drama schools in the United States. A large proportion of professional actors get their basic training at university drama departments, which offer courses not only in acting, but in all aspects of theatre work. Some courses are essentially practical, and students will take part in a carefully scheduled programme of plays. But academic courses, based on the study of theatre history in all its aspects, aesthetic considerations and research are also carried on. Experiment can be made and, when desirable, immediately tested in public.
The universities thus provide a common training to professional and amateur alike. Students on drama courses will include a few who propose to make a profession in a particular branch of theatre; more who propose to develop their interests in amateur theatre, and some who will use drama in education. But even more will be taking drama as a secondary subject. The universities thus provide a common training to professional and amateur alike, and they prepare not only the skilled theatre worker for his job, but also a vast audience who will be prepared to meet the creative artist half-way.
There is not, under these circumstances, likely to be any insuperable barrier between an original worker in theatre and audiences, although another generation or so must pass before the work done by the universities begins to have a widespread effect.
It is frequently suggested that the commercial theatre cannot afford to experiment, and in New York or in London the big theatre people make their excuses plainly enough, But if the theatre only offers what the public wants, the public will have nothing to turn to when it tires of the conventional product. The hundred or so university theatres therefore provide a testing ground for the profession, just as university laboratories undertake work directly related to industrial problems. There is, in general, a closer link between American universities and the commercial and cultural life around them than prevails in this country. Their audience building potential is likely in the end to determine the real place of drama in American life.
Not all university theatres fit into the pattern I have indicated by drawing attention to Iowa and Dallas.
The tiny theatre at Tufts University is a more modest affair altogether. The actors, the teachers, and, indeed, the audience are more closely attached to the university itself. But, unlike the university companies in this country, Tufts has the advantage of a teaching staff which is highly qualified academically as well as in the practical work of the theatre. And again; the theatre not only presents plays at a high standard, but also helps to create, through its courses, an informed and eager audience.
There is no drama department at all at Harvard, but an extremely elaborate theatre is being built for the university. It is too early to say if this will develop into a dilettante club of the sort common at Oxford and Cambridge; but at least the theatre is modern, and anyone who works in it will have the opportunity of using up-to-date equipment and of seeing modern forms of staging at work. It ls likely that Harvard, though officially opposed to the idea of a drama department, will extend these opportunities by arranging courses in drama within, perhaps, the department of English.
But even if Harvard is written off as a purely amateur theatre - and, of course, amateur drama, as we understand it, flourishes in America just as it does here - the fact remains that the universities have set a new pattern of drama, not professional in any exclusive sense, and not amateur in any limiting sense. They are providing excellent drama, for the entertainment of audiences, in exciting and modern theatres. They are building new types of theatre, training actors, writers, directors and designers. Further, this is a self-perpetuating theatre that is creating its own audience, an audience that will not offer the commercial manager an excuse for an over-cautious and conservative policy.
If the conventional, exclusively professional theatre that we are familiar with has lost the power to restore its buildings, replacing old ones with new playhouse, or if lack of money and lack of audiences are to blame, then here is a possible answer. The universities can call in experienced theatre people and apply a scholastic discipline to drama to give us a living theatre. If we want it.
Please do not reproduce without permission. Transcribed by Simon Murgatroyd.