You need to check out D.C. playwright Gwydion Suilebhan’s brilliant new essay, “Theatrical Biodiversity”. Seriously. Click here. Take the time to read it all the way through. It’s hard for me to express how gratifying it is to see a fellow theatre artist so effectively articulate why he is joining the locally grown theatre movement. Fresh and fierce, Suilebhan’s voice achieves an eloquence that has eluded me in these discussions. Witness him bring the rigor of science to his metaphors:
In the same way that all the corn we eat in America now comes from a small number of genetic strains owned by a small number of huge agribusinesses, we now experience theater made largely by artists from a small number of graduate programs who live in a small number of huge cities…. We have lost, or may be at least losing, our artistic biodiversity.
… That’s bad for a lot of reasons. … A mono-culture (either agricultural or artistic) is vulnerable. If a new pest or blight emerges to which the one predominant strain of a crop is vulnerable, we all starve. What then might happen to the American theater, then, if it’s threatened by a similar pest or blight? Or has it already? Has the accessibility and quality and ubiquity of television and film, for example, turned theater into a “gourmet” entertainment that only a few well-heeled diners can afford to consume?
And watch him bring even more rigor to targets that take us beyond the status quo:
…In a healthy theatrical ecosystem, one that doesn’t suffer from the weaknesses of a mono-culture, at least 33% of the plays on our stages every season will be… completely locally grown. That is to say: drafted, developed, directed, designed, dramaturged, and done by people who live and work within a reasonable distance — let’s say 100 miles, since that’s the locavore standard — of the audience members who are going to engage with it.
And maybe 33% isn’t enough.… But [it] is a start. Right now in DC — a theatrical community that’s considered fairly healthy, nationwide — we’re at about half that level…. New York, Chicago, and likely LA are almost certainly higher than that, but…is St. Louis — just to pick a city at random — even close? What about Mankato, MN, or Decorah, IA?… My guess is the numbers don’t look good.
And what about Seattle? What are our numbers? And what sort of future benchmarks for locally grown works can we get ACT, The Rep, Intiman, and all the houses in smaller tiers to commit to? I think Gwydion might agree that hothouse development workshops, from which scripts never see the light of full production, don’t count as a viable or sustainable source of theatrical nourishment.
However, Suilebhan’s admonishments aren’t reserved solely for feckless, floundering artistic administrators. We playwrights come in for some rightful tweaking too:
… We need to write plays that wrestle with the everyday concerns and the specific interests and particular longings of our audiences. We need to understand our neighbors — to be among them, to be members of our communities — in order to give them what they need. (Which is not the same as what they want. We all want doughnuts; we do not need doughnuts.) We need to start writing for the family next door, not for a nameless artistic director in Manhattan.
To you status quo clingers that clutched faith that I had given up and gone permanently quiet about the necessity of locally grown organic theatre, your prayers may be getting answered ironically. Others are coming to the struggle: smarter and better spoken.
.…We’d be establishing what the biologists call semi-permeable membranes between them in order to regulate what gets in and what gets out. In effect, if we embraced a locally grown cultural development approach, the American theatrical ecosystem would become less of a top-down hierarchical structure controlled by centralized authorities and more of a distributed network of peers. Just like, oh, everything else that’s succeeding in the world at the moment.
With folks like Gwydion joining the fray, the word you are now looking for to describe progress toward a locally grown American Theatre, exploding Manhattan’s hub-and-spokes model, is “inexorable.”