Arguably the greatest thing to ever happen to the American theatre community was the rise of the nonprofit and regional theatre movement in the 1960’s. It allowed theatre artists to use a new tool, the non-profit designation, as a way to harness and develop the financial support of patrons in a way that had never before happened. Instead of a lame and dwindling system of vaudeville houses, tired touring repertory companies and a Broadway monopoly on quality, the regional theatre movement replaced the old guard with a philosophy of patronage that would support a spirit of dramatic experimentation among playwrights, directors, ensemble companies and even theatre architecture. The now-venerable pioneers of this movement include the Guthrie, Steppenwolf, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Goodman and La Jolla, just to name a handful. But the movement has continued to grow to include hundreds of Shakespeare festivals, summer stock companies, storefront ensemble theatres and even more specific projects like Mixed Blood, Cornerstone and Minnesota Children’s Theatre, who bring the arts to specific underserved communities. The American Theatre has done its best work in the past 50 years.
It’s easy to look at these large, stable theatre companies that now enjoy a multi-million dollar endowment, state-of-the-art facilities and world-reknowned actors, designers and directors, and see how they can commit resources to developing new plays and playwrights. Of course they should do these things; they can certainly afford it. But what is harder to remember is that they made that committment long before they had reputation or financial security. The artists who founded these companies were hungry twentysomethings who were searching for great stories to tell and new ways to tell them, and they routinely risked everything to put a play they believed in before the public. This deep-rooted committment to the artform as risen to an institutional level and forms the basic philosophy of how these companies operate.
It’s hard to be a small, young theatre company. It’s hard to find the balance between keeping the lights on in our office and keeping the lights on in our hearts and minds. How can you justify presenting a new, unknown play when you can barely pay yourself a living wage? Is it selling out to present a popular show so that you can afford to buy a new piece of equipment in order to be able to expand the dramatic range of the company? Is it naive to think that great theatre, by itself, is enough to build a thriving, committed company?
It’s a delicate dance and it’s one I dance every day. And every so often an opportunity comes along that allows me to shamelessly follow my heart. I firmly believe that the social function of theatre is to reflect a community back upon itself, to show us who we are, filtered by the artist’s lens. And for a small, nonprofit regional theatre that means engaging in an ongoing conversation with that finite group of patrons that we serve.
The tenth season is the perfect excuse to commission a new play, and what better way to embody the ideals of our company than by reaching out into our community, finding the stories that make us who we are and putting those stories onstage. We are about three months into the submission process for the “Hometown” -Anonymous project and the range of what has been sent in has been breathtaking: funny, inspirational, educational, devastating, shocking…the list of adjectives goes on and on. And we still have another three months to go before we reach the submission deadline.
If you live in Princeton or any of the surrounding communities, please send us your stories. There are no rules, nothing is off limits. And next summer, we will have the privilege to see the best that the regional theatre model has to offer: a new play that is a direct reflection of the society that created it.