FEATURE by Louis Fantasia

At the end of February, 2003 I was invited to take part in a one-day
conference in London entitled "Theatre Forum: New Theatre - New Writing"
organized by the British Centre of the International Theatre Institute.
This annual forum used to be held by the Theatre Advisory Council which, as
its name implies, used to advise such organizations as the Arts Council of
Great Britain on the needs of theatres and theatre companies, before
closing its doors last year. As a departing gesture it endowed the British
ITI's pioneering Director, Neville Shulman OBE, with its mandate and
remaining funds to carry on its tradition. On this crisp but clear February
day, fifty delegates representing every aspect of British drama from the
National, West End, regional, amateur, childrens and university theatres
gathered not only to hear the two panels discuss the day's two themes - new
theatres and new writing - but also to challenge and share their views with
them... or rather, us.

Participating on these two distinguished panels were critic Ian Herbert
(moderator and editor of the Theatre Record), and representatives from the
Royal Court, Hampstead, Soho and Tara Arts (a distinguished multi-cultural
traveling company) and myself. I had been invited because, as member of the Shakespeare Globe Centre's USA Board of Directors, I had been involved in the reconstruction of the Globe theatre, and as a working director have
been involved in the production of numerous new plays (including the recent
world premiere of Willard Manus's The Penis Monologues in Los Angeles) and might have something to contribute on both fronts. Still, it was fairly
intimidating company to keep!

The English theatre is in transition at the moment, with new artistic
directors at both the National and RSC. Moreover, the lines between what we
would call for-profit and non-profit theatres in the U.S. continue to blur
in London (particularly) as plays developed at the National, for example,
transfer to the West End and, in many cases, to Broadway. One of the chief
criticism of Trevor Nunn's regime at the National was that there were too
many revivals of old (American) musicals for a British theatre, the
response to which was to be found in sold out houses for such revivals as
Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady.

There is the further complication of confusing British theatre with London
theatre. Much of what is done in Manchester, Norwich and Birmingham (let
alone Glasgow in Scotland or Dublin, Ireland) rarely catches the attention
of the London papers (let alone the North American ones). Similarly, new
plays are driven by the same mix of economic pressures that have nearly
eliminated new theatrical writing of significance in this country - does
the writer have some fashionable cachet, is there a TV star in the cast,
who's producing, what's the buzz, what was the reaction in Edinburgh, etc.?
Theatre criticism in the mainstream British press, once a well-established
art form, has dwindled to the kind of mass-market "thumbs up, thumbs down" reviewing so prevalent, again, here in the U.S. People want to know where they are going to get the best value for their money, and £60 for The Lion King seems a safer bet than three £20 nights out in a dingy pub, loft or
warehouse theatre.

In other words, as in America, theatre in England is in danger of losing
its social function and becoming just another entertainment option.
Underneath its dual themes, this was, fundamentally what this conference
proposed to discuss.

The Royal Court and Hampstead theatres both had had recent - and costly -
renovations, which had generally been applauded by critics and the public.
In brief, these renovations had as much to do with audience 'creature
comforts' (restaurants and bars, bathrooms, even leather seats) as they did
with backstage facilities. The National Theatre itself has gone through a
reworking of its spaces and the RSC gave up - to much controversy - its
winter home at the Barbican Centre. Tens of millions of pounds had been
spent in these projects, which had been deemed necessary to keep the
audiences, especially younger and non-white audiences, coming. While most of the work had been regarded as necessary and successful, there had been some discussion in the press and in theatre community that those monies would have been better spent on improving the theatres' content and not their appearances. This was the fray to which I'd been invited!

Fortunately, I had happened to grab a copy of USA Today in the airport
before leaving the States. In it was an article on how, because of the dire
condition of most state budgets, arts councils nationwide were cutting
their funding forty to sixty per cent in some cases, with a few even
threatening to close up all together. I suggested to my British colleagues
that they enjoy their wealth while they had it, because I could not imagine
(though several colleagues forcefully contradicted me!) that what was
happening in the U.S., at least in terms of arts funding, would not be
coming to Britain.

In Los Angeles, we have theatres closing and being razed for commercial
development. In New York, a near death-rattle could be heard from producers
when the Musicians' Union recently went on strike. Distinguished regional
theatres such as Seattle are near insolvency, and a look at the Sunday New
York Times would lead a reader to believe he was Rip Van Winkle with
musicals and plays like The Music Man or The Elephant Man still on
Broadway. Theatre seems bloated and irrelevant, especially now, in time of
war, stuck between the remnants of post-modernist performance art and
mass-market commercialism. Why not focus on the leather seats and lounge bars? It's what big-time sports and up-scale movie houses do with their sky-boxes and "concierge services."

London has an additional complication to consider. Most of its West End
theatres are 'listed' buildings - buildings of some architectural or historical importance that cannot be changed or town down. No American Airlines or Disney naming rights there! The issue, and it is a serious one, is that the buildings are in decline, unsafe, and often unpleasant to be in and that there will not be more public funds to help them in the future.

The first half of the day ended with a general, if grudging, acceptance
that those who had gotten the money for their theatres had spent it well
and that there probably would not be much more to go around anytime soon.
Which is what made the second half of the day so interesting:

Writing for the theatre is about writing for money.

The British Arts Council is in the process of changing the way it funds new
plays. Basically it is following the American format (see above!) of giving
grants to writers to provide "alternative voices" in the theatre, so that
new plays don't always have to be commercial hits. While this is
commendable in theory, like most other government sponsored projects in
social engineering, in practice it doesn't work.

Look at American theatres, particularly regional theatres. For the past
three or four decades regional theatres have come to depend more and more
on major foundations (NEA, Readers Digest, Ford, etc.) for funding for new
writing. The funds have been used, broadly speaking, to develop plays and
playwrights from minority or under-represented communities. The theatres
share the cost of development and pass the productions around amongst
themselves, and the audiences continue to dwindle. Why?

Because the plays the funders support look better in a grant proposal than
they do on stage. Yes, the artistic and financial leadership of a theatre
and its community has the responsibility to lead that audience into areas
it may not like; and, yes, doing so needs major financial support. But, as
with public schools, the way we've gone about it has not worked.

All theatre, like politics and education, is local. Community theatre really shouldn't mean the local amateur group doing Anything Goes. It should mean theatre that comes from, speaks to, and changes with, a specific community. Many playwrights today, especially younger ones, write with one eye on the grant proposal and one eye on Hollywood, and it seemed not to be very different with my British friends.

Writers, justly, wanted larger casts, longer rehearsal times and runs. They
wanted to escape the domination of London-centric critics and sponsors, and
to work with the best directors, designers and actors available. In other
words, they wanted more money. Imagine if the millions of pounds that had
been given to the up-keep of the theatres had been given to the up-keep of
the writers and other artists?

I didn't think of it then, sitting on those stimulating and energizing panels, but what if there were no theatres. I mean no theatre buildings? What if we went back to a sort of Medieval way of doing theatre, where the guilds and the unions and the clubs and the neighborhood associations got together and put their plays on pageant-wagons, or in barns and tents? What if theatre opted out of the entertainment industry altogether, and went back to its roots, only doing plays when someone had something to say to people who wanted to hear it being said? I may be accused of neo-Ludditism, but, truly, sometimes money really is the root of all evil. Otherwise what's next? Two-hundred dollar a seat tickets for a revival of... What? I'd rather not guess.


On the flight back from London I saw The Four Feathers, Shekhar Kapur's
2002 remake of the 1939 epic about a British officer ( Heath Ledger) who
resigns his post when he learns of his regiment's plans to ship out to the
Sudan for the conflict with the Mahdi. His friends and fiancee send him
four white feathers to symbolize cowardice. To redeem his honor, he
disguises himself as an Arab and secretly goes to war and saves the lives
of those who branded him a coward.

It wasn't a very good film; the kind of film I actually save for airplane viewing, because it works well without the annoying earphones, but I was fascinated by it. Here was England of the Empire, totally unlike the London I had just left. Moreover, with the U.S. and Britain (then) still arguing in the U.N. for war against Saddam, the idea of Christian soldiers marching against the infidel had a certain imperialist deja-vu to it.

Now, as I write this, the Second Gulf War is in its second week. With luck,
by the time you, Dear Reader, read this, it will be over. I doubt it, but...
Today four American were killed by an Iraqi suicide bomber. He pretended
that his car had broken down and asked the GI's for help. They did. They

In the film, the Mahdi's men fight while disguised as civilians. They strip
dead British soldiers of their uniforms and ride into battle pretending to be the British Cavalry coming to the rescue only to massacre the innocent and unbelieving young soldiers. We bomb them from thirty thousand feet. They fight with centuries-old tricks. I'm not saying who's right or wrong, just that maybe this film should have been shown to Donald Rumsfeld along with Black Hawk Down. Now more than ever we need to learn the lessons art
can teach us... all of us.