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Across the U.S., regional theaters are starting to transform. Here's why

To mark the 75th anniversary of this uniquely American cultural movement, NPR is traveling across the country for a look forward in our series "The Next Stage."
Kristen Uroda for NPR
To mark the 75th anniversary of this uniquely American cultural movement, NPR is traveling across the country for a look forward in our series "The Next Stage."

Say "theater" and many people think "Broadway."

The musical 1776, perhaps, in a freshly revolutionary, re-gendered mounting by Tony winner Diane Paulis and Emmy-nominated Jeffrey L. Page. Or Hamilton, Rent, A Chorus Line. Or maybe they think of some of the plays that have won Pulitzer Prizes in the last 30 years.

As it happens, every one of those shows was first applauded — before it went to Broadway or won the Pulitzer — at America's regional theaters, a nationwide network of more than 1,800 professional, not-for-profit resident stages.

Before 2020, those theaters were producing between 14,000 and 25,000 productions each year, attended annually by an average of more than 35 million people, according to the Theater Communications Group. That's more than twice as many as attend pro football games in the U.S., according to figures from the NFL.

Regional theaters were conceived as an alternative to Broadway, but they long ago became indispensable to their showbizzy commercial cousin. In the 2010s, they helped nurture and develop eight of the 10 shows that went on to win Broadway's Best Musical Tony, including Memphis, Hadestown, Once, Dear Evan Hansen, and the runaway international smash Hamilton. The movement's success was contagious.

Alas, so was something else: a coronavirus that brought live performance staggering to a halt on March 13, 2020.

The show won't go on

'It was the worst day of my life," said Michael J. Bobbitt, who now is the highest ranking arts official in Massachusetts as the head of the Mass Cultural Council, but who was then in rehearsals as the leader of Watertown's New Repertory Theater, which was producing the Billie Holiday musical Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. To his distress, he had to say to his cast something that's almost never said in the theater: The show won't go on.

"This was one of the rare times, remembered Bobbitt, "that New Repertory Theater did shows by and about people of color, so to have to fire all those Black artists, and then let all those audience members who were excited about coming to the show know that we didn't know when we were going to bring it back was very, very hard."

Bobbitt wasn't alone. Molly Smith at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage had a world premiere that night, Celia and Fidel, by Cuban playwright Eduardo Machado, and remembered a full day of emergency conversations with theater staff and government officials about what was happening with COVID-19.

Andhy Mendez as Fidel Castro takes the stage next to director Molly Smith for the opening night - and closing night - of the play <em>Celia and Fidel</em> at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
Cameron Whitman / Arena Stage
Arena Stage
Andhy Mendez as Fidel Castro takes the stage next to director Molly Smith for the opening night - and closing night - of the play Celia and Fidel at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

"At the end of the show" she recalled, "right after I'd done a toast with the actors in the green room, I moved them into another room because all of their friends and families were in the green room, and said, 'This was our opening and closing night.'"

What no one knew at the time was...until when.

"We closed the theater that night and didn't really reopen for almost two years," she said.

But a closed theater doesn't mean there's not an audience, or that the theater couldn't still put up a show.

Keeping the lights on, online

"We immediately started doing programming online, because we knew we needed to maintain our connection with our audiences, our artists and our patrons," Smith said.

Actors and directors taught theater classes. Smith did weekly interviews with artists that they called "Molly's Salons." They also produced several full-blown films – basically they did anything they thought might keep them in the public mind.

"And also," she said, "we were trying to give a bit back to artists so they would continue working."

Continuity was a concern at every resident theater in the country during the pandemic. Commercial touring shows could just shut down and wait. Regional stages are communities. They have staff, subscribers who might not re-up if a whole season of plays disappears, and continuing expenses like mortgages that link them to the neighborhoods they're situated in.

Arena had basically reinvented southwest Washington, D.C., as an entertainment district when it expanded its complex in 2010 and wrapped it in a spaceship-like glass shell with a swooping roof after more than a decade of planning. The surrounding neighborhood had previously been largely residential with a few seafood restaurants along the Potomac riverfront. Now known as "the Wharf," it's a sparkling day-trip destination with high-rises, music venues and teeming nightlife.

"Once we began building," said Smith, "suddenly all of the developers who had been waiting jumped on, because theaters really bring people to areas."

With that kind of community investment, regional theaters couldn't just sit back when Covid hit. They needed to use the downtime. And many used it to rethink the way they'd been operating for decades, especially regarding racial equity.

We See You, White American Theater

"We are not just props to be pushed on the stage every February," Chicago playwright Ike Holter told NPR member station WBEZ in June 2020, "we are the backbone of the theater."

Holter and much of the creative staff at the Victory Gardens Theater had just resigned en masse, partly in protest over the theater's board of directors hiring a new artistic director without consulting them. The theater later hired — and then fired — a Black artistic director, and has recently fired its entire staff, and become a presenting organization, rather than a producing organization.

All of which backs up Holter's assertion on WBEZ's show The Reset that the problem ran deeper:

"These large theaters that present themselves as liberal hotspots where, 'Oh we can talk about ideas here, we can share space here,' that's all fine and dandy, but if they do seven shows a year and only two of them are by people of color in a city that is over half people of color, that is a sign of something that is systemic, and that is a sign of something we shouldn't be silent about."

Michael J. Bobbitt, the executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, says diversity is good for business.
Wesley Verge / Michael J. Bobbitt
Michael J. Bobbitt
Michael J. Bobbitt, the executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, says diversity is good for business.

Shortly after Holter's radio appearance, a coalition of hundreds of prominent theatermakers of color issued a statement. "We See You White American Theater," it declared, and a 29-pagelist of demands followed, to make sure white American theater saw them back.

The open letter got the theater world's attention, with resident theaters doing some very public soul-searching, and pledging to do better.

Bobbitt said this should always have been a no-brainer, because "diversity is good for business."

"If someone were to ask me what makes me Black," he said, "I would say that art and culture are inherent in who I am. It's the music, it's the food, it's the dance, it's the words. So there's a group of people out there that a lot of organizations don't market to, or program for, or include in their planning. And they're missing out on all those people who would probably come and engage with them."

Using the pandemic pause to reflect, and shift gears

Many in the theater world argue that should be just the start, that stages should also consider things like leaping into digital experimentation the way sports leapt into television; overhauling fundraising models developed in the 1960s; and reworking labor practices, fellowships, and internships that require artists to sacrifice for their art.

And there's more. Theaters also started rethinking subscription plans that prioritize well-off people who can purchase a season's worth of prime seats in advance, while leaving everyone else scrambling for leftovers. And they began reconsidering the current, frustrating governance model at most non-profits, where theater artists must answer to a volunteer board of directors, often with little theater expertise, which has all of the authority and none of the accountability. (The board structure is among Internal Revenue Service requirements for tax-exempt organizations under subsection 501(c) of the tax code).

Bobbitt, who has both answered to boards as an artistic director and served on boards himself, wrote a much-debated open letter to American Theatre magazine,suggesting that the board model, initially intended to foster community involvement, has gotten warped over time.

"If I was a surgeon," he said to NPR, "I don't know if I would want a group of volunteers telling me how to do my surgery. I don't think the patient on the table would also appreciate that."

Taking their cue from that letter, all but the three legally-mandated board members at A Contemporary Theater (ACT) in Seattle, one of the nation's leading resident theaters, voluntarily stepped down last month.

ACT Artistic Director John Langs said in a statement that the pandemic, while immensely difficult for theater artists, has also prompted reflection. "We recognize that this moment represents a rare and unique opportunity to disrupt the status quo and lead the institution towards necessary change. By doing so openly, we hope to be a part of the long overdue cultural shift in our field."

A cultural engine roaring back to life

<em>Ain't No Mo',</em><em> </em>an evening of satirical sketches, is currently playing at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theater Company.
DJ Corey / Woolly Mammoth Theater Company
Woolly Mammoth Theater Company
Ain't No Mo', an evening of satirical sketches, is currently playing at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theater Company.

That shift comes at a time when the not-for-profit regionals are finally regaining their footing as a $2 billion business and a powerful cultural engine. The regionals over the last 30 years have become the originators of nearly all new American plays.

Arena's Molly Smith, who just produced American Prophet, a world-premiere musical telling the story of abolitionist Frederick Douglass using his own words as lyrics, said that nurturing new works and new artists has actually been part of the movement's DNA from its inception.

"The regional theater movement was started by three intrepid women, two in Texas [Nina Vance at the Alley Theater, and Margo Jones at Theater '47], and Zelda Fichandler [founder of Arena Stage] here in Washington, D.C."

Smith said these women didn't just give birth to a new kind of professional theater, they made it a point to nurture playwrights and artists in the process. And when Arena expanded its physical complex in 2010, Smith added a new auditorium specifically to be an incubator for new plays. To emphasize that purpose, she called it "The Cradle."

She noted that even though there were still just a handful of women in positions of authority at major resident theaters when she arrived at Arena 25 years ago, now there are "many many more women that are running theaters, and many more artists of color. It's an exciting shift."

There is also more interconnection among theaters – a network of producing organizations — ensuring that a new play doesn't rise or fall on the basis of a single production.

Elizabeth A. Davis, Patrena Murray and Crystal Lucas-Perry in <em>1776</em> at American Repertory Theater.
Evan Zimmerman / Murphy Made
Murphy Made
Elizabeth A. Davis, Patrena Murray and Crystal Lucas-Perry in 1776 at American Repertory Theater.

Ain't No Mo', for instance, an evening of satirical sketches currently playing at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, was first nurtured at The Public Theater in New York. The show is on its way to a Broadway opening in November, where it will join that new 1776 that was reconceived from the ground up at Boston's American Repertory Theater, and is now being co-produced with another regional, the Roundabout Theatre.

So clearly, this is a system that works, if it's also — as many say from the inside — a system that needs work.

"It's time," said Bobbitt. "I think it's time for us to re-imagine. Seventy-five years of doing it the same way is a long time."

Audio and digital stories edited by Jennifer Vanasco. Audio produced by Jeevika Verma.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.