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Independent Theatre is the American Theatre

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Flickr: CODYody
Flickr: CODYody

In a recent blog post, Howard Sherman, former director of the American Theatre Wing, took issue with Goldstar CEO Jim McCarthy's assertion that Broadway is "the primary engine and idea factory of American Theatre" and argued that while Broadway is certainly a part of the American Theatre, it's not the driving force behind it.

As Sherman rightly pointed out, regional theatres quantitatively produce much more work than the 40 Broadway houses do, and productions on Broadway often get their start regionally in smaller venues. I would add that you only have to look at the marquees of revivals, movie retreads, and jukebox musicals in New York to realize that the concept of Broadway as an "idea factory" is a little misinformed.

But while Broadway shouldn't be the primary engine behind American Theatre, I'm not convinced that it still isn't the goal, however misguided that goal might be. It may not be a driving force, but the allure of Broadway and the commercial and financial success that it implies remains a powerful draw for theatre producers. Sherman describes it as "the mystique of Broadway," which is his term for the cultural cache that Broadway shows still have in the public consciousness.

It's the reason that when I tell my family what I do, they immediately respond with "oh, so you want to be on Broadway?" It's the reason that the Tony Awards still only acknowledge work on Broadway without opening up to productions that are just as deserving. And it's the reason that regional theatres proudly proclaim how many of their shows transferred to Broadway and use their regional Tony Awards in their marketing campaigns each year.

Even the nomenclature used to categorize theatre in New York City -- Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway -- relies solely on its relative distance from the Great White Way (a reason that using the term Independent Theatre instead is vitally important). The further you get from Broadway also means less media attention and less discussion in the public discourse.

The reasons for all of this stem from the massive amount of money being spent on Broadway blockbusters these days and with it the amount of PR and advertising such money can buy. But it's important that those of us involved and interested in American Theatre don't buy into the hype that Broadway producers are selling. There is good work being done on Broadway (though it's telling that some of the best recent productions have been transfers of shows like Peter and the Starcatcher or Once that have spent millions of dollars trying to look like they didn't cost millions of dollars), but making Broadway the goal or end product for theatre practitioners limits and devalues the work that small independent theatre can do.

For me, the theatre that has been transformative in my life has been theatre that has directly spoken to and been a part of a community. Theatre critic and scholar Jill Dolan calls this kind of theatre "utopian" (you should read her book), and it's time to spend more time thinking about these types of performance experiences, discuss what they are saying to us, and think about how the art form can reflect and shape our communities.

Trying to describe "the American Theatre" is hard in a country as geographically, culturally, and artistically diverse as ours, and instead of focusing on the homogenized product of Broadway that has been created to appeal to every possible demographic, we need to come to the realization that "American Theatre" is as diverse as the communities that make up America. This is the same reason that Hallie Flanagan, in 1935, devised a plan for the Federal Theatre Project that didn't have a centralized national theatre like in European countries but instead had regional programs that could speak directly to their own communities. The best of the American theatre continues to do that, even in places like New York, where independent theatre flourishes and brings together audiences in auditoriums, bars, cabarets, and church basements.

As I start this blog, I hope to thoughtfully reflect on theatre and performance in New York City that likely will never get big commercial backing. Since moving to New York over a year ago after finishing grad school, some of the most innovative and exciting theatre I have seen have had audiences smaller than some of the choruses of Broadway shows. But these performances have worked to unite its audiences and form community in a way that other art forms cannot. Regardless of the money behind it, that community -- not Broadway -- is what the American theatre should be striving for.

John-Stuart Fauquet is a director, writer, and musician. He holds a PhD in Theatre and Drama from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and currently lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @jsfauquet.