An Instant National Theater?

March 03, 1985|DAN SULLIVAN

So we are to have an American National Theater. That was quick.

I don't mean to be sarcastic. Peter Sellars' plans for the new American National Theater project at the Kennedy Center come as a tonic at a time when so many other resident-theater leaders are talking doom and gloom.

Compare Sellars' zest in last Sunday's Calendar interview with the morose tone of Theatre Communications Group's annual report, just out, on the financial status of 230 American nonprofit theaters, including the Mark Taper Forum and South Coast Repertory.

"Deficits. Big and getting bigger," warns the report, in the grim voice of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta issuing the latest AIDS advisory. The group's president, Lloyd Richards, even sounds depressed about the past: "The past 20 years have not really been years dedicated to artistry, but years dedicated to survival."

Next to this, one has to respond to Sellars' air of enjoying this zany adventure that he has set out on. At 27, he has energy, brains and no reason to accept other people's experience in the resident-theater movement as prescriptive of how he should go about it. He offers a fresh start, and we Americans believe in that. We think, "Maybe this new guy will have the answers."

He has paid his dues too. Like the young Orson Welles, he has been acclaimed as a wizard stage director, a deviser of unexpected juxtapositions that force the viewer truly to see. Remember how Sellars sent his actors 100 feet up into the grid for Brecht's "The Vision of Simone Machard" at the La Jolla Playhouse? His productions in Washington may be eccentric, but at least they won't be the same old thing.

His rashness is refreshing. So is the cheerful way he approaches the deficit issue. Naturally his theater will lose money, he told The Times' Penny Pagano. How could a serious theater with reasonable ticket prices run in the black? It's a far healthier attitude than the usual cap-in-hand appeal, as if deficits were some kind of slightly shameful handicap.

His theater's underwriting is a little fuzzy just now. Some of it apparently comes from the Kennedy Center and some from ANTA (the American National Theatre and Academy). From the latter comes its title as well: the American National Theater. It's the title that's the problem.

ANTA has a legal right to the phrase, having been chartered by Congress in 1935 to set up some kind of a national theater and national theater school. No funds went with the charter, however, and ANTA through the years has seemed a rather dilettante-ish group, big on policy statements and testimonial affairs, but unable to sustain any serious theatrical effort for more than a couple of seasons. The publicity blitz for ANT was vintage ANTA.

The title wouldn't be a problem if the Kennedy Center had been content to call this a national theater--one of many. In fact, the claim is that this is to be the national theater--in time, our Comedie Francaise. That claim does have to be examined. It could have some dangerous consequences if Washington started to believe it.

Theater people have been discussing the idea of an American National Theater for years. No one has a problem with the idea in principle. True, national theaters derive historically from the court theaters of Europe. But their goals are as useful in a democracy as in a monarchy: to allow a nation's best playwrights and actors to do serious work rather than commercial fodder; to provide a living library of the best plays written in the language of the nation; to express and to examine the national myth by means of drama.

If that sounds abstract, think of the role that the Abbey Theatre has played in the forging of Irish independence. Visit Israel, and see how the Habimah helped promulgate Hebrew as that country's official language. Visit Stratford-on-Avon and see the kids in sleeping bags waiting for the RSC ticket office to open.

The idea is irresistible. The debate has been about what form an American National Theater should take. Are we talking about a centralized organization where the actors are virtually government employees--lifetime employees, at that? That was the mode at the Comedie Francaise and the Abbey for years, and it led to perfunctory work and empty houses.

Again, are we talking about just one organization? The Abbey is fine in a country where the capital city is a day's drive from the farthest village, but how can one theater serve a country 3,000 miles wide? Aren't we really talking about a network of theaters, each serving a particular region?

In my view, we are. And we had just such a national theater in the late 1930s. It was called the Federal Theater and, significantly, it had nothing to do with ANTA's charter. The Federal Theater gave us the Living Newspaper, "The Cradle Will Rock" and, oddly enough, Orson Welles. On Oct. 21, 1936, it offered simultaneous productions of "It Can't Happen Here" in 21 American cities, including Los Angeles.

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