CATANIA, Sicily — The invitation, to Dottore Sullivan, was to address the first "Meeting Internazionale di Drammaturgia Sicilia-USA-U.S.S.R." on "Recent Trends in the American Theatre." The scene was a cold theater in downtown Catania, known as the Milan of Sicily--a workingman's town, rather than a tourist spa. The address, delivered one paragraph at a time, with pauses for the translator to put it into Italian, went something like what follows:
. . . You'll be interested to hear that one of the longest-running shows in Los Angeles is set in Italy. John Krizanc's "Tamara" isn't performed in a theater but in a splendid old marble mansion in Hollywood, our version of D'Annunzio's villa, Il Vittoriale. The audience follows the characters from room to room as they play out their stories--very decadent stories, of which the play officially disapproves. Actually, it presents them as great high-trash fun, like an Italian "Dallas." And "Tamara" is fun--a "living movie" that a spectator with any sense of fantasy at all can enjoy walking around in.
The trend here is to offer the spectator an experience he can't get at the movies, and I believe we are going to see more experiments along the lines of "Tamara." Perhaps eventually the spectator will actually enter into the playing out of the fiction, in which case we approach the realm of theater-of-touch and psychodrama. If these possibilities rub you profoundly the wrong way, this merely proves that we are talking about true experimental theater here, not about warmed-over Grotowski.
The second play I want to mention is "The Debutante Ball" by Beth Henley. It concerns a pathologically eccentric family gathered together for the debut of the younger daughter into Hattiesburg, Miss., "society." I didn't believe this play and gave it a poor review in the Los Angeles Times.
This made no difference to the fate of the production, which will have its allotted run at South Coast Repertory. Compare what happened when Henley's previous play, "The Wake of Jamey Foster," opened on Broadway. It got a bad review in the New York Times and closed in one night. The trend here is structural and it is not new. But since it remains a surprise to many of my friends in New York, perhaps it will be news to you as well. There is an American theater--as distinguished from the Broadway theater. I refer to the constellation of professional theaters from New England to California. We don't know whether to call them \o7 regional\f7 or \o7 resident\f7 theaters. In Italy you would call them permanent theaters--\o7 teatro stabile.\f7
These theaters include South Coast Repertory; the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; Joseph Papp's Public Theatre in New York; San Francisco's Magic Theatre, which our best American playwright, Sam Shepard, has adopted as his home theater; Chicago's Goodman Theatre, whose house playwright is David Mamet; Boston's American Repertory Theatre, which this year brought us the American premiere of Robert Wilson's "the CIVIL warS," and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, whose annual Festival of New American Drama offers more new scripts in one week (as one critic recently said) than Broadway offers in one season.
That's sad, but it isn't the national calamity that it would have been back in the 1950s, when Broadway was the only market a serious playwright had. From the playwright's point of view, it may even be a good thing.
Even in those days, there was something soul-eroding about the excitement of having a Broadway hit--and the despair of having a flop. A new book that's just come out on Tennessee Williams, George Spoto's "The Kindness of Strangers," tells what the hit/flop syndrome did to Williams. It can be said to have killed his contemporary, William Inge.
Today, the atmosphere on Broadway is even more neurotic. One of our best American set designers, Ming Cho Lee, recently said that the first item of business when you start rehearsing a Broadway production is to protect yourself against being cast as "the victim," the person who will be blamed if the play flops, as most plays on Broadway do.
Certainly the most obvious "victim" is the poor playwright who got everybody into this mess in the first place. Now some playwrights may rise to this kind of pressure, but I'm not sure that the finer-grained ones do.
Compare the saner climate at a subscription theater like South Coast Repertory, where a new play will be be there for its promised run, no matter what the critics say. Now there is no need to find a victim. Now the director and the designer and the playwright can afford to say to each other: "I don't know. What do you think?"
The atmosphere can even become too supportive, but that's another speech. The point is that an American playwright like Beth Henley now has theaters to work in, as opposed to what our great American critic Harold Clurman used to call the "show-shop" of Broadway.