NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — The flap that gripped Baltimore's Theatre of Nations over the exclusion of the National Theatre of Great Britain's production of "Animal Farm" had its reverberations on the ivy-covered Smith College campus here, where the thoroughly American Theatre Communications Group recently held its sixth biennial conference.
"Animal Farm" was eventually allowed to go on in Baltimore, but was separated from the festival by the International Theatre Institute, sponsor of the event, after the Soviets objected to its anti-totalitarian message. (What had they expected?) The contretemps brought cries of censorship from the National's Sir Peter Hall (and the later withdrawal, on the same grounds, of a $45,000 grant to the festival by the U.S. Information Agency).
Meanwhile, the circumstances were just sticky enough to prompt Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, president of ITI, to cancel his Northampton appearance. (No reason was officially offered, but he had been scheduled to follow the National's associate director, John Faulkner, in a Saturday slot, which may have been too close for comfort.)
Politics of all kinds are hardly new to conferences of this nature. The Theatre Communications Group is a valuable, multifaceted service organization for nonprofit resident theaters nationwide. Its membership includes some of the regional theater's most prominent activists, and one of its principal services may be this bringing together at the well those artists who might otherwise touch only peripherally.
Delegates use these occasions, as one of them put it, "to work the room." Personal contacts are made, or renewed, new connections established. Conversations over box lunches and late evening socials over plastic potato chips may be the most productive of the sessions--planned and unplanned.
As such, the conference is a form of artistic retreat (a first experience for this writer). Certainly, on Smith's 100-plus-year-old campus, it had the feel of one, with an intensive five-day program of seminars, panels, lectures, round tables and performances clustered around the all-encompassing theme of "New Challenges and Visions for the American Theatre."
This generalized title was a convenience for including an assortment of topics. Its unstated purpose may have been to reflect, in these changing and pressured times, on the resident theaters' increasingly urgent need for R&R: revision and renewal. Certainly the subject kept coming up (obliquely--no one likes to admit to battle fatigue). The subtextual questions: Is everyone doing the right thing? Doing enough? Trying to be too many things? Doing too little? Doing too much?
On the surface, the sessions provided eclectic nourishment for anyone interested in the nature and business of theater art. They concerned themselves with the whys, hows, philosophies, styles, contexts of theater. Most were handled by individuals addressing their own modus operandi.
They ranged from the non-controversial (writer/translator Richard Wilbur reading delightfully from his own works) and educational ("Finding the Visual and Physical Complement," Julie Taymor's subjective view of design as integral context) to such knottier items as theater and repression in Argentina (with playwright/journalist Alberto Minero and novelist Luisa Valenzuela).
This segued logically into some formal and informal debate of the American theater's shortcomings in relation to its Hispanic component (especially its failure to tap into the richness of Hispanic dramatic literature) and a scrutiny of the theater's fulfillment--or not--of its broader social responsibilities ("Theatre as a Social Forum").
This session, moderated by playwright Jack Gelber ("The Connection") and shared by the San Francisco Eureka Theatre's Anthony Taccone, playwright Keith Reddin and actor/playwright Wallace Shawn, found Shawn deadpanning that Americans are desperately out of touch ("We're . . . killers and murderers but we aren't aware of it").
"I write to increase my self-awareness and that of the members of the audience," he said, describing himself as "a crank" and his plays as "designed to upset and disturb.
"My experience has been a kind of non-meeting of minds. I tend to be bookish, overeducated and my plays have a certain mandarin quality about them. I only consider that a piece is ready when I really get sick reading it. Most people reject my plays. (Those) who come expecting some solace from their lives as hard-working murderers don't get it. For me, it's more than a joke."
Reddin complained of the "U.S. political amnesia" he ran into with his "Rum and Coke" (a play about the Bay of Pigs, "often confused," he said, "with the Cuban missile crisis"). Taccone outlined politically disappointing responses to Emily Mann's "Execution of Justice," produced by him at the Eureka and dealing with the Dan White assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.