Commonalities and Differences

Jerusalem, War Horse, and Sleep No More have a lot in common:

  1. They’re playing to sold-out houses in New York
  2. I saw all three in a two-day binge of theatre-going last weekend
  3. They all have large ensembles of extraordinarily good performers
  4. They are all – and each in a unique way – ecstatically theatrical
  5. They explore and explode theatrical form in a way that makes me hopeful for the future of the American theatre.

Wait…..scratch that last one. Cross it out.

6. They are all British imports

To be fair, there were two new home-grown dramas that had moderate commercial success this season as well. But these (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and the Motherf&%$#r with the Hat) have already closed and had casts of eight and five, respectively. Is there something about the way we produce in the US that is preventing our playwrights from dreaming big? Or, more probably, preventing our theatre companies from producing big? And by big, I don’t mean production values – at least not alone — I mean big in theatrical scope, vision, and ideas. Could the lack of state support be a factor?

The two Broadway successes, Jerusalem and War Horse, originated and were developed by publicly funded and state theatres, The Royal Court and The National Theatre of Great Britain. I probably don’t need to remind you that we don’t have a “national theatre” or a “national company dedicated to new work by innovative writers” (see Someone can correct my no doubt faulty memory, but the last time I remember a new play of the theatrical scope of these developed in the US and then produced on Broadway was when Angels in America opened in the early nineties.

My hypothesis is that the lack of government support for developing innovative new work is a major contributing factor to our collective deficit of imaginative dramatic production at the national level. The NSF seeds innovation in the sciences and our national labs (often in partnership with universities) provide the facilities. Most new plays are developed in the nonprofit sector where the fiscal exigencies of producing almost always limit cast size as well as other elements. It’s a reality of the sector that a playwright is more likely to get produced if the cast size is six or less. I’m not saying that a larger cast size is artistically/creatively/aesthetically better than a small cast size, but rather that the sorry state of US American arts funding is a disincentive for playwrights to dream big and subsequently write big. The environment rewards the cost-effective rather than the innovative or unique. Until that changes, the most exciting work we’ll see on our version of a national platform – the commercial theatres of Broadway – will continue to be imports.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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