For a while now, I’ve been thinking about a conversation I read between Howard Sherman and Travis Bedard, two insightful men whose writing and thinking about theater I have often been inspired and challenged by. Both of their arguments seemed to rest, either explicitly or implicitly, on the notion that Broadway—a national presence for theater toward which the lion’s share of our resources and attention are directed—is an inherently good thing. Of that I am not quite convinced.
Unlike Mr. Bedard, I have spent plenty of time on Broadway, having extraordinary theatrical experiences and, to be sure, a few very disppointing experiences as well. My love of the place is undiminished, despite its all of its attendant flaws (chronicled elsewhere by others more suited to the task, but including commercialization, musical-ization, lack of gender parity, and several others). I do even begrudgingly like that Broadway is a symbol for our theatrical ambitions, even though (in this case like Mr. Bedard) I have no such ambitions myself. (Off Broadway would suit me just fine.) Broadway is exciting and it feels terribly important and it tells the world we’re serious about what we do… even if, generally speaking, most of what comes out of it isn’t very serious at all, sadly.
But I nonetheless hold onto the belief that aspiring to Broadway somehow gets in the way of our ambition to do great work no matter where we live. Why, instead, can we not create Broadways all over the country? In DC, where I live, why don’t we talk about the Penn Quarter, home to so much terrific theater, or perhaps 14th Street? Why don’t our city leaders, in marketing DC to tourists, speak about one of those areas with the same excitement and glamour? I cannot see a reason.
In fact, I believe that simply ceding the title of “home of the best theater in the country” to New York is tantamount to laying down our regional theater arms in the culture wars (such as they are—I immediately regret that phrase as soon as I’ve employed it). I would argue that the country would probably be better off if we stopped automatically importing our new plays (and our actors) from New York so often. If we developed locally-specific theatrical cultures. (Or, more accurately, if we took note of the cultures that already exist and did our best to enhance and promote them.) This is perhaps nothing more than an extension or re-energizing of the regional theater movement… but I still believe it’s worth talking about nationally.
I’m certain there’s a great deal of perspective I’m missing here—and I hope that Mr. Sherman and Mr. Bedard will weigh in, if they care to—but this has been on my mind, and I wanted to share it.