What We Need Is More Vision, Not Fewer Theatres

February 4, 2011

Last week, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman, commented that “it is time to think about decreasing [the] supply” of theatres, since theatre audiences are growing smaller while the number of theatres in this country is growing larger. (New York Times, Arts, Feb 4, 2011). Many people have stood up resolutely to defend theatres against Mr. Landesman’s inopportune remark, and I thought it was appropriate to begin active blogging here by adding a few thoughts of my own about the purpose of theatre and why we started Portland Shakespeare Project now. I invite you to join in the discussion, and I hope that my comments start a dialogue about theatre in general and what we are doing as a theatre organization in particular.

Why does a person start the process of building an arts organization? When is the right time to begin that process? When I graduated from the University of Washington’s PATP program under Jack Clay’s guidance, I felt that I had received most of the tools I needed to make a life in the theatre. The classical training I received was essential to my development as an actor. It taught me how to use my body and my voice – which are my instruments – and provided me with scholarship, how to use my mind – the discovery of the worlds in which the texts were written, which gave me depth and texture as an artist. What I lacked was life experience, and I have been acquiring that ever since.

The world of the theatre is the world of human experience. Human experience has not changed from the classical world to the modern times. How can one deny the similarity of the toppling of a dictator in today’s headlines with the toppling of Julius Caesar? How is the passion of youth today different from the passion of Juliet for her Romeo? What is Killer Joe by Tracey Letts but a reworking of a Jacobean Tragedy?

The relevance of the classics to modern life and the relationship between classic and modern plays is tangible. We go to theatre to see human experience portrayed on the stage. Mr. Landesman views a modest decline in patron attendance (5%), coupled with a substantial increase in the number of new theatres (23%) as a negative, because supply is growing faster than demand. I view it as a positive because it shows the energy that is flowing into the theatre space.

The very fact that the number of theatre organizations is growing, as Mr. Landesman recognizes, tells us that there is a hunger to act, to portray the human experience on the stage, in front of a live audience. What we must do as artistic directors is to channel that energy in a way that also appeals to audiences. There is a Japanese proverb that says, “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.” The answer to Mr. Landesman’s quandary is that what we need in this country is theatre with more vision. Despite all of the developments in modern entertainment, there is no other experience like live theatre.

There is no right time to begin a theatre organization. The economy is never perfect, and it is always difficult to find the funds to produce the shows that we want to see produced. This time is right for me and for those who have joined with me in getting Portland Shakespeare Project started. Here at Portland Shakespeare Project, we seek to ignite or perhaps reignite your passion for classical material and contemporary works derived from classical material. We also intend to provide the skill set for actors to move into this work with confidence. I believe that we have the vision to succeed and to bring you plays that elucidate the human condition in a way that is entertaining and enlightening. Our time is now. I hope you will join us.

Michael Mendelson
Artistic Director

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ronni Lacroute February 7, 2011 at 7:15 pm

It is without doubt that a profusion of theatre companies is beneficial to the community because there will be a far greater representation of the creative talents of the writers and actors in that community. The patrons will decide which companies will survive.
Mr. Landesman’s comment has been highly controversial, but declaring there are too many theatre companies does not mean we should cease all innovation and creation of new companies. Theatre companies, like companies in every business sector, need a strong brand identity in order to survive. There are indeed many theatre companies without a clear mission, without the ability to attract a dedicate following. Patrons are drawn to high quality above all, and they need to know what to expect if they are going to support an artistic enterprise. There is no room for inconsistent quality, confusing programming, or any poor production values in a world of multiple choices. The best companies will attract enthusiastic patrons and therefore survive as long as they maintain their standards, while the weaker companies will drop out. This has always been the case.
There will always be a place for the classics because of the universal themes and archetypal characters they offer us. The classics are the basis for all that followed, so we cannot neglect them without weakening our understanding of modern works. It is also important to understand history (the time and place from which we in the modern age evolved), and the classics lead us into the mindset and issues of other times, many of which pertain today also.

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mvmendelson February 10, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Ronnie, thanks for your powerful feedback and point of view. I agree, the themes and characters of the past and the understanding of how they fit into the human historical experience is what propells us to continue to redefine ourselves in the present and dream about the future.

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Julie Beck July 25, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Its now 4 productions that I have attended in the past year or so by the Portland Shakesphere Project and these outstanding, creative performances alone are a reason to relocate and move to Portland!!!
As a former New Yorker, and expecting outstanding productions I am relieved that Portland is now up there in top notch theatre. Michael keep doing what you are doing!!!
Julie Beck
Eugene, Oregon

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