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

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