American Conservatory Theater, the Magic Theatre, and Marin Theatre Company all turn 40 this year. Accordingly, these three regionally and nationally preeminent Bay Area companies are rolling out ambitious celebratory seasons. But despite all the satisfaction rightfully implied by this triple birthday, theater finds itself in a significant and uncertain period of transition.
Relevance and sustainability were prominent themes when artistic directors Carey Perloff (ACT), Lee Sankowich (MTC), and Chris Smith (Magic) sat down with the Guardian to share their thoughts on the trajectories of their respective organizations as well as theater's past, present, and future in the culture at large.
CHRIS SMITH There is a lot of looking back and celebration of legacies and all that a significant landmark — turning 40 — suggests. But organic to the Magic's mission is seeding the future, because we really are about new work. And to be committed to new work is really to have a perspective on the horizon.
We can talk about it from a number of different points of view, including the way most people want to talk about theater and art making these days, which is from the consumer model. We're all completely obsessed with audiences and consumers. And that's one of the critical differences [between] now and 40 years ago. In a weird way we're a 40-year-old teenager. Suddenly we're saying we have to be more concerned now than in the past about making sure people are having a good experience and getting them in.
But if you stop thinking for one split second about the financial success of the theater or the relevancy of the theater within a country that is arguably celebrating the dumbing down of the political spectrum, the health of the theater as an art form is very, very good. The best thing to cite on that front is the proliferation of high-quality MFA writing programs contributing to the number of committed, intelligent, craft-oriented, theatrically vibrant artists coming into our field.
So I actually have a great deal of optimism about the value that theater will have in the next decade in our society. That's very distinct from numbers. The audiences that will be attending challenging, literate, smart work I expect are going to shrink. But I think it brings us back to a kind of churchlike sensibility.
The theater as a church for a thinking person is increasingly at value in our digital age, where we're being separated from liveness, we're being separated from the communal, separated from contact. We are in a moment between a fundamental impulse to look backwards and an impulse to look forwards. And the artists are the ones that live in that cusp.
CAREY PERLOFF Of course, this is exactly what [Tom Stoppard's] Travesties is about. There's a great moment where [Tristan] Tzara says, "As a Dadaist I'm a natural ally of the political left, but the paradox is the further left you go politically, the more bourgeois they like their art." On the other hand, obviously what Stoppard believes — and what we all have to believe or we wouldn't be doing this — is that in the long run, when everything else goes, the thing that lasts is art.
The real fight for us in the field right now is to have our own barometers of value. You have to try to take the long view. The only external measures of value [now] are box office sales and critical response. But there are many plays that had miserable box office returns and disastrous critical responses and have come to be the plays we treasure. As I get older, what I most admire in certain artists is their willingness to stay the course and keep their own exploration, their own voice, their own particular artistic journey going, whether or not it seems to be popular or viable.
We wrestle with it here all the time, because I wish people were writing bigger plays. We're doing [Philip Kan Gotanda's After the War] at the Geary.