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Howard Sherman: American Revolutions gives long-term value

Kimberly Scott and Jack Willis in Sweat at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham
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That works of theatre on New York stages, and indeed on Broadway, have originated in regional theatres is not novel. The flow of new plays and musicals is far from a one-way trip from Manhattan to, as one commercial producer recently described the rest of the US to me, “the hinterlands”. However, that the spring Broadway season will feature not one but two new plays that began at a Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon is rather more surprising.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has long ventured beyond the works of its namesake, but its American Revolutions commissioning programme has made perhaps the company’s greatest impact beyond its picturesque and popular campus in a rural community. Established in 2008, American Revolutions set out to commission 37 new plays (wonder where they got that odd number from?) about moments of change in American history. Thirty-two of the 37 plays have been commissioned thus far, with the final five to be announced in 2017.

While commissioning programmes should not be judged solely on whether the work goes beyond the commissioning theatre, American Revolutions has an enviable track record. All the Way, about president Lyndon B. Johnson and the Civil Rights Act, already played Broadway, winning the 2014 Tony for best play before being adapted as a television film. Party People, by the ensemble Universes, about black and Latino activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, just completed a run at the Public Theater.

Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman’s Indecent, about the controversial 1923 production of God of Vengeance, and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, about factory workers grappling with impending job losses in Pennsylvania in the present day, will both land on Broadway in 2017 after successful Off-Broadway runs. Other American Revolutions pieces have been seen at Berkeley Rep, Arena Stage, Seattle Rep and Steppenwolf Theatre Company, among others. OSF says the development and production of these works will continue through to 2027, meaning the project will fully span two decades.

The cast of Indecent at Vineyard Theatre. Photo: Carol Rosegg
The cast of Indecent at Vineyard Theatre. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Just as OSF approaches its final commissions, Arena Stage in Washington DC will begin its own multiyear commissioning effort in 2017. Entitled Power Plays, it will fund and develop works from 25 writers during the next 10 years, specifically on the subject of politics and power, a fitting theme for a company whose home is a short walk to the seat of the US government.

There will be one play for every decade of the country’s history, with the first production under the Power Plays banner (which had been previously commissioned) starting in February: Jacqueline Lawton’s Intelligence, about the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame during the Bush administration. The other commissions to date are from Nathan Alan Davis, Eve Ensler, Rajiv Joseph, Mary Kathryn Nagle, Aaron Posner, Sarah Ruhl and John Strand.

Many theatres commission new works, and certainly there are themed commissions elsewhere; offhand, the Alfred P Sloan Foundation’s seeding of science-based plays comes to mind. But between American Revolutions and Power Plays, the US will benefit from more than 60 plays that specifically examine American history and thought-through theatre.

The artistic directors behind these projects, Bill Rauch in Oregon and Molly Smith in Washington, working with their creative staffs, have demonstrated a commitment to seeing these stories are told by playwrights who are diverse in gender, race, ethnicity, age and geography (disability is not clear), so that a history which has been dominated both in life and theatre by white men will be told from a multiplicity of viewpoints and on a wide variety of subjects. That between them these initiatives will carry us through multiple presidents, and societal upheavals as yet unimagined, is nothing short of remarkable. I can look forward, all things being equal, to seeing the continuing fruits of these efforts even after I reach retirement age.

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t politically and historically engaged writers working outside of these programmes; there most certainly are. But this overt encouragement and support, building this kind of repertory for the future, shows the creative and cultural value of theatres thinking and committing to particular visions long-term, not just show to show, or even season to season.

This week in US theatre

There are no openings this week, as people focus on their festivities and spend their time seeing The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, Holiday Inn, White Christmas and pantos (yes, they’ve begun to make inroads in the US at last). I wish you the very best for the holidays and the new year, and I’ll be back on January 6 with news of an unusually early in the year Broadway opening.

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