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What Is American Theatre?

Happy Birthday America!

Cue the fireworks! Light the barbecues! Start the parades! Turn up the schmaltzy American tunes!

Except--and I want to say this sensitively—please don’t. Give me all of the above, but leave off the tunes. Or, at least, the obligatory patriotic playlist used in every city firework show. You know the one….It’s starts with Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” and ends with Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American”; and in between we get Ray Charles and Katy Perry and some popified version of the National Anthem. And it’s the same. every. year.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love music! And if Neil Diamond starts crooning “Coming to America,” you can bet I’ll be crooning along! It isn’t that I despise these songs. It’s that every Fourth of July I’m left wondering why? Why did we decide that the only music that represents America is that music that explicitly references the flag, or the name of our country? What limited parameters we have set for our vast melting pot of a nation!

This year I celebrated with my brother and his family, and we got all philosophical on this very topic. We asked ourselves: What is American music? Obviously, the answers to that question could get lengthy.

But it got the wheels turning...And as your humble blogger of all things theatre, of course those wheels took me to the inevitable follow-up: What is American Theatre?

Now this, my mermaids, this is a much harder nut to crack! Even diving into the research didn’t provide me with easy answers. For much of our country’s early history, our theatre followed the European trends—lots of Shakespeare, lots of melodramas and burlesques. And while we added some of our own genres to the stage (i.e. revolutionary plays, minstrel shows), theatre was still largely the story of the white European in traditional society. Additionally, some of the truly authentic American dramas presented on stage—African-American theater, and plays about the immigrant experience, for example—were regularly shut down or presented as a means to reinforce the country’s racism.

Uniquely American theatre really began to take root in the late 19th century. A century of hardship, and the atrocities of the Civil War, had finally rubbed the shine off of the American Dream. And the theatre saw a new, darker realism. In direct contrast, at the turn of the century, Vaudeville commandeered the stage; and that paved the way for the American musical. Ultimately, it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that the voices of the American stage started to become as varied as Americans themselves.

And there you have the tiniest sum-up of American theatre that has ever been presented. But where does that leave us now, going into the third decade of the 21st century? Almost two hundred and fifty years after its birth, are we any closer to a clear answer to my proposed question? Speaking of patriotism, does our American theatre have its own identity? And why does it matter? Or does it?

I asked some theater friends to weigh in: Those actors surrounded by the craft on a monthly basis; who have studied it and performed it through high school, college, and beyond. And I found….Well, I found that no one really has a simple answer.

In fact, the overwhelming response I got was, “Hm. I don’t know if I can define it.”

And, well, doesn’t that sorta hit the nail on the head? The American experience is nebulous and almost impossible to define in clear-cut parameters anymore. We are as varied as the landscapes that populate our massive countryside. And every decade seems to bring new self-awareness and -analysis. And it seems American theatre is following the same growing consciousness...Or perhaps it is influencing it. After all—as I’ve said before—theatre is very often a catalyst for social change.

Michael Edwards, head of the Asolo Rep professional theater in Georgia, describes the American character this way: “Everyone feels like they can describe it and own it, but the exciting thing is that the American character is constantly being invented, expanded, and reimagined. It is our job as Americans to participate in embodying and shaping it. There is a political charge to the idea of the American character, but we cannot give politicians exclusive ownership of it. As theatre artists, we have a personal obligation to ask questions about what it is and where it is going...America is an idea, and it is constantly evolving through all its civic parts. It is an unfinished project, and that is what’s so utterly thrilling about living here.”¹

If America is the great Melting Pot, well, its theatre is too. It has grown slowly over the last two centuries, and that growth is picking up speed with the expansion of new ideas, new technology, and new voices. It will continue to play its part (see what I did there! *wink wink*) in entertaining the masses, asking questions, demanding change, and highlighting the American Experience. So just what is American Theatre then? You know, I think I like my brother’s simple answer best, who shrugged and said, “American theatre is theatre by Americans, about Americans, for everyone.”

So here are my questions for you, my fellow American merpeople: How would you define American Theatre? And what stories does American Theatre still need to tell?

Image by Cyrus Crossan via Unsplash

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