American regional theaters are rethinking everything In the first of our six-part series, NPR's Bob Mondello explains how the theater that most Americans see is being transformed.

Across the U.S., regional theaters are starting to transform. Here's why

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Say theater and many people think Broadway.


UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Too many flies, too many flies. But it's hot as hell in Philadelphia.

MARTINEZ: The clip you just heard is from "1776," a new production that just started previews in New York. You may also think of "Hamilton," "Rent," "A Chorus Line" or any of the plays that have won Pulitzer Prizes in the last 30 years. As it happens, every one of those shows was first applauded at America's regional theaters, a nationwide network of more than 1,800 professional, not-for-profit residence stages. To mark the 75th anniversary of the regional theater movement, NPR will travel across the country for six weeks in a series we're calling The Next Stage. Today, critic Bob Mondello starts things off with a look at some of the challenges facing this uniquely American cultural movement.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The numbers that had just been tabulated in early 2020 told the story. Every year of the previous decade had been a huge hit for regional stages.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: B102 - so that'll be the second row. And it'll be the aisle seats.

MONDELLO: More than 14,000 productions each year attended annually by an average of 35 million people, more than twice as many as attend pro football games in the U.S. And though nonprofit regional stages were conceived as an alternative to Broadway, they long ago became indispensable to their show-busy commercial cousin.


LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Hamilton, rapping) I am not throwing away my shot.

MONDELLO: In the 2010s, resident stages helped develop eight of the 10 shows that went on to win Broadway's Best Musical Tony - not just "Hamilton," but "Fun Home"...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Your swagger and your...

MONDELLO: ...And "Memphis"...


CHAD KIMBALL: (As Huey, singing) Memphis knows me. Memphis shows me...

MONDELLO: ...And "Once" and "Hadestown" and "Dear Evan Hansen"...


BEN PLATT: (As Evan, singing) I try to speak, but nobody can hear. So I wait around...

MONDELLO: The movement's success was contagious, but so was something else - a coronavirus that brought live performance staggering to a halt on March 13, 2020.

MICHAEL BOBBITT: It was the worst day of my life.

MONDELLO: Michael Bobbitt, who now heads the Mass Cultural Council as the highest-ranking arts official in Massachusetts, was then in rehearsals as the head of Watertown's New Repertory Theatre and had to say to his cast something that's almost never said in the theater, the show won't go on.

BOBBITT: This was one of the rare times that New Repertory Theatre did shows by and about people of color. So to have to fire all those Black artists and then let all those audience members that were excited about coming to the show know that we didn't know when we were going to bring it back was very, very hard.

MONDELLO: Bobbitt wasn't alone.

MOLLY SMITH: There were lots of conversations during the day about what was happening and what was happening with this coronavirus.

MONDELLO: Molly Smith at D.C.'s Arena Stage had a world premiere by Cuban playwright Eduardo Machado that night.

SMITH: And at the end of the show, right after I'd done a toast with the actors in the green room, I moved them into another room, because all of their friends and families were in the green room, and said, this was our opening and closing night.

MONDELLO: What no one knew at the time was, 'til when?

SMITH: We closed the theater that night and didn't really reopen for almost two years.

MONDELLO: With a caveat.

SMITH: We immediately started doing programming online because we knew we needed to maintain our connection with our audiences, our artists and our patrons. And we did that.

MONDELLO: Theater classes, interviews with actors, even full-blown films - whatever they thought might keep them in the public mind.

SMITH: And also, we were trying to give a bit back to artists so that they would continue working.

MONDELLO: This was a concern at every resident theater in the country. Commercial Broadway shows could just shut down and wait. Regional stages are communities. They have staff, subscribers who might not re-up if a whole season of plays disappears and mortgages. Arena basically reinvented southwest D.C. as an entertainment district when it expanded its complex and wrapped it in a spaceship-like glass shell with a swooping roof.

SMITH: (Laughter) It is like a spaceship. I mean, once we begin building, suddenly, all of the developers who had been waiting jumped on because theaters really bring people to areas.

MONDELLO: With that kind of community investment, regional theaters couldn't just sit back when COVID hit. They needed to use the downtime. And many used it to rethink the way they'd been operating for decades, especially regarding racial equity.


IKE HOLTER: We are not just props to be pushed on the stage every February, we are the backbone of this theater.

MONDELLO: Chicago playwright Ike Holter speaking to NPR member station WBEZ in June 2020 after he and much of the creative staff at the Victory Gardens Theater resigned en masse. The board had hired a new artistic director without consulting them. But Holter said the problem ran deeper.


HOLTER: These large theaters that present themselves as liberal hot spots where, oh, we can talk about ideas here - we can share space here. That's all fine and dandy. But if they do seven shows a year and only two of them are by people of color in a city that is over half people of color, that is a sign of something that is systemic. And that is a sign of something that we shouldn't be silent about.

MONDELLO: Shortly after Holter said that, a coalition of hundreds of prominent theater-makers of color issued a statement. We see you, white American theater, it declared. And a 29-page list of demands followed to make sure white American theater saw them back. Michael Bobbitt in Massachusetts says that ought to be a no-brainer.

BOBBITT: Diversity is good for business. If someone were to ask me - what makes me Black? - I would say that art and culture are inherent in who I am. It's the music. It's the food. It's the dance. It's the words. So there's a group of people out there that a lot of organizations don't market to or program for or include in their planning. And they're missing out on all those people that would probably come and engage with them.

MONDELLO: Many in the theater world argue that should be just the start, that stages should also consider leaping into digital experimentation, the way sports leapt into television, and reworking labor practices that require sacrifice for art, subscription plans that prioritize the wealthy and a 1960s-era governance model where theater artists answer to a board of directors that has all of the authority and none of the accountability.

BOBBITT: You know, if I was a surgeon, I don't know if I would want a group of volunteers telling me how to do my surgery. I don't think the patient on the table would also appreciate that.

MONDELLO: All of this while acknowledging that the not-for-profit regionals have become a $2 billion business and a powerful cultural engine, the originators of nearly all new American plays.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We don't know what our child could be if we don't give him a chance to be it.

MONDELLO: "Ain't No Mo'," for instance, currently at DC's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) This is not your decision to make.

MONDELLO: ...After being nurtured at the public theater in New York on its way to Broadway, where it will join that new "1776" that was reconceived from the ground up at Boston's American Repertory Theater and is now being co-produced with Roundabout Theatre. So clearly, this is a system that works if also, as many say from the inside, a system that needs work.

BOBBITT: It's time. I think it's time for us to reimagine. Seventy-five years of doing it the same way is a long time.

MONDELLO: For the next five weeks, we'll be visiting artists who have done that reimagining and are doing theater in new ways.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Haven't you heard, Mr. Adams?

MONDELLO: As we continue NPR's series The Next Stage.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (Singing, as character) Molasses to rum, to slave.

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (Singing, as character) Oh, what a beautiful waltz.

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