2007 USA Theater Arts Selection Panel

Emilya Cachapero (Chair)

Director of Artistic Programs and the US Center of the International Theatre Institute, Theatre Communications Group, New York, NY

Tom Jacobson

Playwright, Los Angeles, CA

Ping Chong

Artistic Director, Ping Chong & Company, and USA Prudential Fellow 2006, New York, NY

Susan Booth

Artistic Director, Alliance Theatre, Atlanta, GA

Lane Czaplinski

Artistic Director, On the Boards, Seattle, WA

Statement by Susan Booth

Although the circle of peers that gathered this past summer was charged with the task of considering the field of theater artists nominated for USA support, a larger discourse quickly emerged. Beyond subjective issues of taste and personal practice lay the question “Why?”—shadowed by its equally fraught cousins, “How?” and “Who?” Why live theater in a digital age? How does one craft narrative for a nonlinear audience? Who determines how elastic our definitions of theater can be?

Our panel encountered multimedia events that dismantled naturalism and narrative in pursuit of generative truths—acts of dislocation that create new languages. We witnessed pure storytelling performances seeking to affirm commonalities across perceived differences—acts of location with a shared language. We saw theater created by auteurs and theater created by incarcerated women. We found theater happening in driveways, community centers, storefronts, and prosceniums. It spoke, it danced, it appeared on film. And we wrestled with our preconceptions of what this ancient practice ought to accomplish in its contemporary applications. Ought theater to reflect its community? Do theatrical artists owe a responsibility to anyone other than their own muse? Is the relationship between the art form and society one of parallel lines, call and response, or volatile collision?

While distinctions are never as neat as this would imply, a single question emerged, around which we could chart our differing views: Does theater exist for the audience or for the artist?

Admittedly, this is reductive. And it’s clumsily provocative too, really, as it stacks the either/or deck in a manner that implies that those who don’t choose community are therefore choosing a kind of self-involved narcissism. But in the fine tradition of flame throwing, it’s a means of taking the conversation out of pedagogy and into the frying pan. For whom is theater created? And who gets to say what constitutes theater in the first place? And don’t even get me started on the questions that queue up when words like excellence and meritocracy come into the mix. But when you are tasked with identifying artists of impact and influence, you grapple with the most fundamental of your definitions. In an age when we are all equipped to create content, do we / should we / can we democratize the very idea of “artistry”?

Some years back, a glorious little theater existed in Chicago called Wisdom Bridge. And legend had it that the theater’s name came from a Dutch painting with the following caption inscribed across its frame: “The bridge to wisdom lies in the continual asking of questions.”

We did not answer a lot of our questions. But we did identify five artists who guide us to a kind of collective wisdom through their work. Some of them locate us, their sure intersections with our time and place providing a kind of “you are here” marker. And some dislocate us with their rigorous eschewing of that which has gone before, thereby freeing us to imagine the not yet imagined.