Bigger Than Broadway!

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DAVID COOPER

The world's a stage: The outdoor Elizabethan theater is one of three venues in Ashland, Ore.

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Even with more commercial works that play the regionals with one eye on the ultimate prize — Broadway — the audience participates in a more direct way. Last winter Ellen Burstyn played the title role in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, a one-woman stage adaptation of Allan Gurganus' best-selling novel, which had its world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theater. She was still stumbling a bit (engagingly, catching herself with a casual "I mean ...") as she tried to master the demanding part, but audiences had the frisson of being present at the development of what may (when the show comes to Broadway this fall) turn out to be one of the great stage roles.

By most measures, the regional theaters are booming. There were just 23 in 1961, when the first national organization of nonprofit theaters was formed; today there are 1,800. Many have gleaming new theaters, with two or even three stages, and state-of-the-art production facilities that put to shame the cramped old boxes on Broadway. "Frankly, it's something of a step down for me when I go to New York," says Jack O'Brien, artistic director of San Diego's Globe Theaters — who has lately been going to New York often to direct hit shows like Hairspray.

For playwrights, the chance to see their new work given a sumptuous first staging is matched only by the ability to keep tinkering with it while shielded from the harsh lights of Broadway. "One of the things you find is that there's a low level of audience pretension," says Richard Greenberg, who has developed plays like Three Days of Rain and The Violet Hour at South Coast Repertory in California's Orange County. "There's a receptiveness about the audience. Their responses are pure. And that's especially good early on, when you're not so sure how or if your play is communicating."

Today's tough economic times have brought their share of pain, of course. Subscriptions and ticket sales have held their own at most of the major theaters (though advance bookings have dropped, as they have on Broadway since Sept. 11), but it has been a struggle to keep corporate and private donations coming. Seattle's ACT company, one of the city's three major theater groups, announced last winter that financial woes would force it to close down at the end of the season — before $1.5 million was raised at the last minute to keep it going for at least another season. The Seattle Rep, across town, is in less dire straits, but will still have to reduce staff and cut its roster of plays from nine to six next season. These pressures could increase the danger that regionals will shy away from risky fare, in favor of tried-and-true revivals, or new works that might have the prospect of a commercial run in New York. That is a criticism that some have long made of the regionals; off-Broadway is still a more receptive place for certain kinds of stylistically experimental plays. "I find that sometimes theaters are a little tame when it comes to choosing their seasons. They want to cater to their audiences," says playwright Cruz. "A lot of regional theaters won't take chances with work that deals more with experimentation."

A successful regional theater, of course, has to strike the right balance, to know its audience and serve its tastes while pushing it, at least on occasion, into new territory. What's gratifying is how well many of them are doing it — and proving in the process that all the country's a stage.

The Top Five Regional Theaters
Some focus on new work; others have a commitment to the classics. Bringing new plays and artists to the national stage is important, but so is serving your local audience. TIME traveled the country to find the five theaters that do both best — and know how to put on a great show

1
Goodman Theater, Chicago

With the groundbreaking Steppenwolf troupe and such ambitious smaller companies as the Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago's theater scene is lively. But the Goodman continues to make the biggest national mark. Artistic director Robert Falls has supplied Broadway with acclaimed adaptations of American classics (including this season's Long Day's Journey into Night) and has nurtured such important new voices as Rebecca Gilman (Boy Gets Girl) and — along with Chicago's Lookingglass Theater — Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses). The Goodman is currently introducing Gem of the Ocean, above, the latest in August Wilson's 20th century chronicle of the African-American experience, in a vibrant production with a strong cast of Wilson regulars. And Stephen Sondheim's long-awaited new musical, Bounce, will open here in June. "New York is a place to celebrate new work rather than to originate or nurture it," says Falls. "That's our responsibility."

2
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Ore.

The name is misleading. Although the company began as an all-Shakespeare troupe back in 1935, the Bard's works now constitute less than half of its increasingly eclectic season. OSF is one of the few U.S. companies left that hew to the classic repertory format. Its 70 to 75 actors take various roles in 11 works that play in rotation from February to November. And since visitors generally travel to this Oregon resort town to see several shows at a time, the Romeo and Juliets and Hedda Gablers can be supplemented with more unconventional fare such as the two parts of David Edgar's Continental Divide (one of them, Mothers Against, below) and, in July, Nilo Cruz's Lorca in a Green Dress. "We're willing to take a chance on plays that other theaters aren't interested in," says artistic director Libby Appel, "because we have the audience for it."

3
American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, Mass.

Robert Brustein, the longtime artistic director of this adventurous company, turned over the reins this season to Robert Woodruff, a veteran avant-garde director from New York City. Woodruff responded by bringing in a Who's Who of theater innovators, including Peter Sellars and Andrei Serban, whose quirky take on Shakespeare's Pericles, right, is currently onstage. Another highlight of the season:Woodruff's staging of Highway Ulysses, an update of the Ulysses myth, with text and music by Rinde Eckert, about a man on a freaky cross-country trek in search of his son. Even when the journey wandered, Woodruff's teeming, haunted stage kept you enthralled.

4
Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis

One of the legendary American regional companies has been quietly tending its garden for years, with 32,000 subscribers (among the highest in the nation) who brave the frigid Minnesota winters to see high-quality productions of the classics. But the Guthrie has also launched a program for developing new work, and last summer staged the world premiere of Arthur Miller's latest play, Resurrection Blues, above. Artistic director Joe Dowling, who once ran Dublin's Abbey Theater and directed a Broadway revival of Tartuffe this season, says that the audience in Minneapolis is "one of the most sophisticated I've ever worked with."

5
South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, Calif.

In Southern California, enterprising regional theaters are nearly as plentiful as orange groves — among them, San Diego's Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse — but the little engine that could in Orange County gets the nod. Run by two former San Francisco college buddies — Martin Benson and David Emmes, who founded the company as a traveling troupe in 1964--the South Coast Rep has helped nurture such playwrights as Richard Greenberg and David Henry Hwang (Golden Child). This spring the theater, along with Baltimore's Center Stage, staged the premiere of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, right, about a black seamstress in turn-of-the-century New York City who makes corsets for rich ladies — and a mail-order match for herself with a laborer on the Panama Canal. It's a lovingly rendered slice of the American story that seems to glow especially bright in the heart of Reagan country.

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