American Theatre “The Americans Are Coming”

Yankee groups of different sizes and aesthetics find more than one way to reach international destinations

By Eliza Bent

Why aren’t more American plays seen abroad? “Travel,” Mark Twain once remarked, “is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”—and certainly we theatre folk are an open-minded bunch. Shouldn’t it stand to reason that we’d be eager to share our work with international audiences?

Though a number of American theatres produce plays in translation or host artists from other continents, relatively few U.S. productions are seen these days outside our borders. The reasons are varied, ranging from scant arts funding in the U.S., to extra visa red tape following 9/11, to a sense of theatrical isolationism that may be related to larger trends in international relations. (Only 37 percent of all Americans hold passports.) Certainly, recent administrations have had more pressing political and economic crises to deal with than the scarcity of U.S. theatre’s presence abroad.

There are exceptions, of course. Broadway musicals crop up across the world as a particularly American kind of entertainment, and heavy-hitting contemporary playwrights such as Edward Albee and Sam Shepard receive productions in translation around the world. But the dearth of contemporary American plays done on foreign soil remains as stubborn a fact as the disparity between the slim budgets of U.S. arts funding and their more ample counterparts in Europe.

Funding issues aside, the challenges for artists interested in presenting work in other countries can seem insurmountable: visa issues, coordinating schedules, shipping hurdles, actor availability and language barriers all pose difficulties. When theatre artists stateside do take homegrown work abroad—to festivals, partnering theatres or on tour—their paths around these obstacles vary greatly. I spoke with representatives from several companies, ranging from small experimental collectives to large flagship institutions, to find out how they have overcome both ideological and practical barriers and discovered ways to share their made-in-America art with the rest of the world.

Following in the footsteps of such avant-garde forebears as the Wooster Group and Mabou Mines, two New York City groups—Elevator Repair Service and Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company—have joined the small cohort that has successfully tapped into the European festival circuit. Split Knuckle Theatre, a performance troupe based in Storrs, Conn., and New York, found an unlikely patron in the international business community. The irreverentDad’s Garage of Atlanta looks to fringe festivals throughout the world to showcase its comedy pieces. And two of the nation’s most storied institutions, the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis and Berkeley Repertory Theatre of California, found success in partnering with a British theatre to bring their co-production of Tiny Kushnerabroad.

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