An estimated one thousand theater artists from across the country were in Dallas last week for a national conference. In the Arts District, they attended performances, panels and parties. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports they also learned about a Dallasite named Margo Jones.
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Talk about Margo Jones with out-of-town theater professionals visiting Dallas for a national theater conference, and this is what you’ll likely hear. From Jason Nodler, the artistic director of the Catastrophic Theatre in Houston: “I know Margo Jones by name. And that’s it. ” Or when Sean LaRocca, managing director for ArtSpot Productions in New Orleans, was asked if he could say anything about her: “You know, I cannot, actually.” (He confessed it was his wife who was the real theater artist; he’s a composer and sound designer.)
They may not know it, but Margo Jones was a significant figure on the American stage. She championed professional theater outside of Broadway. In 1947, when she started a company in Fair Park called Theatre 47, there had already been other theaters outside of New York like the Cleveland Playhouse. But Jones didn’t just start a new theater. She wrote about her vision for an entire network of resident companies in cities across the country — she was, as people said at the time, a ‘theater evangelist.’
Theatre Communications Group is the non-profit that currently represents 700 theater companies nationwide. And it presented the Dallas conference. So — some 60 years after Jones’ pioneering efforts in Dallas, TCG and its conference are, basically, the realization of her ideas.
Even so, the conference was the first time many of the visiting theater professionals had ever heard of Jones, who died in 1955. So the conference became a chance to spread the word.
Trina Jackson, the program coordinator for the Pride Youth Theater Alliance in Boston, couldn’t say anything about Jones at first. Then she remembered the conference’s opening assembly, when clips from KERA TV’s documentary, Sweet Tornado: Margo Jones and the American Theater, were screened. “Well, I didn’t know very much until yesterday,” Jackson says and recalls that Jones “had a vision for what American theater should be and dedicated her life to that.”
Jones may have started a theater and she may have written about expanding her ideas to other cities in her book, Theatre in the Round. But she still wouldn’t have been remembered much at all – if she hadn’t also encouraged young playwrights. Playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Texas writer Horton Foote and William Inge, who wrote Picnic and Bus Stop.
“These are all names that we recognize now,” says Anne Catteneo (below), the dramaturg or literary manager for Lincoln Center in New York. “Most people work on plays that you don’t hear about after five years. And she had the taste and the individuality to understand really, really important writers.”
At the conference, Cattaneo led a panel discussion about Jones and new plays. Of the 85 plays Jones produced, 57 were original – that’s more than two-thirds.
But Cattaneo fears that what Jones pioneered — concentrating on developing new plays — has become almost industrialized in our age of workshops and commissions and new play programs. Everyone seems to be premiering plays — and then forgetting about them.
“Those of us who work in new play theaters, especially writers,” Cattaneo says, “have been chafing under the fact that so many new play programs look similar, that the writers have to fit into the programs. The danger is that the art becomes corporatized or it becomes too uniform. To go back to Margo Jones, her legacy is that it remains what is needed by the writers.”
In fact, Jones didn’t cultivate just new writers. They were Southern writers, Midwestern writers, writers whose voices weren’t often heard on Broadway. Lisa Adler was on Cattaneo’s panel. She’s co-artistic producing director of Horizon Theatre in Atlanta. Adler says this kind of relationship between the playwright and the local community, between the playwright and the director, is key.
“I’m not necessarily looking for the plays,” Adler says. “I’m looking for the writers who can tell the stories that are connected to the community. People come to the theater because it’s some kind of story they care about.”
At the end of the conference, TCG announced a new Visionary Leadership award. Its first recipient was Deborah Cullinan. She was just appointed executive director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco’s innovative, multi-disciplinary arts complex.
In her acceptance speech, Cullinan said, “Margo Jones. I know you all have been taking about her a lot. But let’s take a moment. This remarkable woman dreamed a movement into being, a movement driven by theaters that are rooted in their communities, theaters that nurture new voices and take great big risks.”
TCG’s new visionary leadership award is named in honor of Margo Jones. That means, in future conferences, the theater artists will know her name.