The rise of the “little theater” movement was a reaction to the traditional practices of the American stage prior to 1910. Although the smallest towns had theater buildings and vaudeville houses in which well-worn plays and players kept up a lively brand of theatrical entertainment, new works came out of New York’s theaters. Little theaters were a first important step toward moving the American theater away from the exclusivity of the New York stage. In most cases, little theaters made it their mission vigorously to encourage new playwrights, designers experimenting with innovative staging and scenic techniques, and actors and directors testing new theories of their art. What emerged was a community-based theater responsive to the needs and interests of the audience within its immediate region. By the mid-20th century, most of the smaller, largely amateur little theaters, in their purest sense, were gone, but in their place—and very much indebted to their forebears—sprang up professional regional theaters, usually operating a repertory system.
Eighteenth- and 19th-century America’s vital, but largely superficial, plays slowly gave way to a more serious drama as the little theater movement emerged, producing a generation of dramatists, actors, and designers who would lead American theater into the middle of the 20th century. Little theaters produced writers at all levels of achievement, including Eugene O’Neill, America’s first internationally significant dramatist, and Susan Glaspell, an early feminist playwright, as well as a generation of young actors. Critics and scholars recognized the importance of the little theater movement from its very beginning, debating and analyzing ways in which the various theaters defined their missions. Typically, a little theater sought either to elevate the art form or to create a drama attuned to matters of social, political, and moral import, sometimes both.
The true beginnings of this movement, which flourished in the years just prior to World War I and into the 1920s, are difficult to pinpoint, as its roots reach back to the beginnings of theater in North America. To some extent, the little theater movement grew out of the 19th-century tradition of local dramatic societies and drawing room theatrical and literary entertainments. However, something new was introduced in the early 1910s as little theaters were established by a new generation of intellectuals, writers, and artists, many of whom were amateurs in theatrical work but on the cutting edge of new ideas drawn from Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, and Henrik Ibsen, among others. These stages provided an opportunity not only to experiment with technique and try out new plays with little financial risk but also to offer a platform for cultural debate, an element missing from much pre1910 American drama.
Several elements conjoined at the beginning of the 20th century to inspire this sudden expansion of theaters largely run by a mix of amateurs and theater professionals, who stressed the new forms and concepts emerging from the art theaters of Europe since the 1880s. Social reformers Jane Addams and Laura Dainty Pelham established the Hull House Players in Chicago in 1900 on the principle that good amateur theater could provide a positive influence in a community. Their idea did not catch on immediately, but following the triumphant American tour of the Irish Players (a troupe that functioned as many little theaters would) led by Lady Gregory in 1911 and a clarion call from playwright and critic Percy MacKaye for the encouragement of “constructive leisure,” the movement began. MacKaye called for a stage divorced from commercialism in his books The Playhouse and the Play (1909) and The Civic Theatre (1912), at the time a novel notion, but one that many artists recognized as necessary. The founding of the Drama League in 1909 and the creation of George Pierce Baker’s “47 Workshop” at Harvard University, which gave academic legitimacy to the making of theater, were significant first responses to MacKaye’s challenge. At the same time, the influence of such European stage reformers as Edward Gordon Craig and Adolphe Appia and several books and essays on the evolution of the modern theater in Europe fueled an enthusiasm for “art” theaters aimed at elevating the quality and purpose of theater in the United States. Other diverse influences encouraged the rise of little theaters: Theatre Arts magazine began publication in 1916 (continuing into the 1960s) and gave considerable coverage to the rise of little the aters; and designer Sam Hume, who had studied for a time with Edward Gordon Craig at Craig’s short-lived theater school in Florence, Italy, presented a New York exhibition on the new European movements in theatrical practice, causing a minor sensation among American theatrical artists, inspiring little theater workers. Craig himself published widely on the art of the stage in numerous books and in his periodical, The Mask, which he published from 1908 to 1929, articulating many of the concepts inherent in what is often referred to as the “New Stagecraft,” which featured techniques explored by many little theaters.
Each little theater identified its own particular mission, often creating a manifesto spelling out its goals. Many experimented with new stage techniques, exploring the nonrealistic scenic and lighting practices that Craig, Appia, and other European reformers proposed, despite the fact that the typical little theater had fewer than 100 seats and usually a small stage with a proscenium opening of less than 20 feet. Some little theaters chose to focus on promoting the works of new and promising young American writers. Others presented the plays of the modernist European stage, performing dramas by Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, August Strindberg, and other iconoclasts. Most importantly, the small size of these theaters and the amateur status of most of the personnel involved meant small budgets, which made it easier for the little theaters to take a chance with a play or director whose work was untried. Removing the financial risk encouraged the vital experimentation evident in the work of most little theaters.
In 1909, the establishment of The Players in Providence, Rhode Island, followed in 1911 by Thomas H. Dickinson’s Wisconsin Dramatic Society in Madison and Milwaukee, seemed to start a chain reaction, leading to the founding of similar organizations in a number of locations: The Boston Toy Theatre, founded by Mrs. Lyman Gale in 1912; the Little Country Theatre in Fargo, North Dakota, led by Alfred Arvold in 1912; and Maurice Browne’s Chicago Little Theatre in 1912 led the way for many others. The influence on young writers was profound—in Chicago, several little theater groups presented plays by Ben Hecht, who went on to a long and prolific writing career that produced such popular plays as The Front Page (written in collaboration with Charles MacArthur) and many classic screenplays, and Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, whose death in the influenza epidemic of 1918 ended a promising playwriting career. In the years just prior to America’s entry into World War I, the appearance of more little theaters underscored the need for stages of experimentation. In 1915, the Little Theatre of Indianapolis was founded by Samuel Eliot, followed by the 1916 establishment of the Arts and Crafts Theatre in Detroit, led by Sam Hume, Craig’s former disciple. That same year, the Cleveland Play House was founded by Frederick McConnell, and many other little theaters appeared before United States involvement in World War I slightly hampered operation of some of the theaters. In terms of influence on the development of drama in America, no little theater became as influential as the Provincetown Players, founded on Cape Cod in 1915, and the Washington Square Players, established in New York City the following year. Eugene O’Neill produced his earliest plays with the Provincetown Players, as did Susan Glaspell and other dramatists of less significance, and such prominent theater technicians as Robert Edmond Jones worked there. There is little doubt that if Eugene O’Neill, arguably America’s greatest playwright, had attempted to produce his earliest experimental one-act plays on a Broadway stage, he would have failed. Instead, by working with a little theater, he was able to learn his craft through trial and error, without risking vast sums of money and therefore without risking the theater’s survival.
As O’Neill rose to prominence on the international stage at the end of World War I, other little theaters continued the tradition that had helped to develop him, although no other dramatist of O’Neill’s stature (or, for that matter, Glaspell’s) would emerge from the movement. Among the more important little theaters emerging after World War I were the Pasadena Playhouse, established in 1918 by Gilmore Brown; Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, which opened in 1919 in New Orleans; Theatre Memphis, which opened its doors in 1920; the Dallas Little Theatre, set up in 1920 by Oliver Hinsdell; and the Omaha Community Playhouse, founded in 1925, which produced a remarkable number of successful actors (most of whom quickly turned their attentions to Broadway and Hollywood), including Henry Fonda, Dorothy McGuire, and Margaret Sullavan. Despite the obvious success of many little theaters, some had doubts about the value and quality of the work being done in these largely amateur theaters, doubts that were amusingly satirized in George E. Kelly’s popular comedy The Torch-Bearers (1922).
A number of these theaters maintained their little theater status for decades, while others evolved into larger scale regional and repertory theaters as that movement took hold in the late 1950s. The vigor of these regional and repertory theaters acknowledges the significance of the little theater movement both in encouraging experimentation and in creating theaters of merit in virtually every major city in the United States.
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Source: Publishing, I., 2010. The Facts On File Companion to American Drama. New York: Infobase Pub.