2: The Hull House Theatre: Is Little Theatre local or global? Or something else?

Theatre is and it isn’t globalized. And it is and it isn’t all economics and trade. (See “Theatre globalized.”) Mostly through touring and immigration, forced or chosen, cultures from different parts of the world began to have a real impact on other cultures it came in contact with it. There have been migrations, like the massive ones to America at the end of the nineteenth century that brought people from all over the world and with them came their culture and therefore their theatres to large U.S. cities.

And what about the place of the Little Theatre movement in America? This movement started roughly around 1910 when theatre courses found their way into universities and colleges. Was theatre becoming globalized or were Little Theatres firmly in the hands of local people?

Massive immigrations, as the ones affecting the United States in the late 1800s, brought with it a cultural de-territorialization, a term along with reterritorialization (there are those pesky “izations” again) helps define globalization. When people migrate to different areas around the world, they bring much of their culture with them. De-territorialization. As when a group of Greek immigrants living in Chicago put on Greek plays in Greek, with Greek staging, for a Greek-speaking audience. They have come to another country but cling to their culture as a way of keeping powerful links to who they are.

But just because a Greek play is being put on in Chicago, doesn’t make it global. It gets closer to globalization when the reterritorialized part takes over. That would happen when the old culture gives way to new influences from the new country’s culture. For instance, an assimilation might take place with other immigrants in Chicago, and maybe this same play that originated with the Greek immigrants, would take on American, Irish, and other actors. It might be staged on a proscenium rather than an amphitheater. It might be now in English. It maybe goes on tour to Europe and Asia. Now you begin to see theatre globalization.

Take Chicago. The Hull House sprung from Jane Addams’s vision to help these immigrants cope productively with the changes they faced in America. What was happening to many of these immigrant communities in those days was that they lived in the worst parts of town and faced even further decay of their community and families. Jane Addams was determined to change that. What made a big difference was that she combined social services with a preservation and expression of culture. The Hull House Theatre sprung up, thanks to the efforts of other people, such as Laura Dainty Pelham, an actress, who has also been credited with starting the Little Theatre movement in America. But the people themselves brought what theatre they knew with them to America and so to Chicago.

In 1889, it was Greek immigrants themselves, living on the Near West side of Chicago, where Hull House was located, who put on Greek plays, in Greek, staged by Greeks, at the Hull House. This is an example of de-territorialization, when people migrate and bring their culture with them, a kind of globalization in the sense that it encompasses the world culture.

The Little Theatre movement didn’t just spring up all around America spontaneously. There were many global influences at work, and many local ones.

Next up: 3: Other global influences strengthening the Little Theatre movement.

(Got comments? Email me at m.turner@theatre-follies.com)

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1: Theatre globalized

One of the things that set my teeth on edge, back when we technical writers copy-edited each other’s work, was when I came upon “utilize.” It was a perfectly good word when it meant making a thing do what it wasn’t originally meant to do: “I utilized the washtub as a temporary raft in the flooding backyard.” But not “I utilized the rowboat to row to the other side of the creek.” The washtub was meant to wash clothes in so if you need it as a raft, you are utilizing it. A rowboat, on the other hand, is meant to navigate over water, so you would use it to get to the other side of the creek. You get the idea.

Characterizing theatre as an example of globalization makes me wary. It’s the “ization” thing again. The theatre becoming world-wide? Wasn’t it always? Most of us read a Greek play or two in our day. How global can you get? Yeah, you can say that now. But there weren’t always handy paperbacks with Greek plays available.

Theatre usually starts locally, in a specific branch of civilization, mirroring back to the audience just what their culture looks like. So if theatre is local, how could it be global? Is global-izing just a modern way to say theatre is being used for something new? Like making money?

But wait. Sophocles may have been wright-ing plays for local audiences, but Aristotle, writing for the ages, built his notion of what makes tragedy on those plays of Sophocles and others. And we still mull that over when we are watching theatre critically. What the local Greeks, sitting in amphitheaters watching these plays, were seeing was something true about human nature, so true that it transcended that local culture into something that we still relate to and learn from today. You can watch Trojan Women in Greek and get the idea that war is hell on the people left behind, an idea that is still alive and true today in works like the movie American Sniper.

So globalization has something to do with ideas that resonate throughout cultures. Studying globalization more closely, though, in my readings for a Coursera course, “Theatre and Globalization,” I find that the concept also has an economic ring to it. Trade with other countries. Buying and selling internationally and forming world groups to facilitate this.

Take the world tour of The Lion King. At first glance, there is a mix of world-cultures, plus some world-class puppetry, but it remains a product of an homogenized version of what the United States and Disney’s idea of African culture is. The intent of the tour was to bring the show, as is, unmodified, uniform, to theatres around the world that could accommodate this production, without changing anything. And a global intent is there: bring an American brand (show) that would put butts in seats all over the world, and better yet, have it be the means to open those international wallets to all the peripheral goods and services on offer with the Disney logo. Not a bad business strategy. And an example of economic globalization.

Is there more to say about theatre and globalization than economics? There is that exchange and assimilation of ideas to explore.

Next up: The Hull House Theatre: Is Little Theatre local or global?

(Got comments? Email me at m.turner@theatre-follies.com)

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