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"Theatre" Man Today’s theatre artists and audiences may take for granted that first-class professional theatre happens in every major city in America, not only in New York.
And they may take for granted that there’s a top-flight magazine, American Theatre, to reflect and encourage that national theatre activity.

But neither were ever thus: It was not until the mid-1960s that what would soon be called the “regional theatre movement” began to take root in cities from Costa Mesa, Calif. to Hartford, Conn. Around that same time, Theatre Arts magazine—a longtime New York-based bastion of the commercial theatre scene—folded up shop. So while theatre began to boom to an unprecedented degree across the United States, there was no national publication on the beat.

That changed in 1984, when Theatre Communications Group—a membership organization comprising America’s nonprofit theatre companies—launched a new magazine with its mission and coverage area stated boldly in its title: American Theatre. To man the ship, TCG hired Louisana-bred newspaperman Jim O’Quinn as its founding Editor in Chief. O’Quinn, despite his journalistic pedigree, happened also to be an inveterate theatre junkie, and had in fact come to New York to “legitimize” his infatuation with the stage by taking performance studies at New York University.

O’Quinn has been at the helm of the monthly publication ever since, covering the rise and rise, and the occasional fall, of American theatre’s fortunes with reliably incisive and searching features, interviews, reports, essays and think pieces.

O’Quinn sat down recently on the occasion of American Theatre’s 25th anniversary to talk about its genesis, its development and its relationship to the world it covers.

Q: How did you and American Theatre find each other?

Jim O’Quinn: I started out as a city desk reporter back before Watergate, when you could actually graduate with a degree in journalism and then go to work in it. But I always had this perverse, unhealthy interest in the theatre. I finally came up East in 1978 to legitimize my longstanding interest in the theatre. I went to the performance studies department at NYU, out of which TCG hired me. I mean, as soon as I saw it advertised that they were looking for someone to edit their publications and start a magazine, it had my name all over it—it was then my job to convince them that I was the one.

Q: How was the magazine’s original editorial mandate defined?

O'Quinn: It’s a complicated situation, in a way: You’ve got a magazine published by a membership organization of the theatres, so in a certain way the theatres pay your salary. So how journalistically independent can you be? We determined from the first that I wasn’t interested in a newsletter or a house organ, and neither was TCG; they wanted a real live magazine. It’s debatable what kind of a balance we’ve struck over the years, but I think, personally, that it’s been quite good. Let’s face it: In the concept of this magazine, theatre is a good thing. The difficulty comes when you try to address challenging issues facing the field. How do you talk about failures and difficulties?

Q: Another challenge is keeping your eye on a sprawling national scene. How do you do that?

O'Quinn: We really attempt in our planning for every issue to have geographical balance, balance between large and small theatres, balance of diversity of all sorts—racial and so forth, and diversity in terms of kinds of theatre—avant-garde vs. traditional, contemporary vs. classic work. All these kinds of balance are things we aim for in the long run and issue by issue.

Q: I’m sure you’re sometimes asked why the magazine is not more New York- and Broadway-focused.

O'Quinn: Commercial theatre is not really under the official purview of American Theatre; we’re the journal for the nonprofit professional theatre in America. But I call it OBT—it’s “One Big Theatre,” really. It’s all interconnected. The lines are blurred, and that very blurring is one of the subjects we’ve often addressed. So I don’t get invited to the Tonys, but I don’t care. (Laughs)

Q: One thing readers won’t find in American Theatre is play reviews. Why is that?

O'Quinn: There’s no point. We’re a monthly, in the first place, so we wouldn’t be timely. In the second place, we feel that’s taken care of by publications across the country, and that our member theatres don’t need us piling onto them after their local reviewers have done so already. We do have something called Critic’s Notebook, where theatre critics write in-depth about productions of significance or idiosyncrasy or of particular accomplishment. We’ve tried in recent years to do that in such a way that the production is still available in some form, whether it’s a co-production or a tour, so we won’t be writing, in essence, “Here’s this wonderful thing that happened; we saw it and you can’t.”

Q: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the 25 years you’ve been covering American theatre?

O'Quinn: Well, it’s stronger than ever in terms of numbers and influence. The estimates are that there are something like 1,900 not-for-profit theatres in America today. That’s incredible. When TCG started, there were 15 or something! Young people coming into the theatre today just assume that it was always that way—that there were always theatres everywhere, and people could make their living in Detroit or Minneapolis, but of course it wasn’t that way. You used to have to come to New York. Theatre was centrifugal; it started in New York and spun out all the way. Now it’s centripetal—it comes to New York from creative outposts all over the place. That’s a huge difference.

Q: Apart from American theatre, you’ve covered a lot of international theatre, as well.

O'Quinn: That’s something I’m proud of. In the late ’80s and early 90s, before the xenophobia of the Bush years, we introduced a lot of important international theatremakers to the United States. We had the first articles about Dario Fo that ever appeared in this country; we introduced Ariane Mnouchkine, Tadashi Suzuki. All these people were introduced to America through American Theatre before they ever came here.

Q: Being a monthly, you stay a bit above the opening-night fray. How, then, would define the role your magazine play in the theatre scene?

O'Quinn: The act of theatre happens between artists and audience, but it’s not complete. Because theatre is an art form of language and ideas, the discourse that follows the act of theatre is an integral part of it, and that’s where I think a magazine like American Theatre comes in. When you have a community that has good theatre but has lousy theatre critics—if the discourse that derives from theatre is weak or faulty—then that weakens the theatre itself. So I feel like this is a very important component of the act of theatre; to have a place, a forum for discussion of it, is essential and crucial.