Margo Jones: The Texas Tornado

Grateful homage today to Margo Jones (Margaret Virginia Jones, 1911-1955), whose contributions to American culture were significant and real, though they are often badly articulated and misunderstood. Jones can be rightly called the mother of America’s NOT-FOR-PROFIT REGIONAL PROFESSIONAL THEATRE MOVEMENT. All of the pieces of that description are important and worthy of examination. It is often reduced to “she started the regional theatre movement” and “before her, there was no theatre in America outside of New York”.

But think about it. THINK ABOUT IT. We’re talking about theatre! Prior to cinema and broadcasting, there was ONLY theatre across America, so already people have it badly wrong, if they claim it didn’t exist nationally prior to Jones. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, theatre flourished across this country from sea to shining sea! Stock companies, musicals, vaudeville. Most of it toured from town to town, because that was the most cost effective way to do it, but there were also local companies that stayed put. The only difference is that those productions were commercial, so they were vulnerable to market forces. It wasn’t until a good way into the 20th century that movies (especially after talkies came in), radio, and the Great Depression all took a major toll on live theatre.

So the State of the Theatre Union when Jones came on the scene was a NEW condition, for which she devised a remedy. One reason she may have solved it was that she had participated in other forms of regional theatre that still existed in the 1930s. She had done COMMUNITY theatre in her native Texas, for example. Community theatre is ostensibly “non-professional” theatre, which has a dignity and worth of its own, is mostly volunteer based, and under the right circumstances can be as excellent as the so-called professional theatre. And unlike professional theatre, community theatre will never die. It has been around for centuries and is here to stay. Jones also was involved in the short-lived Federal Theatre, a Depression era WPA project that pointed the way to something really great but was cancelled after five years when funding was pulled by Congress. Again, being a Federal theatre program, it was regional, spread across the (then) 48 states. And she had also been part of the drama program at the University of Texas. Again, COLLEGE theatre was regional. JOnes also spent some time abroad, where she has to have encountered England’s wonderful regional repertory system, which has to have sparked some ideas, as well.

With Eddie Dowling, Jones co-directed the original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie in 1945, and this gave her some juice. She also directed the Broadway premieres of Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Larraine (1946) and Williams’ Summer and Smoke (1948). In the meantime, in 1947 she had founded Theatre ’47 in Dallas, and this is considered the birthplace of the regional theatre movement. The idea of it is this: a permanent repertory company performing seasons of classics and new works, supported by subscriptions, a board, and grant money, and therefore not subject to the feast and famine of the market. She is also notable for having championed the then completely radical idea of theatre-in-the-round (really 3/4 thrust) staging, which cut down on scenery and props. Two famous plays she premiered at Theatre ’47 during her tenure were William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind. And part of the idea of its mission is that you could make edifying work (Shakespeare as opposed to titty shows) without worrying about risk. It was the right thing to do for the culture.

The “grateful homage” I mentioned in the opening sentence is because I probably wouldn’t be typing these words without Jones’ existence. Fellow Texan Adrian Hall was an apple off Jones’ tree (and another proponent of theatre-in-the-round). He came to Providence to lead Trinity Rep in 1963, and it was soon one of the nation’s most prominent regional theatres. High school kids were bused in to watch the productions. I was among them, as was Viola Davis, easily the best argument for doing this kind of work. After high school, I attended Trinity Rep Conservatory, where I got intense training in acting, directing and playwriting.

By then, though, something unfortunate was underway, Since the time of Ronald Reagan, funding has been a struggle for cultural institutions. The major ones responded, as long ago as the 1980s, by tacking back toward the commercial. Regional theatres usually now offer recent New York stage hits, and very few support their own repertory companies any more. The mission is not quite what Jones had in mind. At the same time, since the ’90s there has been an explosion of regional alternative theatres, which do indeed do cutting edge work, but usually along economic lines a bit closer to community theatre. So theatre has indeed become decentralized. That part of Jones’ dream has come true, although its hard for theatre groups to retain talent when there’s no living in it. It says a lot for what passion can do, that so much theatre activity continues across the country into the 21st century, nearly a century after everyone figured live theatre was likely kaput.

Jones came to a particularly sad end, by the way. Accustomed to falling asleep in her office, she chanced to do so one night in 1955 after an assistant had had some carpets cleaned with a strong chemical. The fumes she breathed overnight caused kidney failure. It took her a week to die; time enough for her to say goodbye to friends, and to make some plans for after her passing. It reminds me a lot of the death of my friend the producer Randall Wreghitt who was killed by a carbon monoxide leak, but survived a few days as his organs slowly failed. Jones was only 43 when she passed. Had she lived she would have seen her acorns turned to trees in cities and towns all over the country.