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Las Vegas: The Future Home of British Theatre in the U.S.?

May 7, 2008

There's something daunting about putting the word "national" on the front of the name of an arts organization. Being a ballet company or orchestra is one thing; being a national ballet company or national orchestra is quite another. Somehow the term carries an awesome amount of baggage with it.

The sheer size of this country and its fragmented legislative system which favors private support of the arts has prevented an American National Theatre from taking root, even though the idea has had -- and continues to have -- many supporters from within the arts world. I'm not sure where the latest plans to bring a national theatre to downtown Manhattan have got to (the movement's website doesn't seem to have been updated in quite some time.) Looking into history, Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont stage was established with a national theatre mission in mind, and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. has long considered itself to be the nation's cultural center (even though it doesn't at all fulfill that role in reality.)

But while Americans continue to struggle with the possibility of establishing a national homebase for theatre, the Brits are making new inroads onto U.S. soil. Not content with UK-oriented drama festivals like New York's Brits Off Broadway, a group of English theatrical entrepreneurs is in the process of setting up something called The British National Theatre of America. And -- intriguingly -- they're doing it about as far away from the Great White Way as it's possible to be: in Las Vegas.

Vegas' cultural life hasn't fared well of late, what with The Las Vegas Guggenheim closing its doors and The Wynn Las Vegas casino bidding its resident show, Spamalot, farewell. The city hasn't done much to nurture a non-profit theatre scene over the years.

Whether The British National Theatre of America brings new vigor to the local arts environment remains to be seen. But in the meantime, locals can look forward to the company's probable inaugural show, Cinderella the Pantomime, and people around the country and abroad can keep track of the group's endeavors via their MySpace and FaceBook pages.

"A large part of what we're trying to do is to build a theatre community in Las Vegas," says BNTA co-founder, British playwright and Vegas resident, Jo Cattell. I'm all for broadening the Las Vegas arts scene beyond Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil. But I can't help worrying that The British National Theatre of America is doing itself a disservice by making the term "national" part of its name. For one thing it's confusing. Does the troupe intend to recreate -- rather like the Venetian casino with respects to Venice -- the British National Theatre in London? Or is the goal to create a Las Vegas-based American theatre on a national scale albeit with British input? For another, the fact that so many attempts to create a so-called national theatre have run aground has made people rather skeptical of the term. In short, I don't suppose the endeavor would lose any credibility by dropping the grandiose n-word.

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