Theater Infrastructure in the United States: Sources and Problems

Derek Miller

October 21, 2020

To read this paper in PDF, click here.

What do we mean when we talk about the American theater? What are its constituent parts? What are their size and scope? How have those things changed over time?

These questions—big, amorphous, fundamentally unanswerable—have bothered me over the past few years. They were prompted by my growing obsession with directories, guides, catalogues, bibliographies, and other lists and listings of the American theater. I’ve tracked these items down in libraries and archives, downloaded PDFs from HathiTrust and Google Books, and bought copies online, always frantically trying to understand, through them, what theater in the United States is.

This half-formed, hodgepodge paper explains some of these materials while reflecting on what these strange archival items tell us about the American theater. Much of what I have to say for now is obvious—or, at least, would be obvious to experts in these areas, or to anyone asked to reflect upon these issues. But too little of our theater scholarship invites this kind of reflection. And even those scholars who do work in these subfields do not have a larger view of the whole operation. (That’s my instinct—you’ll tell me if I’m wrong, please!)

In the pages that follow, I draw on my archive to describe an American theater that is local, connected, material, large, and organized. At the end, I’ll describe my own attempt to rationalize this material, to imagine a map of the American theater that captures its complex topography. And then I’ll invite you, if you wish, to offer your own reflection on that structure.

Local

Ironically, the term “site-specific theater” is not, itself, specific. Every theatrical performance is specific to its site. Site specificity is a spectrum: some shows adapt easily to different places because they were designed for standard spaces; other shows require extremely specific architecture and seem impossible to relocate. But whatever end of the spectrum a production occupies, its managers always specify the production to its performance site. Like politics, all theater is local.

Theater directories remind us of this fact. If any production could perform at any theater, then such directories need only list venue addresses. But they include far more. From Sweet’s Amusement Directory (1871) to Stage Specs, published by the Broadway League, American theater directories provide information about the production capacity of theatrical venues. This includes the seating capacity, detailed stage dimensions (on and off), lighting systems, and more.

Julius Cahn, a booking agent for Charles Frohman, published my favorite among these guides. In 15 volumes between 1896 and 1910, then in collaboration with others through 1920, Cahn published a guide to theaters across the country. He sold to readers a useable, near-complete handbook for touring their productions around the United States. To do that successfully, managers needed to know what resources a theater offered, what they could expect to earn given a venue’s ticket prices, and what they should expect to spend in advertising and housing costs. Cahn’s guide provided answers (Figure 1).

From Julius Cahn’s Theatrical Guide (1902)

In his detailed descriptions of theaters, Cahn ensured that managers knew what to expect in every venue and every town. For example, say you needed electric lighting. When Cahn first started printing his guide, only a third of his listed theaters ran solely on electricity (Figure 2).

Percent of Theaters by Illumination Type (Source: Cahn’s Guides)

By 1910, about two-thirds of theaters used only electricity for illumination, with gas-only theaters holding a miniscule market share. Some of that change is due to shrinkage in the gas market, through transformation or closure, but much is attributable to new theaters (Figure 3).

Number of Theaters by Illumination Type (Source: Cahn’s Guides)

While the figures above illustrate changes in the theater industry overall, the information appears in the guides themselves as facts about each individual theater, making performances possible in the United States’ innumerable theatrical locales.

Connected

By collecting essential information about each specific theatrical site, Cahn and his peers made a national touring culture possible. The national culture existed by dint of connections among local cultures. American theater does not have a single location, but moves through places.

Cahn’s guides make this evident not only in their stated purpose (to support managers of traveling companies) but also in their extensive attention to transportation infrastructure. We read of local hotels and their rates, of transfer companies that will haul your goods from the train station to the theater, and, of course, much of the railroads themselves. In addition to numerous maps advertising major rail lines, the guides list the major railroads that service each named town, freight rates between large hubs, as well as the railroad employees who specialized in theatrical business (Figure 4).

Railroad Employees in Cahn’s Guide (1910)

How did this railroad infrastructure support certain patterns of theatrical movement? As scholarship on cultural mobility, including in data-driven forms, continues apace, I am eager to know more about the infrastructures that made such mobility possible.1

But even absent such detailed knowledge about these infrastructures, we have a wealth of data about what theater actually moved, when, and where. Consider The Billboard’s weekly (yes, weekly!) “Route Department.” It named vaudeville acts, concerts and operas, tabloids, bands and orchestras, dramatic and musical plays, stock and repertoire, minstrels, circus and wild west, carnivals, and more. Every week. For years. Figure 5 is one page from one week.

“Route Department,” The Billboard, October 13, 1923

What might we see of American theatrical culture were we to transcribe that data, map it, and put it in motion? Who knows? But we can say for certain that we would see a theatrical system with deep connections from point to point, binding the far-flung country together through the movement of its artists.

Material

Not every theatrical object can or should move from place to place. American theater’s material infrastructure needed not only to connect far-flung locales, but also to provision local theaters with essential supplies. The contents to Simon’s Directory of Theatrical Materials, Services & Information—published in five editions in 1953, 1963, 1966, 1970, and 1975—promise “everything needed” for theatrical production and management including plays and actors, items to dress both the latter and the stage, supplies for theater administration, publicity and advertising materials, and general information about theater conventions, organizations, awards, etc. (Figure 6).

Simon’s Directory (1970) Contents (first page)

The pages that follow deliver on that promise. Need a turntable in Oklahoma? Capitol Stage Equipment at 3121 N. Penn Ave in Oklahoma City can help. Flame-proofing east of Atlanta? Morgan Carpet & Drapery Cleaning in Decatur is your spot. If you end up in Illinois without your ventriloquist’s dummy, Simon’s proposes you try Martin’s Magic Shop in Peoria, Coleman Puppets in Maywood, and either Bobby Clark Enterprises or Magic Inc. in Chicago. The section on tickets alone invites a book-length study: tickets (reserved-seat, roll, flat non-reserved, hatchecks, twofers), ticket envelopes, ticket racks. You can still buy tickets from Weldon, Williams & Lick, based in Fort Smith, Arkansas, with outposts, as of 1970, in Jackson, Jacksonville, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Denver, Charlotte, St. Louis, and Nashville.

Few of the businesses are as large in scope as these ticket suppliers. But each one not only mattered to the theater, the theater mattered to them. One example: in 1913, the typographers’ union sought to organize Weldon, Williams & Lick’s shop in Fort Smith (Local 429). The national typographers’ union office asked Martin Beck at the Orpheum Circuit, and then the Shuberts, to pressure the ticket firm to permit unionization—and won.2 The history of ticketing is more than the history of theater; the history of theater is more than the history of ticketing. But neither story is comprehensible without the other.

Large

All of this amounts to a huge story; the American theater is and was large. You see its size when flipping through Simon’s Directory or Cahn’s Guide, but also when perusing copyright records. A collection of copyright registrations in dramatic compositions, 1870–1916, runs to two volumes with over 56,000 entries (Figure 7).

From Dramatic Compositions Registered in the United States, 1870 to 1916

Bernard Simon reported that his directory had expanded from 96 pages in 1953 to 320 pages in 1970, with about 15,000 entries. Using information from Cahn’s 1902 and 1913 guides, I’ve mapped theaters in the US in those two years, along with population and rail mileage. If you explore that map, you begin to grasp the sheer, overwhelming size of the American theater. (The relatively under-theatered South, by the way, seems as much the result of segregation as anything else. Compare a slightly later map of black theaters, which suggests there might have been more parity by the 1910s than the original map suggests.)

Organized

We can take information from these guides and plot it on a map, giving it one kind of shape. But American theater is organized around more than just geography. Bernard Simon called his directory a “classified guide.” This means, of course, not that the guide was secret, but that its entries had been sorted into classes, categorized. Theater in the United States is diffuse, uncentralized; many elements are unknown to each other. But that does not mean that the theater is unorganized. In fact, the history of American theater is full of attemps to organize theater’s elements, through guides and directories and catalogues, but also through unions, trade associations, and professional organizations. The US Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT), for instance, published a membership directory in 1984 (Figure 8).

From USITT Member Directory (1984)

Theatre Communications Group publishes an annual volume of Theatre Profiles describing its member theaters. Leo Shull, a New York-based theater entrepreneur, published for years information about investors in Broadway shows (Figure 9), summer theater, who’s who, and more.

From Leo Shull’s Angels (1975

PJ Tumielewicz and Peg Lyons took up Shull’s focus on summer theaters in their own guides, expanding to regional theaters and theater training programs. The latter, over multiple editions, contains detailed information about degree requirements, admissions, and general courses, offering an incredible overview of theater in higher education. Their school-by-school structure, however, is nothing compared to the volume produced by the American Educational Theatre Association in 1960. In a massive, multipage table, AETA explains the situation of theater education within each college or university, the size of the theater faculty, as well as the range and type of courses offered (Figure 10).

Directory of American College Theatre (1960)

Between AETA and Tumielewicz and Lyons’ work we have the groundwork for an impressive material history of theater education since the midcentury to complement Shannon Jackson’s influential intellectual history.3

And then there are lists of published dramas. Publishers themselves print catalogues with brief synopses, cast breakdowns, and scene descriptions. Other writers suggest works appropriate for schools (Figure 11) or index recently printed one-act or full-length plays.4

From Holiday Plays for Schools (1938)

All of these volumes take the mass of theatrical elements—plays, people, institutions—and sort them into meaningful groups, organizing the theater’s disparate parts into a vision of a collected whole.

Structure

What, though, is the structure of the American theater? We can see in these directories, listings, and guides a mass of information, some of it organized, about the American theater. But to begin to grasp the whole thing we need more than different sortings, we need a way to think structurally. We need, in short, an outline of the American theater.

By way of closing, I offer you my outline of the current American theater, and invite you to help me improve or rethink it. It begins with three major sectors (professional, educational, and amateur) each with a number of subsectors, like so:

It is not enough, however, simply to enumerate these sectors and subsectors. I wish, too, to understand their relationship to each other. To do this, I have graded them all on their purposes and scale. Most sectors serve multiple purposes, but only a few are their focus. When thinking about scale, I distinguish between the scale of individual shows and the aggregate activity. For instance, individually, community theaters attract relatively small audiences, but, in the aggregate, the audience for community theater is large. Here are those purposes and scales:

I have ranked all subsectors in each of those categores, on a scale from 0 (irrelevant or nonexistent) to 5 (large or important). (To this ranking, based on my own impressions, I plan to add observed data about scale, as well as geographic extension.) The results of those rankings, based simply on my own instinct, can be visualized in the following radar graphs (Figure 12).

Purpose and Scale of American Theater Sectors

These graphs show how the different portions of the American theater are shaped by their different purposes and sizes. Each subsector is a colored line, circumscribing the graph. The lines intersect each axis as on a normal scale, with a score of zero intersecting at the center, and five at the periphery. Thus, Broadway, in the professional scale graph, I gave a score of 5 in all categories, and the blue line circles the graph. On the professional purpose chart, only Theater for Young Audiences (red) has a strong educational purpose, and thus it is the only line far from the center on the education axis.

These images are, as with so much of my work, an experiment. And I’d like to ask for your help. If you’re able, would you please complete a Google form, offering your own rankings for the American theater as described above? At the end, I offer space to comment on this structure and makes suggestions. I’d like to conduct a more formal survey in the future, and your suggestions can help bring me closer to that goal. (If you don’t have time, that’s fine!)

This paper doesn’t have a conclusion; it’s work in progress. I look forward to hearing your response, and hope you’ve found at least one new way of thinking about the infrastructure of the American theater.


  1. See Harmony Bench and Kate Elswit, “Katherine Dunham’s Global Method and the Embodied Politics of Dance’s Everyday,” Theatre Survey 61, no. 3 (2020): 305–30 for a recent example of data-driven cultural mobility studies. On the infrastructure of nineteenth-century theatrical mobility see Marlis Schweitzer, Transatlantic Broadway: The Infrastructural Politics of Global Performance (Palgrave, 2015).

  2. Supplement to the Typographical Journal, vol. XLV, 1 (July, 1914), pp. 99–100.

  3. Shannon Jackson, Professing Performance (Cambridge, 2004). For similarly material histories of theater education, see Karl R. Wallace, ed., History of Speech Education in America, Part III and Anne L. Fliotsos and Gail S. Medford, eds., Teaching Theatre Today (Palgrave, 2004).

  4. For the latter, see, for instance, Estelle A. Fidell and Dorothy Margaret Peake, Play Index (H. W. Wilson Co.), published in volumes that, together, cover 1949–2007 or Hannah Logasa and Winifred Ver Nooy, Index to One-Act Plays (Faxon & Co., 1924) and its five supplements, up to 1964.