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Composing Ourselves

Composing Ourselves

The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience

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Dorothy Chansky


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
316 pages, 6 x 9, 15 illustrations

Theater in the Americas


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About the Book

When movies replaced theatre as popular entertainment in the years 1910–20, the world of live drama was wide open for reform. American advocates and practitioners founded theatres in a spirit of anticommercialism, seeking to develop an American audience for serious theatre, mounting plays in what would today be called “alternative spaces,” and uniting for the cause an eclectic group of professors, social workers, members of women’s clubs, bohemians, artists, students, and immigrants. This rebellion, called the Little Theatre Movement, also prompted and promoted the college theatre major, the inclusion of theatre pedagogy in K–12 education, prototypes for the nonprofit model, and the notion that theatre is a valuable form of self-expression.

Composing Ourselves: The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience argues that the movement was a national phenomenon, not just the result of aspirants copying the efforts of the much-storied Provincetown Players, Washington Square Players, Neighborhood Playhouse, and Chicago Little Theatre. Going beyond the familiar histories of the best-known groups, Dorothy Chansky traces the origins of both the ideas and the infrastructures for serious theatre that are ordinary parts of the American cultural landscape today; she also investigates the gender discrimination, racism, and class insensitivity that were embedded in reformers’ ideas of the “universal” and that still trouble the rhetoric of regional, educational, and community theatre.

An important piece of revisionist history, Composing Ourselves shows how theatre reform, in keeping with other Progressive Era activism, took on corporate, conservative society, but did so in ways that were sometimes contradictory. For example, women constituted the majority of ticket buyers and the bulk of unsung labor, yet plays by women were considered inferior. Most reformers were comfortably middle class and sought change that would eliminate the anomie of modernity but not challenge their privileged positions.

Chansky deliberates on antifeminist images of women theatergoers in literature and cartoons and considers the achievements and failures of the Drama League of America, a network of women’s clubs, following up with a case study of the playwright Alice Gerstenberg to point out that theatre history has not fully realized the role of women in the Little Theatre Movement. Even as women were earning the majority of degrees in newly minted theatre programs, their paths were barred to most professional work except teaching. Chansky also considers a blackface production of a play about rural African Americans, which was a step towards sympathetic portrayals of minority characters yet still a reinforcement of white upper- and middle-class perspectives.


Dorothy Chansky is an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance at the College of William and Mary. She wrote the original musical The Brooklyn Bridge, which was performed off-Broadway and published in book form.


“In Composing Ourselves, Dorothy Chansky weaves a compelling narrative of the emergence of the literary theatre in America. By offering vivid portraits and probing analyses of the people and institutions that were responsible for turning a popular amusement into high art, she uncovers the sometimes troubling assumptions that underlay the elevation of the stage in the early twentieth century.  Her attention to the ironies of history illuminates the contradictions that informed not only the Little Theatre movement, but also the theatre of our own time.”—David Savran, City University of New York

“A stylistic fusion of historical narrative and contemporary theory, repositioning the Little Theatre Movement as the progenitor of pedagogical and even public relations practices, Composing Ourselves joins a surprisingly small cohort of studies of the ‘American’ audience. Chansky interrogates perpetuated notions of the movement’s participants as privileged proponents of pluralism, placing them as members of a professional-managerial class, with attendant hegemonic assumptions that operate beneath the social radar. Her work challenges those of us who teach American theatre history to revisit our notions of modernism, progressivism, the Little Theatre movement, and theatre education itself.”—Anne Fletcher, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Composing Ourselves significantly expands our understanding of the Little Theatre movement in the United States and the aesthetic, political, and historical forces informing its development. Simultaneously, Chansky’s study convincingly demonstrates the wide-ranging regional and national impact of these organizations; in so doing she productively shifts our long-standing scholarly focus from a few notable companies to a panoply of stages and artists who, both theoretically and very practically, shaped this comparatively underexplored but powerful aspect of twentieth-century U.S. culture.”—J. Ellen Gainor, Cornell University