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April 26, 2013

Frederic McConnell and the National Theatre Conference

The post-World War I era saw a number of significant changes in the national professional theatre dynamic, most notably the end of road company empires, the rise of motion pictures, and the collapse of the big stock companies. At the same time came the rise of the non-commercial theatre in cities big and small and the development of theatre studies at the university level. Together, these changes ended the traditional relationships between playwrights, agents, and American theatres by the mid-1920’s.

Frederic McConnell directing a CPH production ca.1945. Photograph by Gordon Connor

The organizers of the National Theatre Conference (NTC) stepped into this changing scene in hopes of protecting and developing the interests of non-commercial theatres. Conceived among the faculty and graduates of nascent university theatre programs and strengthened by the rising power of the little theatre movement, the NTC began working as a small group of volunteers who shared their knowledge and experience with colleagues who had traditionally looked to New York for every cue. Their core concept of developing professionalism on a peer-to-peer basis revolutionized the world of not for profit theatre and ultimately helped insured the success of the movement.

As a graduate of Carnegie Tech, one of the earliest theatre education programs in the country, and with a national reputation based on his successful administration of the Cleveland Play House, Frederic McConnell represented the new breed of theatre professionals driving the NTC. He took early leadership roles in the group and from his address to the first conference attendees in 1925 though his retirement from the Play House in 1958, McConnell helped steer the NTC toward achieving it’s goals.

NTC regions map ca.1933. McConnell territory shaded in blue.

Organized on a regional plan, the NTC divided the country into several sections, each represented by a regional director. Without pay, these individuals agreed to provided a consistent level of support, advice and professional development to small theatres in such complex areas as negotiations for production rights and royalties and securing plays for production. Promoting development of new plays and identifying new sources of playwriting talent came under the regional directors prevue as well. The NTC filled an urgent need for professional literature in the field with an aggressive publishing program and regional directors worked as liaisons in commissioning or reprinting works by trusted authors on all phases of theatre work and supporting the development of theatre libraries. Lastly, the NTC, through the efforts of its regional directors, maintained and made available employment registers, business directories of reliable resources for theatre equipment and standards for theatre architecture.

Through McConnell’s devotion to the NTC, the Cleveland Play House became the regional center for the exchange of knowledge, experience and resources in non-commercial theatres as well as the growing number of theatre programs at the university level. Early funding for the NTC came from foundation grants, which were administered from rent-free offices in New York; resources that dwindled as the depression deepened throughout the 1930’s. Through the generosity of Western Reserve University [a CWRU predecessor institution], the NTC took up residence on campus at no cost and with considerable support from faculty member Barclay Leathem who worked in tandem with McConnell for many years to put the finances, products and services of the NTC to good use in the theatre community.

National Theatre Conference logo circa.1933

For more information about the Cleveland Play House Archives contact the Kelvin Smith Library Special Collections.

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