The Playgoer: March 2008

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Monday, March 31, 2008

How much does a New York AD make?

Hat tip to Ken Davenport (and to Slay for linking) for pointing to the Charity Navigator website. This online service tells you everything that's legally mandated public financial disclosure for all "charities"--including many nonprofits, which includes many...wait for it...nonprofit theatres. The data includes annual budgets and salaries.

This has been no secret and other commenters on this site may have pointed it out before. But I hadn't actually gone to the site till now. So here's what comes up on the "leadership" salaries for a few searches of our major NYC nonprofit theatres.

Hey, this is just public record. I'm hardly exposing anything or pointing any fingers. I just find myself asked often "what do the people running our big theatres actually make?" So, for better or worse, here's some idea of the range, in descending order:

  • Todd Haimes, Roundabout Theatre Artistic Director: $672,228
  • Bernard Gersten, Lincoln Center Theatre Executive Producer: $392,031 (Artistic Director Andre Bishop not listed)
  • Lynne Meadow, Manhattan Theatre Club Artistic Director: $395,824
  • Mara Manus, Public Theatre Executive Director: $276,074 (Artistic Director Oskar Eustis not listed)
  • Tim Sanford, Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director: $125,347
  • James Nicola, New York Theatre Workshop Artistic Director: $115,000
  • Charlotte Moore, Irish Repertory Company Managing/Artistic Director: $31,200

Interesting range, huh?

Note that the website does not include many smaller Off-Off companies--including even such prominent ones as Atlantic, New Group, or The Vineyard. I have no idea why, whether they don't count as "charities" or aren't large enough or what.

Look, I really don't begrudge any of these people making six figures. (Those that do! Sorry, Charlotte.) As the head of a major nonprofit institution I would expect the heads of Lincoln Center Theatre, for instance, to make nothing less. What the salary tells us, I think, has less to do with the demands and/or ego of the AD than with the self-image of the institution. I have a feeling whoever was running the Roundabout would be able to nab more than half a mil. (Although I guess being the guy who basically co-founded it and has run it for three decades doesn't hurt.)

Still--most fascinating is range, isn't it? Makes the competition between all these folks all the more tense, potentially.

Feel free to keep surfing the site for other companies and post interesting finding in Comments here. Let's also look beyond salaries and into what other stats like budgets and revenue reveal.

Annals of Stunt Casting

The "thesp" and her Entourage.

Yes, it's true. Katie Holmes may co-star in an Arthur Miller play on Broadway.
Katie Holmes may make her Broadway debut next season.

The thesp is in talks to appear in an upcoming Rialto revival of Arthur Miller's 1947 play "All My Sons." Dianne Wiest is also said to be a possibility for the cast, but so far the only confirmed star for the production is John Lithgow.

Brit actor-director Simon McBurney, founder and a.d. of theater troupe Complicite, will likely helm the fall revival, produced by Eric Falkenstein ("Bridge & Tunnel").

Katie Holmes, "thesp?" Really? Really??

That said: Simon McBurney is an amazing director! And Lithgow's great, too. Though odd casting for this role, maybe. And her role is quite "supporting," actually. (But that Tony category for Best Featured Actress in a Play might look like an easy get for Tomkat, inc.)

Still, a great and timely play about a family torn apart by "The Good War", in which the father is a small-time war profiteer. Let's hope it's not ruined by Suri-hunters.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

"Encores!" and The Culture of the Staged Reading

On Wednesday (April 2) I will be speaking at a big 4-day Musical Theatre conference at the CUNY Graduate Center. So if this is up your alley, please come! If not to my lead-off panel (10:00am, ugh) definitely check out the entire schedule, which features some fascinating papers covering all corners of the repertoire, past and present.

For my own topic I've decided to offer a complex--dare I say, contrarian?--argument against the proliferation and acceptance of the staged reading in place of full production, especially as typified in the phenomenally successful "Encores" series at City Center. Don't get me wrong, I love "Encores" as much as anyone, they put on a good show and give many neglected pieces some welcome light of day. But I think there's a case to be made that goes beyond what the individuals beyond "Encores" intend and effectively asks: "Is that all there is?" Are readings what we'll have to settle for in this current cultural and economic climate?

While I'm addressing the ramifications of this for our musical theatre repertory specifically, I think there are obvious examples of this in the dramatic world as well--from non-plays like "The Exonerated" to the "development hell" new playwrights find their work subjected to in endless spirals of readings, workshops, and other production "hybrids."

At the end of the day, of course, it's all about the benjamins. Readings are cheaper, and once prodcuers (profit & nonprofit alike) discovered audiences will still pay full price for them...well, the budget writes itself, doesn't it?

I'm still working on my paper itself. But I thought I'd at least post the abstract I submitted here in case anyone had immediate responses, challenges, ripostes, or "amens" to offer. So have at it. Who knows, you may end up in the paper!

"Encores!" and the Downsizing of the American Musical Theatre
Tradition

One of the most successful ventures of the New York musical theatre in recent years has been “Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert,” a program of revivals at the City Center. A nonprofit company presenting only three productions a year at five performances each, “Encores” has pioneered a form of the staged reading (or “concert version”) that is cheaper to mount than full productions, yet attracts public attention commensurate with Broadway openings. On the one hand “Encores” has provided invaluable services: recuperating or restoring “lost” pieces from the past or lesser known works from illustrious songwriters’ catalogues, as well as showcasing that material with preeminent performers otherwise unavailable or unaffordable. But in proving the viability of scaled-down readings, has “Encores” also unwittingly set a hazardous precedent for the musical revival in the long run? As professional theatrical production costs skyrocket (in both commercial and nonprofit spheres alike) the fully staged revival of even a canonical American musical is an endangered species. Does “Encores”—as well as the spate of “piano and music-stand” imitators it has spawned—risk reinforcing the cost-cutting mentality of current theatrical practice by inuring audiences to the lowered expectations of rudimentary staging and designs, performed “scripts-in-hand” with abridged or revised librettos? As their successful transfer of Chicago has showed, the “Encores” aesthetic can now sell on Broadway.

By focusing on specific productions, as well as the company’s business and marketing practices, I suggest that “Encores” and its ilk have fulfilled some of the needed functions of a National Theatre of the American musical, but while also asking: at what price?

Friday, March 28, 2008

John Doyle vs The Met?

Peter Gelb, the chief of the Metropolitan Opera, gets a lot of good press--and plaudits from theatre-lovers--for his public calls to make opera in America theatrical again. Not just staged concerts. Drawing on A-list American theatre talent (Julie Taymor, Bartlett Sher, Mary Zimmerman) the Met now includes directors' names in their advertisements, even.

This has all seemed like a good thing to me. I love opera. But I lament how uninterested so many theatre friends of mine are in it, since they still dismiss it as that "fat lady sings"/ "Figaro! Figaro!" crap from Bugs Bunny cartoons. While in essence, opera is nothing other than musical theatre. (Of course, many theatre snobs think they hate that, too...)

But it is now time to ask: is Gelb's initiative paying off? Is it a genuine attempt to reinvigorate American opera performance? Or is it just a marketing ploy?

One of the most eagerly anticipated productions in Gelb's lineup has been John (Sweeney Todd) Doyle's new staging of Benjamin Britten's haunting Peter Grimes. Seems like a natural match. Innovative British director takes on dark brooding English seaside tale.

So why has it been almost universally panned?

Much of the critics' blame has been laid at the feet of Doyle and his set designer. But CUNY theatre professor David Savran (whom I've had the privilege of studying with) disagrees. In a private email, he inveighs against Gelb and the institution itself. Far from becoming (finally!) a director-driven (as opposed to star-driven) opera house, the Met, he argues, still cannot (will not?) diverge from the top-down business-management and patron-flattering practices that have kept it such a neolithic institution artistically all these years.

I think this is particularly interesting in the context of Doyle's oeuvre. A director who impressed brilliantly with his pared-down chamber productions of Sondheim musicals has run into more criticism as he's ventured into big stodgy opera houses like LA Opera (Mahagonny) and now the Met. Does it just become harder for a stage director to call the shots in the face of such rigid institutional machinery? And under institutional pressure to give audiences what they think is "their money's worth" when it comes to empty spectacle?

Anyway, here's David:

I was terribly disappointed in Peter Grimes and what I find so interesting is that the problems with the production are in fact symptomatic of the deep-seated problems with the US performing arts organization (the Met) that has by far the largest budget. For it’s obvious to me that the faults in the production are a function of the Met’s house style. In other words, it is an institutional problem.

Let me start by noting that everything in that opera house appears bloated. Not only is the stage so huge but the people who run it clearly feel they need to give their very, very well-heeled patrons a very, very big show. Well, that may work for Aida or Turandot but I am not sure it is appropriate for Peter Grimes. So the opera begins with the gigantic stage and its gigantic black backdrop, i.e., wall, in front of which is a horde of people dressed in, yes, black. Because they want us to know from the outset that this is—guess what?—a dark piece. And every single choice they—designers, director, and the dastardly Peter Gelb—make merely repeat the dark bloated-ness of the whole affair. Intimacy is impossible in an opera that has several profoundly intimate, private, and inner (psychological) scenes. And it’s not only the setting. In fact, one of the main culprits is the lighting designer, the only designer, btw, who comes from the world of opera rather than the commercial theatre. The lighting is so consistently diffused and most of the cues unfold very slowly. Nothing, in other words, is to disturb the heaviness and viscosity, the visual pea soup. And for the sublime interludes, the designer has to keep the lighting slowly shifting, like an abstract slide show. In other words, almost everything in the piece needs to be illustrated and literalized (because, presumably, the audience is too stupid, impatient, or thrill-hungry to be able simply to listen to the music). I know the director and scene designer to be brilliant (because I’ve seen their other work) so it’s obvious to me that the piece was in fact put together by committee. In other words, the institutional policy dictates this obsessive literalness, illustrative-ness, and bloated-ness.

Having said all this, I must admit it sounded pretty darn good. Excellent conducting and almost uniformally first-rate singing. Perhaps if I’d closed my eyes, I would have liked it more, I might even have been moved by it. Of course, rather than spend $100, I could have stayed home in front of my cd-player and listened to Jon Vickers sing it so profoundly movingly. And that might have set me back all of perhaps one-tenth of a cent in electricity. But I am foolish and na├»ve enough to believe that opera is theatre. Silly me. And in fact I have many times in my life seen opera make brilliant theatre. But not for many years at the house that defines highbrow culture in the US.

To sum up, the whole evening I kept thinking of those wonderful George Grosz drawings and paintings from the 1920s that show groups of overfed, grinning, drooling bourgeois sitting at restaurants and cafes. And I imagine Peter Grimes as a $100 steak that each had ordered. And the steak is just oozing fat, in fact, it’s about 90% blubber. But about 10% of it is protein. Unfortunately, the protein is buried under so much blubber that the only nourishment you get are these big hunks of fat with every disgusting bite.

Bon appetit!

West End "top" tops B'way

From the Guardian:

The West End is now officially more expensive to see a show than on Broadway. Top price tickets to see the original production of Hairspray in New York are currently $110 (£55), whereas it costs £60 to see the same show at London's Shaftesbury Theatre.
Take that, Anglophiles!

Well at least they have a truly subsidized theatre to offset it.

And besides, wait till the dollar rebounds. Just wait. And wait.

Meanwhile at the National the "Travelex £10" program seems to be diminishing, unfortunately. Still it was a bold attempt to address what their AD Nicholas Hytner identified as the real problem in guaranteeing a future theatre audience:
As Hytner told me at the time, though the theatre has long offered ticket reductions to the under 25s and the over 60s, "now it's time to look after that vast group in the middle, who don't come that often because they can't afford to."
On the other hand...

His predecessor as artistic director, Trevor Nunn, had declared that arts journalists who "persist in proclaiming that 'give-away prices' are the only hope the theatre has for survival are playing a misleading and dangerous game." He went on, "The only way without sponsorship that prices can be cut is by theatres doing very small cast plays, with cheap designs and by heavily reducing the wages of actors, technicians and theatre workers generally. This amounts to a recipe for disaster for theatre in this country."

But as Sir Trevor ever directed a show with less than a million quid budget?

Some on the West End are getting brighter ideas than B'way to counter the trend:

By introducing pricing of £10-£35 for weekday performances, Avenue Q has built an audience for the show that might not have been there otherwise

Yes, imagine what Broadway could do with those Tuesday & Wednesday evening shows. $70 orchestra seats and $20 balconies--sounds good, right? Even if that means running at a loss those two nights, it sure could help drum up support for struggling shows.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Recession Drama

Don't think this Recession isn't going to affect the NY theatre big time.

Domestic tourism did see a downturn during the last recession, although there was the silver lining of increased numbers of international visitors, attracted by the buying power afforded by the weak dollar.

Producers already are considering scaling back on their upcoming skeds, worrying about increasing competish for recession-affected theatergoers. That's especially true for backers of plays, which tend to have a more limited audience base.

Nonprofits would likely face difficulties, too. As corporate philanthropy and government grants subside, theaters increasingly rely on donations from individuals. If those individuals start to feel the pinch, so will the theaters.

"It's definitely going to have an impact on fund-raising," says Roundabout a.d. Todd Haimes.

Read more, from Variety's Gordon Cox.

Note that bit about plays. That bright shining moment of all those serious dramas on Broadway is now over.

Oh, and by the way The Homecoming is heading toward an April 13 closing with only 37.2% capacity.

For the layman, that means almost 2 out of every 3 seats are empty. For Pinter. On Broadway. Rave reviews. And with the guy from Deadwood.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Judges: Stop Blowing Smoke, Actors!

A suprisingly dramaturgically sensitive Colorado appeals court has nevertheless rejected an appeal by three Denver theatre troupes to strike down a state law banning smoking--even herbals--on stage.

A Colorado appeals court ruled on Thursday that smoking by an actor on stage, while possibly important to character and theatrical message, is still banned by the state's two-year-old indoor smoking law.

"The smoking ban was not intended to prevent actors from expressing emotion, setting a mood, illustrating a character trait, emphasizing a plot twist or making a political statement," a three-member panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals said in its unanimous ruling, upholding a lower court's verdict.

But, the court added, "smoking, by itself, is not sufficiently expressive to qualify for First Amendment protection."

I think the theatres have a fair argument--in a libertarian way (Don't want second hand smoke? Don't see our show!) But I was impressed by this challenge by the judges:

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals said that theaters were already in the business of make-believe, and that barring smoking was essentially no different from barring the use of illegal drugs or real violence.

"Murders are not committed, actors do not fire live bullets at each other or at the audience, the theater is not set afire to illustrate the burning of Rome in 'Julius Caesar,' " the court said. "The audience is aware that the scenes are not real."

Wow, what a great theatre-semiotics question!

Just one thing, your honors--Julius Caesar? Rome burning? Wrong play!!! (In fact, wrong medium. I think you're thinking of Quo Vadis!)

Scofield the Shuttered

"I know you'll understand, Peter, but [the Broadway engagement] comes at the time of year I always go up and paint my shutters on the Island of Mull."

-Paul Scofield, back in 1980, explaining to Peter Shaffer why he could not go with Amadeus to Broadway to reprise his London triumph as Salieri.

As a result the role in New York went instead to some youngster named Ian McKellen.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tale of 2 Theatres

Two fascinating post-mortems, of a sort, of shake-ups (reported earlier here and here) in the leadership of two of North America's largest and most prestigious resident theatre companies: the Old Globe and the Stratford Festival.

First, LA Times' Charles McNulty addresses the significance of Jerry Patch's departure from Old Globe for MTC in New York. And really makes a case for it being more significant than I even imagined. I had imagined Patch might have been uncomfortable with the "power sharing" arrangement set up there with Darko Tresnjak--but maybe it was the Managing Director he had a problem with. Especially in light of what the Old Globe--symptomatic of so many other major theatre institutions--is becoming.

The top guy at the Old Globe is Louis G. Spisto, an arts administrator who assumed the unusual title of CEO/executive producer after veteran artistic director Jack O'Brien stepped down at the start of this year. Spisto's bio touts his having brought to the theater "A Catered Affair," the touring production of "Avenue Q" and the Broadway transfers of "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life" and the Twyla Tharp/Bob Dylan bomb "The Times They Are A-Changin'." He has also produced scores of plays and musicals, including "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and the holiday show "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"

[...]

In an unusual organizational setup, Patch and [co-Artistic Directo Darko Tresnjak] reported to Spisto, who has final say in artistic programming. The Old Globe's press rep has compared the arrangement to a symphony leadership model (Spisto was formerly the executive director of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra in Orange County), and has also pointed to New York's Roundabout Theatre Company, whose artistic director, Todd Haimes, was formerly the managing director.

But for all its flaws, the traditional regional-theater structure, which places an artistic director in charge of artistic decisions and a managing director in charge of the budget, shouldn't be lightly relinquished.

Just as newspapers have struggled to preserve the firewall between editorial and advertising, nonprofit theaters have benefited from the productive tension between creative dreaming and economic safeguarding.

Patch is a dramaturge whose track record makes him worthy of leading a major theater. But the current environment, marked by diminishing arts funding and a new survival strategy of corporate branding through attention-grabbing hits, is more hospitable to white-collar professionals who are more apt to prioritize the bottom line.
In other news...

We saw the crumbling of another patched together (ho ho!) team up at Stratford, Ontario last week when Des McAnuff emerged as last man standing after his two cohorts walked out on the arrangement.

The latest from the Toronto Globe & Mail:

Refusing to exit silently, Marti Maraden says her resignation as co-artistic director 12 days ago was the result of creative interference and an agenda imposed by general director Antoni Cimolino despite earlier assurances that the unusual triumvirate arrangement that was put in place 21 months ago would work as a partnership.

In an exclusive interview, Ms. Maraden said she was “misled” about the unconventional leadership construct that she, Don Shipley, Des McAnuff and Mr. Cimolino agreed to in 2006.

“It was supposed to be a partnership, a shared leadership, and Antoni would intervene only if it was urgent, and it came not to be that,” Ms. Maraden said. “We were misled as to how we were actually functioning.”

[...]

In a formal statement issued Saturday, Ms. Maraden contradicted the festival's account of how the resignations unfolded and gave fresh details about how the festival's leadership unravelled.

According to her contract, she was to share the “creative responsibilities and authority of an artistic director,” Ms. Maraden wrote in her statement. “Though Antoni clearly held ultimate authority, he repeatedly told us that we three … were to make artistic decisions … while he looked after the festival and sought the means to make our dreams … a reality. However, [his] increasing involvement in artistic decision-making on large and small matters, especially as the 2009 programming began, and … a virtual unilateral imposition of [his] agenda made it impossible for me to continue. … I cannot be an Artistic Director in name only. … Either a leadership is shared or it isn't.”

See a pattern?

Shall we call it the Des McAnuff/Jack O'Brien conundrum? Or, How to benefit from your more popular shows' crossover appeal without becoming an "enhancement" factory for B'way transfer prospects.

One more interesting if tangential journalistic revelation of the story:
The second factor [in the delayed announcement of the resignations] was a pending New York Times article expected to trumpet the success of the triumvirate's relationship. With no new protocol agreed upon, Mr. Cimolino said he realized “there was simply not enough trust to be able to continue.” The subsequent resignations would prove the Times' salute to harmony as “patently untrue and would be damaging to everyone personally and to the festival as an institution. It all came together, the ultimatum and the Times story. We had to acknowledge where we were at.”
What on earth was the Times' interest in puffing up the Festival?

Lloyd Webber: "I'll Do Anything"

Andrew turned 60 Saturday and has started a new TV talent search for the BBC1 called "I'll Do Anything." This will discover young stars for a re-do of Lionel Bart's "Oliver!"; more than 6,000 girls have applied to play Nancy.
As testament to that title, Lord L-W is fast at work on Phantom II. Really.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Broadway's Hotties

According to Playbill, the hottest tickets on the Rialto currently are...

August: Osage County

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Grease

Hairspray

Jersey Boys

The Little Mermaid

The Lion King

Wicked

There is no one "Broadway audience" so one should not be surprised to see no one pattern here. Instead we have the two or three different aud's: August seems to be getting those rare culture-loving New Yorkers who come out once a year to actually buy tickets to a Broadway show, provided it is preferably British--or at least not lowbrow. Then you have the tourists, who account for all the musicals above--i.e. the ones that have either been running so long (Hairspray, Lion King) or got such bad reviews (Grease, Mermaid) that NY'ers won't be seeing them. Jersey Boys owes its unique "crossover" appeal in this context to the reputation it has for being both pop-nostalgia (Frankie Valli) and respectable sophisticated theatre (Des McAnuff).

As for Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, we have another crossover pitch--Great American Play (for the NY snobs) plus famous black movie stars (for the Harlem and black-church bus crowds that fueled Color Purple and P.Diddy in Raisin). Look for this formula to repeat in the near future. Stephen Byrd--Cat's producer--is entertaining parallel plans for both original African-American entertainment and more "color-blind" classics.
Mr. Byrd now has plans for a multiracial version of “A Streetcar Named Desire”; a stage adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1956 novel, “Giovanni’s Room”; and a new production of “Death of a Salesman.” He has even had informal talks with Je’Caryous Johnson, a young playwright who works on the increasingly sophisticated urban play circuit — derisively called the chitlin circuit — about bringing Mr. Johnson’s original work to Broadway.
The "Salesman" reference will especially interest anyone familiar with the late August Wilson's (in)famous "The Ground On Which I Stand" address to TCG a decade ago, where Exhibit A in his prosecuting argument was:
To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans.
Hey, I'm not taking sides. I personally would never want to stand in the way of great actors playing great roles, whatever the appearance of their pigment or the DNA of their ancestry. And from what I hear the attraction of the current Cat is exactly that phenomenon.

I also am reminded of the story that Tennessee Williams himself blocked a proposed casting of the sensational African American stage actress (and later Matrix maven) Gloria Foster as Blanche DuBois in the 70s. I guess he had his reasons, too.

The issues are complex, especially when claiming to support some notion of "African American Theatre." The good thing here is that--like the Classical Theatre of Harlem, which has mixed the works of authors of color with radical reinterpretations of classics by Shakespeare, Beckett, and Genet--we have an expansive repertory for a community of actors sharing at least some threads of a common heritage. And anything that fosters such a "rep company" community among a troupe of actors doing great plays is a good thing.

The bad thing is...do we really need more hyped up commercial productions of the familiar Classic American Plays?

To Recommend or Not to Recommend?

Recommending a play is not quite the same as enthusing about a book or an album. You're encouraging someone to part with what can be a fair sum plus a night of their time, so more careful thought is needed.

When you do encourage someone to try some theatre outside their comfort zone and they have a good experience and want to see more, then that's surely a good thing. And perhaps in the discussions that follow, you might discover different ways of looking at things, and find that your experience is enriched as a result. Given that, is it best to always follow your gut instinct when recommending a production, or are there occasions when it is wiser to play safe?

Natasha Tripney in the Guardian.

Your thoughts? When people come into NYC from out of town and say "What should I see?" (or, worse, "what's good?") do you send them to PS122 or to Broadway?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

On the Whole I'd Rather be in Philadelphia?

Good news for Philly Arts orgs...

More than 200 arts and cultural organizations in Philadelphia have been awarded grants totaling $2.1 million through the city's Cultural Fund. The grants range in size up to about $16,000, and while that might not seem like much, officials noted that the impact, particularly on smaller organizations, can be great.

[...]

"These grants are for general operations," said June W. O'Neill, manager of the cultural fund. "The money is unrestricted. It can be used for anything." Such unrestricted grants are highly prized by organizations, which, while they may be able to attract programming or capital donations, often have trouble paying utility bills or covering salaries, she said. The city money can be used to cover such costs.
"It's the most difficult kind of grant to find," O'Neill said.


Also...
[Mayor Michael] Nutter's five-year plan, released this year, also calls for reestablishing a city Office of Arts and Culture. Mayor John F. Street eliminated the last such office in a 2004 budget move, and arts advocates have bemoaned its demise ever since.

Coming on the heels of the public funding raised for that new Suzanne Roberts Theatre and the flourishing of the summer Arts Festival, it may just be a good time to be a doing some art down there.

REVIEW: Rapunzel


Rapunzel's evil stepmom rides high in the "tower."
If you have kids, or are just a fan of children's theatre, it's usually worth checking out what's at the New Victory Theatre, who imports lots of interesting work from companies around the world at reasonable sub-B'way prices.

Personally I like going just to take in that beautiful old 1900 house--which has housed, over the century, everything from Abie's Irish Rose to burlesque and porn.

The current offering, Rapunzel, comes from the Kneehigh troupe of Cornwall, England. I was curious to see what they're all about ever since reading in Riedel's column that their more "adult" staging of Brief Encounter is the hottest thing in the West End and some folks are bringing it here hoping it will do for them what that other classic Brit-film take-off 39 Steps is doing for the Roundabout. (Who are extending that run, btw, at another theatre, so boffo has it been.)

Given that build-up Rapunzel seems a little underwhelming. The cast is game, appealing, and display some of the coolest mandolin playing around. But the staging is seems a little too small and casual to fill even a relatively intimate space like the New Vic. (Which does have 2 balconies after all.) This is the kind of show that could be a lot of fun at 90 minutes with everyone seated around on the floor so that kids could feel they were really participating and being told a story.

As it is, the Kneehigh actors do a fair job breaking the fourth wall and drawing colorful characterizations. But at two hours w/ interval, Annie Siddons' new dramatization of the legend seems to unspin and unravel more than the heroine's famed hair. She actually sidetracks the story away from the eponymous character onto other subplots that give no real payoffs. While deliberately trying to reinvent the story from a modern persepctive (Rapunzel is a feisty brunette, not an ingenue blonde) Siddons never breaks out of the old "marry a prince and be a princess" mold after all. Even if she does highlight the psychotic overprotectiveness of the girl's adopted mom (played cross-gender).

The second act is better than the first, though, with more inventive stage effects and some fun physical clowning. And the kids seemed to enjoy it. So if you've got some and are looking for something to do this weekend (it closes Sunday) and want to get them away from the X-Box or the texting, you could do a lot worse.

And, besides, it is a beautiful old theatre. Not a trace of porn left, really.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Tributes to Scofield

Brook (in suit), Scofield and co. take their bows for Lear. Moscow, 1964.

Michael Billington:
I never saw Scofield gave a flashy, showy, unfelt performance; and his mixture of gravity and mischief transferred easily from stage to screen, as shown in his Oscar-winning performance as Sir Thomas More. But Scofield was more than a great actor. In his rigorous focus on the work in hand, his determination to protect his privacy and his mixture of classic and contemporary work, he was a reminder of an all-but-vanished age when actors preserved their sense of mystery. If Scofield revealed himself, it was through his work; and what we saw was a figure of rich humanity, wide-ranging compassion and unflinching integrity.
David Hare:
"I know at least three playwrights who will tell you they realised they wanted to make their lives in theatre when they saw Paul Scofield play King Lear. It was ... the greatest classical performance of my lifetime: radical, humane and incredibly moving."
Nicholas Hytner

I worked with him on the film of Arthur Miller's The Crucible; he never let on how he did it. He didn't really want to talk about it, apparently approaching the part through the way it sounded, though all the time probing it for secrets that were unknown even to its writer.

He brought to Danforth, the hanging judge, the same deep spiritual conviction that he found in Sir Thomas More; and he was infinitely terrifying - much more frightening than he would have been if he'd played merely scary.

Benedict Nightingale

There were two main reasons for his relative neglect, the first of which is a terrible comment on our honours system. He refused a knighthood, later telling me: “If you want a title what’s wrong with Mr?” Sadly, this meant that when people talked of our great actors, he tended to get forgotten or relegated below Derek Jacobi and Ben Kingsley. The other reason is that he didn’t want to be a household name, let alone a celeb. He seldom gave interviews and never appeared on chat shows, but lived modestly in Sussex, taking the local train to London when work demanded. It was the art, not the fame, that mattered to him. He was an extraordinary actor content to be an ordinary man.

...and from Nightingale's NYT obit:

As early as 1949, the critic Harold Hobson wrote that all of Mr. Scofield’s performances had “something of the other world about them: invariably he looks as if he has been reading ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and seen ghosts at midnight.”

For those of us who missed him on stage, here's the man's complete filmography on IMDB. Some lesser gems: Bartleby, The Train, and even A Delicate Balance.

(Yesterday I posted some clips.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Quote of the Day

“If I brought ‘Passing Strange’ to Broadway, I would have put Lenny Kravitz in it.”

-Stephen C. Byrd, African American businessman and first-time Broadway producer, responsible for the all-black, all-star Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, currently raking it in at the Broadhurst.

Playbill attests to its 98.8% capacity figures. Meanwhile, Passing Strange, the acclaimed new musical by African American musician Stew, is indeed barely breaking 50%.

So what if Stew wrote the thing and it's about him. Stars matter. That's one thing Byrd has learned very, very fast.

Paul Scofield

We have lost one of the great ones, Paul Scofield has died at age 86.

Yes, he's looked 86 ever since he played King Lear for Peter Brook 40 years ago! But then again, that was just part of his magisterial mojo.

I've just spent the last half-hour scouring YouTube for my favorite Scofield clips. Alas, nothing from Brook's King Lear film, almost nothing from his chilling Crucible turn (as Rev. Danforth), and not even the wonderful "chocolate cake" duet with Ralph Fiennes from Quiz Show.

But here's two gems. First, probably the clip that will be most shown today in honor of him: from A Man for All Seasons (his Oscar winning 1966 role) an oft-quoted speech about The Law. Once upon a time it used to be a favorite of conservative jurists. Now it provides some classy denunciation of our own rogue monarch.

(Yes, that is a young John Hurt in the beginning but the speech starts after he leaves, at about 2:10)




And now, a little Shakespeare. Paul and Mel as father and son.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

In Defense of "Whimsy"?

I'm pleased to see my posting on Kristen Kosmas's Hello Failure has sparked so much discussion.

Point taken on the "whimsy" question--i.e. whether it's sexist to brush off a certain selection of currently well-regarded young female playwrights as "whimsical" (i.e. "impulsive, playful, unreasoning" according to the dictionary) for adopting a tone and language that seems "lighter" (i.e. less "rational" and "hard edged," grr!) than what we expect from "serious" drama.

By "point taken," I don't mean the word should be off the table, though. It's a good word. But it does behoove critics to define and specify further the complaint.

(For the record, the phrase "realist whimsy" was not my coinage but Helen Shaw's in Time Out--one I found quite useful. I should also point out, though, that Shaw did not implicate any other writer by name in this "school.")

As if joining this conversation we have Sarah Ruhl in last week's New Yorker, given the full John Lahr treatment. Here's Ruhl, I sense, defending her voice against the "whimsy" charge:

Her nonlinear form of realism—full of astonishments, surprises, and mysteries—is low on exposition and psychology. “I try to interpret how people subjectively experience life,” she has said. “Everyone has a great, horrible opera inside him. I feel that my plays, in a way, are very old-fashioned. They’re pre-Freudian in the sense that the Greeks and Shakespeare worked with similar assumptions. Catharsis isn’t a wound being excavated from childhood.”

Lightness—the distillation of things into a quick, terse, almost innocent directness—is a value on which Ruhl puts much weight. ....“Lightness isn’t stupidity,” she said. “It’s actually a philosophical and aesthetic viewpoint, deeply serious, and has a kind of wisdom—stepping back to be able to laugh at horrible things even as you’re experiencing them.”
And also...

“I like plays that have revelations in the moment, where emotions transform almost inexplicably,” Ruhl said. “The acting style isn’t explicated, either. It’s not psychological.” In “The Clean House,” for instance, one stage direction reads, “Lane cries. She laughs. She cries. She laughs. And this goes on for some time.” To Ruhl, this kind of emotionally labile performance is a “virtuosic” exhibition of behavior. “It feels true to me,” she said. “Children are certainly that way. I’m interested in these kinds of state changes. ‘I was happy, now I’m sad.’ ” She continued, “If you distill people’s subjectivity and how they view the world emotionally, you don’t get realism.” The irrationality of emotion is one of the themes to which Ruhl’s plays continually return. “I don’t want to smooth out the emotions to the point where you could interpret them totally rationally, so that they have a clear reference point to the past,” she said. “Psychological realism makes emotions so rational, so explained, that they don’t feel like emotions to me.”

In Ruhl’s plays, turbulent feeling can erupt at any moment, for no apparent reason; actors are challenged to inhabit the emotional moment without motivation. Sometimes, during rehearsal, an anxious actor will approach Ruhl to try and pin down the role. She thinks to herself, “Oh, come on, just ride it.” She told me, “I prefer an actor who says, ‘My character doesn’t have a backstory, so I won’t concoct one. I will live as fully in every moment as I can. I will let the language move me, as opposed to a secret backstory of my own.” She likes her actors to have “a sense of irony,” and to be “touched with a little brush of the irrational.”

Or at least, this seems to be addressing certain criticisms of her work so far.

And I totally get what she's after. Clearly, the kind of rational-naturalism that has defined "good playwriting" for the last century (something we could call the Ibsen-Arthur Miller axis) is beginning to look like it's outlived its moment and doesn't serve the present time or the present generation. (At least as theatrical live performance. On film and especially TV, it reigns supreme and thrives. Sopranos and The Wire, anyone?) And in this contest, Ruhl is clearly an heir to the Absurdists.

But what I don't see in either hers or anyone's work now is what made the real Absurdists deeply effective--the willingness to stare into the abyss, too. This is why I found Eurydice (and , for that matter Hello Failure) ultimately forgettable--it lacked any real pain for me, so coated is it with deflective chuckles alternating with comfy happy feelings.

Lahr, largely complementary of Ruhl's oeuvre, makes one point at the end about Dead Man's Cell Phone that I felt captured exactly my misgivings about her previous Eurydice--namely "the oddness of the play’s ironic detachment and its unabashed optimism."

Mind you, I don't consider this in any way some uniquely feminine trait. I feel it's generational. Not universally generational, of course. But common in the crop of heralded young playwrights--including men like Noah Haidle, for instance. I'm uncomfortable with irony and cynicism being invoked half-heartedly, put in the service not of social critique but just another happy ending. Irony doesn't seem earned anymore, just put in service of easy laughs. And invoked as cover, to apologize for and excuse the essential earnestness--and, yes, sentimentality--underlying the play all along. For all the myth-busting and fractured fairy-tale aspects of Eurydice, for instance, I felt nothing really challenging about it at all--except maybe for the suggestion that young women today might have mixed feelings about marrying.

With Hello Failure, there are other issues. I think I (and now Jason Zinoman, who shares many of my misgivings in his Times review today) am responding to an almost anti-theatrical insistence on listening to the playwright's language over taking it all in as a dramatic event. As fine as Ken Rus Schmoll's production is, it and the script seem to be working on parallel wavelengths, rather than fusing together. That's because, as Zinoman says, "the actors seem secondary to the words"--as opposed to the words coming from the actors, or I should say, characters. Helen Shaw in her review puts it another way, faulting "an air of wistfulness: a lazy emotion that fritters away the propulsive qualities of Kosmas' superb dialogue." By "lazy" I actually take Shaw to mean not lazy writing, but inactive characters.

Chekhov and Beckett's characters, of course, are famous dramatic lazybones. But it's usually not for lack of trying.

I realize I would have more of an argument if I could back it all up with more examples. So forgive me and consider this a rough draft. I guess my main point is: call it whimsy or call it whatever you want--something seems to be going on with a group of plays by young writers (some by women, some not), some new mix of irony and sentimentality that skirts the usual expectations of comedy or tragedy.

You might think it's bad, you might think it's good! Either way, I'm serious when I say this will be something interesting for future scholars of the drama of our times to ponder.

Marsha Norman's Tips for Playwrights

I lost track of the the August: Osage Country "book group" over at NYTimes.com, but it apparently went on for a while.

Among the many highlights--including a quick swipe at theatre blogs by one Frank Rich ("By the way, many of the most vicious reviews are written on theater blogs")--is a handy Playwriting 101 lecture by Marsha Norman on her "3 Rules"--but actually using August as an example of how to break the rules! Agree with her or not, I though the playwrights out there might find it interesting. (Spoiler alert, though, regarding key August plot points.)

And, okay, if you're in a rush, here's The Rules:

Rule #1: No passive central character;
Rule #2: On or about page 8, tell the audience why they are here and what is at stake, or to put it more simply, when they can go home.
Rule #3: The main character can’t be clinically insane.
In deference to Marsha, though, I do recommend reading the rationales. And it's a pretty interesting craft-analysis of August.

"Palace of the End"

Canadian scribe Judith Thompson

A little while ago I mentioned a Canadian play about Iraq that had been getting some attention Up North, Judith Thompson's Palace of the End.

It's now won the Susan Smith Blackburn prize ("given annually to recognize women from around the world who have written works of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theatre").

The NY premiere will be given not by the Culture Project as I previously speculated, but by the Epic Theatre Ensemble, the folks who brought you No Child. Look for it in June.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

New Blood at MTC

Out at Old Globe in San Diego, it looked like Jerry Patch was poised to take over Jack O'Brien's long-expected departure to direct on Broadway full time. Well now Patch is coming east, too--to Manhattan Theatre Club as "Director of Artistic Development"--which seems to mean he will be head man of new play development.

Like the problems at Stratford up north, one senses another falling apart of a co-artistic director partnership. For after O'Brien's departure, Patch found himself power-sharing with director Darko Tresnjak--who presumably now will have full run.

In Europe the idea of a director-and-dramaturg team running things is common. Seems more difficult here.

Patch brings to MTC an interesting background not only from Old Globe, but fertile new play gounds like South Coast Rep and Sundance Theatre Lab. But will this mark new thinking in new play selection, or just the usual suspects?

Anthony Minghella Dead

Oscar-winning filmmaker and sometime stage/opera director and playwright Anthony Minghella suddenly dropped dead today. He was 54. Weird.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Plays & Playwrights 2008

"After they close, too many plays are denied that chance to make new fans. Without a permanent record, they evaporate, and we are robbed of something before we realize we have it. That's why this book is so important."

Amen, Mark Blankenship--writing the above words in his foreward to the new Plays & Playwrights annual anthology of recent Off-Off plays. Martin Denton (of NYtheatre.com) thankfully continues to provide this service of publishing plays of merit (albeit openly subjectively chosen by Denton) that might have run just one week and never were reviewed by the Times.

I myself missed most of this year's selections: Crystal Skillman's The Telling Trilogy, Daniel Talbott's What Happened When, Carolyn Raship's Antartica, Thomas Bradshaw's Cleansed, Aobert Attenweiler's ...And We All Wore Leather Pants, Leslie Bramm's Marvelous Shrine, Elena Hartwell's In Our Name. So I'm delighted to get to catch up. Especially with Cleansed since I always end up missing Bradshaw's work, even though it has sparked some of the liveliest responses, pro and con.

I did see three of the selections: Daniel Reitz's Fall Forward, which I liked; John Regis' Linnea, which I didn't. And blogger Mac Roger's Universal Robots--which I admired but may be too much of a Karel Kapek purist to appreciate Rogers' riffs on the famous RUR. Still, all are worth reading, and maybe I'll even discover I was too harsh on Linnea. Maybe.

So click on the Amazon link to your right and buy a copy, damn it! Or else you're condemning Off-Off Broadway to eternal ephemera.

More Stratford

Toronto Star's lead critic, Richard Ouzounian digs deeper into the breaking up of the Strarford tirumverate--invoking many appropriately classical motifs:

We want to believe the parties involved are, in Marc Antony's words, "all honourable men." But the early talk pointing the finger at surviving artistic director Des McAnuff might yet yield to another theory– that the same combination of envy and misguided idealism that motivated Cassius and Brutus is the source of the current troubles.

Bottom line: still no one's talking.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Stratford Shake-up

Big news from New Burbage--I mean Stratford, Ontario.

The behind-the-scenes facts aren't all out yet, but it almost looks like Des McAnuff managed to stage some kind of coup against his two co-AD's. The Fest had launched this power-sharing triumverate beginning last season. Guess it hasn't worked out.

Then again, many in the company were surprised, so maybe it's not as explosive as it seems.

Details still emerging...

(Feel free to tip us off here, any Great Northern readers!)

REVIEW: Man-Made

Another print review from me this week: the sci-fi, semi-historical, evolutionary pastiche play Man-Made. In Time Out.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"Balance" Optional?

I have no wish to harp on this Boston preem of "Rachel Corrie," but I just realized this whole plan of the New Rep theatre to balance it with a more Israel-friendly one-woman show (Pieces) actually doesn't work!

The plays perform only in rep and tickets are sold separately to both.

Not even a discount for the pair!

So how does this achieve the sought-for "balance"? Nothing is compelling the audience to see both plays. Why not just see the one you "agree" with? ("Let's not and say we did," I bet is a tempting response regarding the other one.) I mean, it is an extra $25. If you're going to make me pay for my pro-Likud "equal time" after Corrie, I might as well just stop by Barnes & Noble on the way home, buy a remaindered copy of Bibi Netanhayu's latest screed and spend the extra cash on the stiff drink I'll need to help wash it down.

REVIEW: Hello Failure

My review of Hello Failure by Kristen Kosmas at PS122 is in this week's Voice. I'm intrigued by the attention both the play and its Seattle-based(?) author have been getting downtown. And one George Hunka positively raved.

I myself was more mixed. Helen Shaw in Time Out was even a tad more negative. I gotta take my hat off to her for coining the label "Realist Whimsy" to describe the Sarah Ruhl/Jenny Schwartz playwriting moment we now find ourselves in, under which umbrella this play might also qualify.

And I mean that as non-judgmentally as possible, having not hated either Eurydice or God's Ear. But whatever we want to call it, this is a style (an aesthetic? a voice?) that future American theatre scholars I believe will look back on as uniquely early-21st century among the Gen X & Y playwrights.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

LCT3

I missed this last week, but now Lincoln Center Theatre has jumped on the New Work @ $20 Ticket bandwagon with their "LCT3" series.

The 3 refers to "3rd Space," I presume. But good for them for not waiting to build one...

Citing the need to develop strong relationships with a new generation of artists, and recognizing the frustrations that young playwrights have with the current system of readings and workshops, LCT3 will offer its artists full, modestly produced productions. All tickets to LCT3 productions will be priced at an affordable $20.00.

"Opportunities create artists," commented Andre Bishop. "And it is essential that institutional theaters provide as many intelligent opportunities as possible because that is how theater artists grow - in production."

Lincoln Center Theater's long term plans for LCT3 call for the creation of a permanent venue to present the work of these artists; to that end a 99-seat theater will be built in or near Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. For the first three years, until its new theater is ready, LCT3 will present its productions each year at an off-site theater.

Paige Evans, former Associate Artistic Director/Programming at the Manhattan Theatre Club, has joined Lincoln Center Theater's Artistic Staff as Director of LCT3. She will work with LCT Artistic Director Bishop in producing the new program.

The message is getting through...

Hat tip: Jaime.

Be Careful What You Wish For--II

Now the Boston Globe concurs with the Herald that pairing My Name is Rachel Corrie with another play (or at least the one chosen) doesn't soften its impact, but rather only drowns out the "other side."

i'll quote critic Louise Kennedy at length since she makes the point quite eloquently, I think:

In some ways, the pairing makes sense: The works feel similar in scale and style, and they fit neatly onto a shared set (cleanly designed by David R. Gammons, who also directs "Rachel Corrie") with only slight alterations. They're also politically "balanced" enough, apparently, to have muted the kind of outrage that has accompanied "Rachel Corrie" stagings elsewhere.

Nevertheless, it's a pity that New Rep found it necessary to create this kind of balance. It's a pity because, although the theater has emphasized that it's not trying to reduce a complex situation to just two perspectives, it's hard not to read a double bill that way: "Here's one side and here's the other." Even with the admirable slate of staged readings, panel discussions, and films that the company is presenting in support of these works, putting the two plays together forces us to view them through a reductively binary lens.

It's also unfortunate because no two plays in the world can exactly balance each other. They're individual works of art, not position papers, and they must each be judged on their own merits - not just on how they connect to the real political issues they engage, but also on how they succeed as works of art. Here, "Pieces" and "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" are simply not balanced at all.

Neither is a perfect play, but "Rachel Corrie" is more expertly crafted, more movingly written, and, at least in these productions, more essentially theatrical than "Pieces." Let me emphasize that that's an aesthetic judgment, not a political one. But let me also say that it can be hard to disentangle the two, and that's why I'd rather see each play presented on its own.

Mamet Comes Out

...as a conservative.

Kind of.

As if this is a surprise.

I realized that the time had come for me to avow my participation in that America in which I chose to live, and that that country was not a schoolroom teaching values, but a marketplace.

[...] I began reading not only the economics of Thomas Sowell (our greatest contemporary philosopher) but Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson, and Shelby Steele, and a host of conservative writers, and found that I agreed with them: a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.

At the same time, I was writing my play about a president, corrupt, venal, cunning, and vengeful (as I assume all of them are), and two turkeys. And I gave this fictional president a speechwriter who, in his view, is a "brain-dead liberal," much like my earlier self; and in the course of the play, they have to work it out. And they eventually do come to a human understanding of the political process. As I believe I am trying to do...
Well that's probably the most thought anyone has yet given November. (Haven't seen it myself.)

On the proper role of government, a natural metaphor occurs to the dramatist:

But if the government is not to intervene, how will we, mere human beings, work it all out?

I wondered and read, and it occurred to me that I knew the answer, and here it is: We just seem to. How do I know? From experience. I referred to my own—take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production.

The director, generally, does not cause strife, but his or her presence impels the actors to direct (and manufacture) claims designed to appeal to Authority—that is, to set aside the original goal (staging a play for the audience) and indulge in politics, the purpose of which may be to gain status and influence outside the ostensible goal of the endeavor.

So there you go--he manages to insult both directors and liberals in one fell swoop. Well played.

Actually I imagine he might win over some playwrights this way!

You can read those pontifications and more--some related, some not, all plugging his show--in a big bad Village Voice essay.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For

Reviewing the Boston New Rep "rep" of what I like to call "Rachel Corrie-Plus," the Herald points out an unintended flaw of the "balanced" program...

The problem with presenting these plays side-by-side is that “Corrie” is far more compelling. Though it has its moments, “Pieces” [written & performed by Zohar Tirosh] too often has the amateur feel of a college production, with lines like, “The walls are peeling; my soul is peeling.” It doesn’t help that Fischer [Stacy Fischer, who plays Corrie] is a virtuoso, Tirosh just so-so.

Pro-Israel, anti-Israel...in the end most audiences are probably just pro-good-theatre.

Shiny Happy Buildings

In recent years many of the 75 companies that form the League of Resident Theaters have looked at their aging or unaesthetic homes and joined what amounts to a nonprofit theatrical building boom. Since 2000 they and other institutions coast to coast have initiated dozens of construction projects whose combined tab is approaching $1 billion. The size of the scrums of dignitaries and donors who inevitably attend the groundbreakings and galas (and whose names seem to serve as wallpaper inside) suggests what it takes to get these buildings up. What’s less evident is what it really means to operate them once they’re built.
From Jesse Green's excellent Sunday piece on the "edifice complex" (to borrow Harold Clurman's phrase of a previous "boom" era) in regional theatre today.

So if you haven't gotten around to your Arts & Leisure yet, it's definitely worth the long read.

Once again, we have the big dilemma of our nonprofit theatres: put your resources into your physical plant or your plays.

I really don't mean that facetiously. Obviously, an improved theatre space can help your plays. (At least certain plays.) And attract the needed audiences.

But these are huge expenses we're looking at. I mean, duh!--it's real estate and it's the 21st century. Not to mention celebrity-architecture.
[I]t’s true that the building boom, particularly among the aging lions of the regional movement, is partly about creating whiz-bang “destination” theaters that will attract national talent. (Also, younger audiences.) But the companies say they are doing this to enhance or recapture their mission, not discard it.

At the same time they seem to be making pre-emptive statements about their centrality to the culture. In the last two years alone the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis moved into its new $125 million Jean Nouvel home overlooking the Mississippi River; Arena Stage in Washington broke ground on the $120 million Mead Center, designed by Bing Thom; and the Dallas Theater Center, in the city where the regional movement arguably began, started building Rem Koolhaas’s Wyly Theater, part of a cultural complex pegged at a Texas-size $338 million.

“You either grow or you die,” said Joe Dowling, the Guthrie’s artistic director.

Gee--I hope he's being facetious. I understand "grow" artistically, but that is completely the wrong message for companies without huge donor pools and/or endowments.

For most of the LORT theatres--like Buffalo's ill-fated Studio Arena--I'm afraid the formula is looking like grow and die.

So isn't it funny how the juxtaposition of this story with the increasing woes of the "mid-size" theatres (like Studio Arena) kinda brings to mind that mantra of the US economy as a whole lately: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

I sympathize with the plight of the companies who have truly "outgrown" their original spaces. Like the Arlington/DC Signature whose ticket demand (and potential profitability) went way beyond the small seating capacity of the abandoned warehouse they set up shop in when they were poor. And if you want your designers to be able to paint on a 21st century palette, you just can't do that in a shack that just isn't up to code.

But such artist concerns are not always on the companies' minds. Says Green of the Philadelphia Theatre Company:
[T]he Philadelphia Theater Company, which for 25 years had rented a charming but dysfunctional theater a few blocks away. That 1912 building was called Plays and Players; it often seemed that the word audience was omitted deliberately. Sara Garonzik, the company’s producing artistic director, said that many of its 324 seats were broken, that the lobby was too small to shelter patrons, and that the two hideous little bathrooms were barely accessible even to people not in wheelchairs....

[...]

[Another] problem: an aging core of subscribers who would not renew because of the physical discomfort of Plays and Players. “They told our telemarketers that they just couldn’t do it anymore,” [Garonzik] said.
OK, let's not be cruel and ageist toward those subscribers now. But I do hope it's possible for similarly beleaguered companies without billionaire donors to get smaller grants just to renovate the seats, without having to stake their future on a whole new building!

Otherwise you get, as at the Philly company's new home, the Suzanne Roberts Theater: "plush seats, roomy ground-floor bathrooms and lobby amenities reminiscent of a suburban bookstore," but where "backstage accommodations for the players are more modest."

Anyway, read for yourself and you decide if this is good or bad. Just remember Eduardo Machado's protest at the philanthropy world's advice to his INTAR theatre's problems: "They kept telling me if I hired the right consultants, everything would be fine. I would be able to raise the millions needed for the building. But where to find the funding for productions?"

I was also glad to see Green give a shout-out to Mike Daisey's screed against the Regionals, in which such privileging of concrete over content is part of the problem. Looks like Green's been reading the blogs!

Monday, March 10, 2008

"Subsidiary Rights"

Did you know the contract Roundabout Theatre Company offers for new plays it premieres claims 40% of all the play's subsequent "subsidiary rights" for 10 years?

I didn't. And neither apparently did Craig Lucas, who has just withdrawn his latest, A Prayer for My Enemy, from their next season over the clause.

Variety's Gordon Cox puts it in perspective.

Writerly displeasure over sub rights was voiced publicly about a year ago in a speech made by scribe Richard Nelson at an ART/NY conference, lamenting, among other things, the various ways in which "participation" by commercial and nonprofit producers drains a playwright's income. Roundabout gets a particularly bad rap among scribes, since its 40% slice is the highest in Gotham.

Among other large-scale New York nonprofits, Manhattan Theater Club asks for varying percentages of sub rights, whereas Lincoln Center Theater asks for none. (Center Theater Group in Los Angeles began following LCT's example in January.)

[...]

The 40% mirrors the sub rights a commercial producer asks for -- which some writers can more easily countenance on that level, citing what they consider to be the greater risk taken on by the producers and their investors.

Gee, nothing imbues confidence in new writing like putting the very idea of "greater risk" into the contract!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

"Rachel Corrie" Buffered in Beantown

Yes, sorry, "Rachel Corrie" again.


But, hey, it's not me putting it in the papers. The play has finally come to Boston. (Recent prominent stagings include smaller companies in Denver and Montreal--where, perhaps to counter the blond, blue-eyed American image of Rachel, she was played by an Asian-Canadian actress.)


No controversy, actually. But the Boston Globe's preview reports that the New Repertory Theatre (of suburban Newton) has indeed gone ahead with its plans to pair--nay, trio or quadruple--the play with other "balancing" events.

[New Rep] had originally planned to pair "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" with the one-act "To Pay the Price," about the late Israeli Army hero Jonathan "Yoni" Netanyahu. But after the Netanyahu family heard of the plans, it asked that "To Pay the Price" be pulled from the lineup, deeming the two plays incompatible.

Forging ahead, New Rep replaced "Price" with the solo show "Pieces," written and performed by an Israeli-American, Zohar Tirosh, about her experience serving in the Israeli military in the mid-1990s, when peace seemed like a real possibility. The company is also surrounding the two works - staged in its 90-seat black-box space - with related panel discussions, talkbacks, readings, and films, including the Oscar-nominated documentary "Promises."

The New Rep's producing artistic director, Rick Lombardo, says that this mini-festival on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not part of an effort to deflect criticism of "Rachel Corrie," but is instead the result of nine months of planning and dialogue that he and his staff engaged in with various communities, from the Arab Anti-Defamation League to the American Civil Liberties Union to the Jewish Community Relations Council.

"Everybody wants to fixate on one play. But for us, it's never been about one play," he says. "Our goal was to have Rachel's voice be one of two. But the more we've explored the topic, the more our festival has grown to include a diversity of voices. We want to explore how a historical and cultural event like the Israeli-Palestinian situation spurs artists to create and spurs community dialogue."

Not to rehash old arguments here, but...


Isn't it funny that this approach has not been advocated for plays on any other issue?


Lombardo's rationale could be deployed to justify buffering any number of controversial--or once-controversial--plays. To take him at his word, you'd assume his theatre would also stage, say, Inherit the Wind in conjunction with a pro-Creationist play. Might some communities still into "traditional" male-female relationships be right in asking that even A Doll House to share a bill with, I don't know, some Victorian family melodrama like East Lynne?


Okay, strawmen, I know. But think of some of the most praised current or very recent productions seen in New York recently that take a side in similarly controversial issues. St. Ann's Warehouse felt no compunction to present the Scottish National Theatre's Blackwatch with any rebuttal statement from John McCain on "Why the Surge is Working." Last summer's vicious Hillary Agonistes did not compel the NY Fringe Fest to offer anti-Obama fare.


To say nothing of the difference of opinion some theatre artists still find in local communities when they dare to put on Angels in America or Laramie Project. Forget about the violent homophobes. How are we to appease the fine upstanding peaceful citizens who simply object on relgious grounds to all tolerance (i.e. depiction without explicit condemnation) of homosexuality.


And think of other artforms. Like film. The hard-hitting Romanian Oscar contender 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is about as controversial subject as there is in American culture: abortion. And it's unapologetic about why it must be legal. Are arthouse cinemas and distributors pressured to offer "double features" with some more pro-life film like...uh, Juno?


In short, "context" is fine. But context should never be cover.


Besides--thinking about this again reminds me of what pretty much the only exciting thing was about watching My Name is Rachel Corrie Off-Broadway a year and a half ago: the experience of being in an audience that has to deal with controversial, unpopular statements spoken from the stage, unopposed.


There's a long history of subversive sentiments and statements sneaking themselves into drama. But they only survive intact when the "evildoers" are punished or reformed, or when some raisonneur is there to rebut them right on the spot. Kate spends much of Taming of the Shrew venting the frustrations of women everywhere, before Shakespeare makes the play palatable by forcing her to recant at the end. (Ditto Shylock.) This is also why villains can be so much fun--they're often right! They're just saying the things no one else is allowed to say.


So I get the feeling the only "acceptable" kind of play about the Middle East now would be one where, sure, someone gave some speech in defense of the Palestinians--only to be answered and/or shot down by some more "reasonable" character. (Hence Mike Leighs' Two Thousand Years, while addressing these subjects, has met with no such controversy.)


So by running for cover behind as many "diverse views" as possible, we deprive the theatre of that special frisson that can only come from confronting the unpleasant. Even if it is "wrong." Think of that ending from Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon, for instance, where the heroine leaves us with an atrocious monologue justifying Kissingerian ethics on warcrimes, assassination, and such. Now imagine someone coming out after the show having to explain to you, "Now boys and girls, that was just a play. We don't really think that."


But look: we don't see this approach taken with plays of any other subject, do we? (Or so far, of any other plays!) So obviously we don't need to worry about this becoming a trend, right? Or do we...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Studio Arena, Buffalo

Don't know how I missed this but last week Buffalo's Studio Arena theatre has all but folded.

(Hat tip to Mark Armstrong for being on the case.)

The Playbill story offers a sad and scary glimpse at the possible (likely?) future of similar-sized (i.e. big!) regionals in declining urban areas.

Studio Arena Theatre, the 43-year-old Buffalo, NY, not-for-profit that gave life to world premieres and revivals, has shut its doors, canceled the remainder of its season and laid off 17 staffers, it was announced Feb. 25....The company, saddled with a $3 million debt, is seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection while the next step is plotted.

That next step being...?

A new proposed business model for the theatre's future would have Studio Arena Theatre become a smaller operation and produce perhaps three productions a year (down from six or seven), while sharing its facility with other organizations.

A proposed partnership would hand over administrative, marketing and building management jobs to Shea's Performing Arts Center. Buffalo State College would take over Arena's theatre school and education arm.

Reasonable enough, I guess, given the reported post-mortem--I mean, diagnosis:

[The Buffalo News] reported that the troupe's situation was blamed on decline in subscribership (from 8,044 in 2003 to 5,047 in 2007), an aging and declining Buffalo population, loss of major donors, competition from other theatres in the region and an operating budget that relied on ticket sales for 72 percent of revenues (about 60 percent from ticket sales is the national norm).

At a Feb. 25 press conference, board president Daniel A. Dintino stated, "It became very evident early in the season that the business model being followed, where Studio Arena operated as a single organization incurring all the risk in performing every function of a full producing professional theatre — from selecting and producing each show to selling tickets — was not going to be successful."

Lots of interesting data there. First that most theatres get only 60% of their revenue from ticket sales. That's not to say ticket sales don't matter--on the contrary, it means that 100% crowd capacity only gets you 2/3rds the way to solvency. While once upon a time a little insolvency didn't matter, today's CEO-stacked Boards won't have it.

Of course, single tickets aren't the issue for these theatre--it's subscriptions. And when you see that nearly 50% decline for Studio Arena in just the last 5 years I can only think of two causes: the economy and old age. Yes, the generation--dare I say "The Greatest Generation"?--of American playgoers, those born in the Depression, are rapidly entering their 70s and 80s.

So good luck to Studio Arena, especially to the folks just laid off there. Maybe you can form another more "solvent" theatre company for the 21st Century with countless colleagues around the country about to meet the same fate...

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Fact of the Day

"St. Ann’s Warehouse, a performance space in an old spice-milling factory at 38 Water Street, pays no rent at all."

True. It's in the New York Times.

(Reporting on what's left of subsidized arts space in Brooklyn's DUMBO district.)

Dance Criticism: On Last Legs?

From ARTicles--a worthy blog I've just discovered from the National Arts Journalism Program--comes news that the LA Times has just downsized its full time dance critic of over ten years, Lewis Segal, out of a job.

Laments Sasha Anawalt:

In a city where dance riddles the inner sanctums of churches, temples, community centers, clubs, gymnasiums and zocalos, to say nothing of the nearly 280 legit performance spaces in mainstream theaters, large, mid-sized and small -- this signals a gigantic disconnect between the people and press.
And here I was thinking dance events were actually more popular and more attended than theatre.

News like this makes it seem a miracle there are as many working theatre critics as there are in our country, especially in cities outside of NYC and Chicago.

I often suspect that whatever job security there is comes from the need for someone to review the next time some unqualified celebrity takes on a wildly inappropriate stage role. Dance my be pretty, but in current media terms--it has no stars.

And so not only theatre, but theatre criticism has become star dependent?

On that note, also on ARTicles a nice little argument by Bay Area critic
One actor then exclaimed "And if I see another Yelp review, I'm going to vomit." While he admitted that nearly every theatre production could count on user reviews on websites like Yelp and Goldstar Events, he found the writing mostly inane. He wanted to see reviews produced by experienced writers with theatrical knowledge.

Thus, the Catch-22. Newspapers don't have enough resources to review most productions. And if a production doesn't get reviewed, it and its potential audience must rely on mass consensus reviews by amateur theatergoers.
I guess we bloggers can count ourselves at least a step up from Yelp.

I hope?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Jewish King Lear

A terrific discussion by Stephen Greenblatt in the New Republic of Jacob Gordin's Yiddish Theatre Classic, The Jewish King Lear, just published in a newly translated edition.

It was a vehicle for Jacob Adler, and he played it hundreds of times from 1892 nearly up until his death in 1926. (At right, a poster from a 1898 engagement.) It became one of the old reliable warhorses of the "Golden Age of 2nd Avenue."

A fascinating theatre history article about immigrants in America, cultural adaptations of Shakespeare (this was hardly an ordinary translation), and what theatre can do for a community.

Quote of the Day

"With tickets going on sale months and months in advance of a show's opening - and with prices at $200 to $450 - I don't think it's inappropriate for columnists to give their impression of a show. I hope people read my reports on "Young Frankenstein" and "The Little Mermaid" out of town. I would have saved them lots of money.

These people are not making art. They're in it for the money. Period."

-The Post's Michael Riedel, defending his swipes at the forthcoming Shrek against Dramatist Guild prez John Wideman's objections.

Yes, in theory workshops should not be "reviewed." But my question for Disney--and for the Dramatists Guild--is: when you put on a "workshop" that's supposed to be invitation only and just for fundraising, etc...why do you invite the freakin' press???

The answer obviously is for puff pieces and free promotion. Such events are usually accompanied by Hollywood-esque "junket" interviews.

So is it fair to draw a distinction between a not-for-profit workshop and a Broadway "teaser"? Is Riedel right that criticizing the Shreks and Young Frankensteins in advance is fair game because "they're only in it for the money"?