Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sugar Daddy Wanted

Geoff Edgers has a soup-to-nuts explanation of the behind-the-scenes financial picture that may have led to Robert Woodruff's departure at the American Repertory Theatre.

I believe this is more of a harbinger of a different era starting for non-profit theatre. Subscribers are dropping off and single ticket buyers are increasing. There seems to be frustration with board members, some of whom Edgers interviews. Basically, like many people I speak with, (and like me a few years ago,) some subscribers and fans just grow tired of being slammed with gorgeous opacity again and again. Here is board member Sam Weisman:

"I'm not interested in writing checks for a theater that nobody comes to," says Weisman. "I'm not asking them to do 'Under the Yum Yum Tree.' If I go to six or seven shows a season, it's OK to do 'Orpheus X' -- which I happened to love -- but you can't make a season of a 'Romeo and Juliet' that's inaccessible and shows like 'Dido, Queen of Carthage' [productions from 2005 and 2006] unless you have some kind of sugar daddy."

This is true. But in defense of the ART, having a sugar daddy to foster creative license and experimentation is an inherently good thing. What Weisman is outlining above is the achetypal blueprint for the subscriber based regional theatre: 1 Shakespeare, 2 Warhorses , 1 Chestnut (preferably with a television or film star,) 1 World Premiere by a "hot" newcomer, 1 "experimental play." This contributes to the zombification of the theatre-going audience.

Weisman seems to be wanting to support only art that a lot of people come to. This is troublesome, because even relatively conservative theatres will continue to see subscriber bases decline in the future.

Rinde Eckhart best sums it up this way:

"The energy in that building was incredible, and he was doing things that nobody else was doing," says Rinde Eckert , who wrote and performed in "Highway Ulysses" and the ART's 2006 "Orpheus X." "I thought it was perfect. Harvard has a long tradition of iconoclasm and being at the forefront and taking risks. And the ART, that was the one place you could say, 'At least this theater's not caving. At least this theater's not running scared.' "

Highway Ulysses was one of the high points of the last few years, as was Orpheus X, and where else would these productions have gone up, where else would have given these pieces the support they needed?

I will take issue with Mr. Eckert though. The ART was always on the knife's edge , but their seasons were not full, wall-to-wall, with iconoclastic, opaque experimentation. The productions were, to be sure, inventive and innovative and that primed the pump for the audience to occasionally take a plunge into a few shows a year that were really out there.

It seems as if this calculus has been reversed one hundred eighty degrees. When this started happening is around the time I stopped being a regular attender.

The type of season that is currently regular fare at the ART has the drawback of veering off the already rugged path of adventurous theatregoing onto impassible service roads for which one needs an industrial strength, industry certified vehicle, a GPS, and a skilled guide. Unfortunately for the ART, it seems as if some people, who were having a great time off-roading, are finding themselves stranded on the service roads while the sound of the artistic staff's vehicle that was leading the way grows fainter and fainter.


Mark said...

Good post. But what is the difference between a warhorse and a chestnut?

YS said...

Mmm. I guess I would describe a chestnut as a play that is relatively enjoyable, possibly a lesser work by an established talent, or a deservedly neglected work from another time.

Usually, a chestnut is a play that probably would never be produced by a major regional theatre without a star in it.

Warhorse: Heartbreak House, The Rivals

Chestnut: Butley, Springtime for Henry

Although, here in Boston we had a situation a few years ago where Springtime for Henry was scheduled for the Huntington. Robert Sean Leonard was to star. He had to back out to play in Long Day's Journey on Broadway.

The Huntington went ahead with the production and it did very very well.

This is my distinction anyway.

Thomas Garvey said...

I never understand how people find the ART "experimental." I can't think of anything Woodruff has done that I would describe that way. The only recent production (and I mean since the eighties, perhaps) at the ART that struck me as "new" was "the far side of the moon," and that was chiefly new in that its synthesis of media and performance was so matter-of-fact, with so little pseudo-intellectual apparatus. But "on the knife's edge"? "Iconoclastic, opaque experimentation"? I really don't know what you're talking about. The ART (and the talented Woodruff) are working through the endgame of the late-70s avant-garde. This results in the occasional insight, and some interesting formal results (as in "Britannicus"), but I think pretending that what the ART does is "experimental" will only lead to the complete devaluation of that term.

Thomas Garvey said...

Sorry to go on and on, but I also feel that people can't seem to see the "elephant in the room" as far as the ART goes - its productions are repetitive, and unremittingly bleak. I'm not sure why so many artsy types imagine that "serious" must equal "dark," but they couldn't be more wrong. I can only think of one performer at the ART in the last few years - Pieter Dirk Uys - who struck me as truly joyful. And frankly, any theater that thinks it can be "serious" but joyless is, in fact, deeply frivolous. Perhaps attendance is dropping off at the ART because people can sense that.

YS said...

Hi Thomas,

Just so you know, I am not using opaque as a compliment. Yeah, knife's edge, may be a little strong.

You are right. I heard another local critic say that the stuff the Globe is praising as new and cutting edge at the ART is, "The same stuff I was I was seeing in the Village in the late 60's to the early 70's."

As you know from reading this blog I have always been a little hard on the ART. I think my ire though has died down over some years because I basically...don't go anymore.

Why keep spending money on tickets in the hopes that one of the 4-5 shows you attend there over the course of the season might, as you say, "results in the occasional insight, and some interesting formal results?"

Louise Kennedy hit the nail on the head, (as far as I am concerned,) when she suggested that somebody needs keep a tighter reigns on the "frivolity" that is going on over there.

I am sure that this suggestion could be interpreted as stifling creativity. But let's remember that theatre is an art and a craft.

Too many times I left the Loeb drama center feeling as if I had been subjected to watching acting class excercises.

I think you have hit on something that I have not really thought about...the joyless nature of the productions. It is interesting, but I'm not sure I agree.

I know there are supporters of the ART who read this blog, and I would love for them to comment as well.

Thomas Garvey said...

You're not sure you agree? How, exactly, is that possible? As a friend of mine put it years ago, the ART's ideal production would be "a children's opera by Philip Glass based on 'The Premature Burial' by Edgar Allan Poe."

I can't really improve on that formulation - I'd only add that the "darkness" at the ART doesn't seem to help them when it comes to doing tragedy ("Romeo and Juliet," anyone?) - because what they do is essentially a kind of chic academic nihilism, which flattens everything in its path. Face it, these guys' idea of a good time would be fisting Michel Foucault. If only that made for good theater!