Tuesday, May 01, 2007

It's Alive?!!

Last night, The Ford Hall Forum presented their conversation, "Does the Theatre Have a Future? The Players Look Forward..." The Rabb Auditorium at the Boston Public Library was standing room only, and the representative of the Forum stated, "this proves there is a future for theatre." Although I appreciated the optimism, I would also have observed that the demographic of the audience was not unlike the average subscription audience at a regional LORT house.

Ed Siegel, former critic for the Boston Globe and now covering the boards for the Phoenix and WBUR, served as moderator. His introduction of the participants rightly pointed out the artistic highs of the recent years. Rick Lombardo's New Repertory Theatre is currently producing The Wild Party and earlier this season produced Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman. Karen MacDonald's home theatre is the ART and she has appeared in the works of Rinde Eckhart and Edward Bond. And the very special guest, Edward Albee, recently gave Broadway a shot in the arm with his play The Goat. "It has not been a fallow time," Siegel reminded us.

After recounting the rise of the midsized theatre companies like Rick Lombardo's New Rep, Siegel turned the first question to Mr. Albee. Why, Mr. Siegel asked, is the theatre different from the time when Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf premiered? Why is the theatre not a part of the national cultural dialogue?

Edward Albee, rascally and sharply funny, started by giving a little of his background about his adoptive parents and of his first experience with a live theatrical production. There were a few people in the audience who raised their hands when he asked if anybody remembered the musical Jumbo, which starred Jimmy Durante and an elephant. "It was hard sometimes to tell the two apart," he quipped. Television had happened, and people did go to the movies, but this type of thing was live, and proved a very effective aphrodisiac for him. (In terms of the evening's theme, it is poignant to note that Jumbo was the last musical produced at the 5,200 seat Hippodrome theatre before it was torn down in 1939.)

This "liveness" of theatrical performance surpasses the canned theatre of movies or TV because you must work to suspend disbelief. Albee illustrated, (by way of using his early experience attending an early Judy Garland movie in which the audience did applaud,) that movies have conditioned you to assume that suspension whereas theatre requires you to suspend it yourself. He also addressed the long held axiom that Shakespeare, if alive today, would be writing for television or the movies. He said that he did not believe that would be the case, he said he would like to believe that the medium of theatre holds advantages the Bard would be drawn to even today.

Siegel, addressing Karen MacDonald, a reknowned actress here in Boston, asked if actors notice the greying hair of audiences. MacDonald said that actors do notice it, and, quite frankly, "it is getting scary." She did turn this question around to note that the most exhilirating experiences for her are performing for the kids who come for the school matinees. Seeing the face of these kids, watching the power and magic of live performance is invigorating and she can only ask, "why don't we have more of this?"

The microphone then turned, logically, to Rick Lombardo who has a unique vantage point by helming a theatre company. Lombardo first went on to enhance the definition of the "liveness" of theatre by pointing out that theatre is actually a more "authentic," experience and it is communal. "Theatre for one is not the same as theatre for all," he said. "We could perform a wonderful show on this very stage, but if we were only performing it for one person it would be very different than if we are performing it in front of many people."

The problem facing theatre, Mr. Lombardo would say, is that the "controlled entertainment experience," has such a market sway over the country right now. We can have everything, "sacred and profane," right in the living room. Throughout the evening Lombardo seemed to indicate that he thought things are probably going to get worse before they get better. However, he did say, "I can surf the interenet for two hours and I was in control of the experience, but it ultimately proves a hollow experience." This is his hope for live theatre. Is it an authentic expereince and it is more fulfilling than the hollow controlled experience.

Lombardo then pointed out that The Pillowman, was one of their most successful experiences of late. "Martin McDonagh is able to tap into that unique combination of language, deep connection with other people, and violent conflict."

Siegel, trying to steer back to problem of declining audience asked again, "Why isn't this clicking though, with young audiences?" Edward Albee riffed off Lombardo's point about authenticity and talked about his first experience with an absurdist or avante garde theatre performance. Hellz a Poppin featured such wild inventions as ushers who sat patrons in the wrong seates and a man constatly wandering the audience and the lobby with an every expanding plant. These are the types of things that can only happen with a live theatrical experience.
Siegel asked Albee if he was tempted by Hollywood. After mentioning that he was very disappointed when the young David Mamet decamped for LA, Albee said that for him, "Life is too short, and I want to make my own mistakes." In Hollywood, you don't have any ownership over your product or your name. He pointed out the absurdity of the fact that in Hollywood, "they can change your script completely, but still keep your name on the film."

With regards to the Hollywood question, Karen Macdonald stated that she would not want to be an actress in her early twenties right now. She mentioned how even at the ART institute, which is geared heavily towards theatre, she knows that most of the students really are looking to get into television or the movies. Her wish is that we would start to see separtate schools, "if you want to do theatre, you go here, and if you want to do film and television, you go here."

The conversation then turned to the question of technology, and Rick Lombardo stated that technical advances should be related to the form, and not be confused with the bedrock of the theatrical experience. "The actor and the language is the bedrock, and that will never change," and should not try be supplanted. However, he does believe that technical advances can enhance the theatrical experience and can help in relating to the younger audiences. Mr. Albee later disagreed with this point, saying that he learned from Samuel Beckett that theatre doesn't need technlogical advances. (Though most of the audience laughed heartily at this, I would have pointed out to Mr. Albee that Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape is still the definitive multimedia play.)

The subscription decline was brought up by Mr. Siegel, and he further illustrated his point with the recent news of the coming departure of two Artistic Directors, Bob Woodruff from the ART and Nicholas Martin from the Huntington Theatre Company. Rick Lombardo, said that there is no doubt that subscriptions are declining around the country rapidly, and both Mr. Albee and Mr. Lombardo brought up the ideas of subsidized tickets, such as those programs at Signature Theatre in New York, or pay-what-you-can nights. The New Rep has started doing pay-what-you-can, and Lombardo said that he was very interested in the profile of those who take advantage of this program. "I would ask the box office, are these just people who had previously been buying full price tickets?" To his relief the demographic seems to be people they have never seen at the theatre before.

Mr. Albee, in response to Siegel's question about how he would run a theatre as an Artistic Director, talked about how the "chinese menu approach" to planning seasons is destroying the theatre. Pointing out that most theatres program one classic, one shakespeare, one current and one musical play, he observed, "they thereby disappoint three fourths of the audience every time."

Karen MacDonald, who seemed initially uncomfortable when asked who she would like to see as the new Artistic Director of the ART, stated that she does hope from somebody who will be more aware of the community here in Boston. "I know actors in New York need jobs too, but I would like to see Boston theatre's use more local talent rather than bring people in."

The forum opened up for questions and the subject of entertainment came up . Albee was quick to point out that, "no play has a right to be anything, but entertaining." When asked about why for the 2005 production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he cut a powerful scene between George and Honey, Albee said that it was not for reasons of brevity, or really of any consideration of the audience. He said that he always felt the Act needed to end earlier. He would never change anything in his work for market considerations. People will say, you have to cut your three hour play down to two hours. They will explain to your that people have babysitters, they need to be home by eleven. But Playwrights need to tell the theaters that if this is true, then it is the theater's job to get people to there earlier.

Playwrights should know that Rick Lombardo's New Rep gets about 50 scripts a week, and that most of them are just like television shows or movies. They lack the inherent theatricality that is neccessary for a play. To which Albee pointed out that there "is no paucity of good playwrights," the problem, he further explained, is that many of these TV like plays are being done all the time by theaters across the country.

The spotlight or hotlight, did shift to Ed Siegel when he was asked by Rick Lombardo about the future of criticism and arts journalism. Rick Lombardo illustrated the decline by poining out that ten years ago a good Glove review would result in significant impact on the box office, but that is not the case anymore. Ed Siegel said that print media is on the decline, but the type of cultural engagement where a theatre reviewer has an impact is waning as well. (I was slightly disappointed that Siegel did not even mention digital and internet media in his response.)

A common thread, running throughout the evening, was the idea that the fine arts are no longer considered essential to public education. Without that appreciation, the youth will continue to be turned out with appreciation of only the commercial marketplace.

It was an entertaining and enlightening evening, but ,personally, I couldn't help but feel there is still a tendency for people to eschew the ultimate question. What do we do about it? How can the people, in this room affect change in for the positive?
The preceding account is based solely on my memory and my hastily scribbled notes, so quotes and conversations may be paraphrased, but tried to make it as accurate as possible.


Corey said...

I just recently stumbled onto your blog and I am happy I did. This is great insight on Boston regional theatre.

One thing that stuck out to me on this post was Albee's point on the chinese menu approach. When you look at something like The North Shore Music Theatre, they have a specific mission and a certain audience that enjoys the entire season. ART is similar in their appeal to their specific audience. Did Albee have suggestions on an alternative?

What is the dynamic of a season that would appeal to a younger crowd?

YS said...

HI Corey,

You are right about the ART. I have said many times that the ART has a certain mission and and aesthetic and they seem to have an audience that supports them in that in that mission. Although the news of the last few months would indicate that as loyal as that audience is, it is starting to decline.

I think Albee's comment is directed more at theatres like The Huntington or Trinity Rep, (the larger LORT theatres) and some of the larger midsized theatres.

The dynamic of a season that would appeal to a younger crowd? That is the question isn't it? The question everybody is asking.

The House Theatre in Chicago has been successful in getting younger audiences in.

What do you think?

YS said...

By the way, Albee didn't really suggest alternatives.

Anonymous said...

"They will explain to your that people have babysitters, they need to be home by eleven. But Playwrights need to tell the theaters that if this is true, then it is the theater's job to get people to there earlier"

This from a man who probably has never had to hire a babysitter (who, if he or she is of any quality, costs several dollars an hour). It doesn't matter how early parents get to the theatre, if long plays price those parents out of an evening at the theatre. Sheesh -- is this so hard to understand?

Corey said...

A 7:30 start wouldn't make a difference, I agree with that. Subscribers already have matinee options anyway on both Saturday and Sunday at most regionals.

Babysitters aside...

Ticket prices are a little high. It's getting expensive to go to the Lyric for example. At least I think it is, so pay what you can, and free ticket offers every once in a while is a good call.

I wonder if anyone has looked at this from an overall subscriber base. Individual subscriber bases are declining, but there are a lot more good theatres in Boston then there ever were in years past. Is the subscriber base just getting spread out. Maybe it's time for more joint productions to share the wealth.

YS said...


Thanks for the comments.

Anon, good point. But to be fair to Mr. Albee, I think I should try to place it in the context.

His point was more that an individual play need not be changed for any other reason than this: It makes it a better play.

If a Theatre Company thinks a play is so great that they want to produce it, they shouldn't then be asking the playwright to shorten it for market considerations.

Just wanted to clarify that.

With regards to cost, subscribing is still a very, very good deal for most theatres. For instance, Trinity Rep breaks down to only around 16 dollars a ticket for a 6-7 play season.

However, as subscribing demographics move out, the single ticket buying mindset will be moving in.

Gen-X seems to be very disloyal, and I don't mean that in an evil sense. They just don't feel they need to stay at job if they get a better offer somewhere else. (I find they accept counteroffers from their current employers much less than the boomers do.)

They won't move their time AROUND something, they would rather have that something move for them.

This general mindset is anathema to idea of subscribing.

This is where Albee's point about alienating 3/4 of the audience every time comes into play.

Gen X will put up with being bored exactly once.

This leads me to something else that everybody tip toes around, because it seems to just turn the stomachs of our elitist minds.

The Malls, The Movies, TV, The Music Industry, these people spend BILLIONS on marketing research and it is paying off.

The Theatre Community is so far behind in this regard, even when it comes to other non-profits.

The Arts and Civic Engagment survey last year said that in this country, less than 10% of people even see a play. Most theatre marketing surveys I have seen always do a great job of telling us all about the people who are already coming to the theatre. They don't tell us anything about all the people who are NOT coming to the theatre.

We speculate, and we can come up with pretty good reasons why, but I would like some hard data to at least examine.

The reason I say this is the following:

Anytime I go to one of these panels and I hear about how people don't want to go out anymore, they are into a controlled entertainment experience. I always think to myself that the people making these statements perhaps have not been to a Mall on a Friday or a Saturday Night lately. (Or even a weeknight.)

The place is TEEMING WITH PEOPLE, of all ages and demographics. These are people who have left their house and are looking to do something, anything!

Kevin Ashworth said...

Thanks for posting this comprehensive account!

Thomas Garvey said...

I confess I'm a little tired of worrying about how to attract young people to the theatre. The solutions always seem to revolve around turning theatre into something it isn't. I think I'm getting to a place where I'm fine with theatre - and the other fine arts, probably - dying out with my generation. It's got a whole Götterdämmerung vibe that I'm kinda into. We're the last gasp of Western civilization, so enjoy what's left while it's still around!

YS said...


I guess I would say....I somewhat agree.

I think we may have lost the Gen-X and Gen-Y of this country.

We are spending ridiculous amounts of energy on trying to figure out how to get them in the theatres.

Perhaps the answer is to cut our losses and try to foster more Arts education in the public schools. Work on the real younger generation.

As far as "turning theatre into something it isn't." I think I have an idea about what you are talking about, but you'll have to be more specific on that. (Although it sounds perfectly highbrow, which I am sure is the intended purpose.)

But with regards to theatrical evolution, you may have company in your opinion. I am sure in every generation there were people who wished young playwrights like Shakespeare, Chekov, Ibsen, etc, just stopped writing their god awful plays.