Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Theatre and the University in Boston - A Closer Examination

Robert Brustein served as the moderator of a panel at the recent Theatre Communications Guild convention here in Boston.  His opening remarks were published on The Huffington Post this week.

The subject was "Theatre and the University".  Here are some his thoughts about his own grand project which started with the founding of Yale Rep and continued through his founding and leadership of the American Repertory Theater, (associated with Harvard.)

As for audiences, they were a union of engaged participants paying ticket prices affordable to every income group, rather than a coterie of expense account tourists, pouring out the equivalent of a three day vacation in Barbados for a single Broadway show. And one never had to make the work "accessible" through awkward, condescending popularizing. If it was immediate and engaged, they got it.
The country never fully embraced this concept because it has not yet fully grown up as a culture. And America's continuing adolescence in regard to support for the arts helps explain why the so-called not-for-profit theater is now sometimes serving not as an alternative to the Broadway system, but rather as a tryout house for commercial interests. I'm certainly not suggesting that these two systems shouldn't have relations with each other, or even intermarry at times. Rather, I am criticizing a process in which commercial interest is aroused before the opening of a not-for-profit production and thereby has a hand in raising the baby. 

On Twitter, there have been some comments traded back and forth about Brustein and his remarks.

I would really suggest people take a look at two parts of a series written by Tom Garvey for his blog The Hub Review.  (As a note, these articles were written in 2008, just as Diane Paulus and Peter DuBois were taking the reins at the two theaters he profiled.)

What Should An Academic Theater Be?, Part II  is a critical summary and analysis of the American Repertory Theatre, which Brustein founded here in Boston.

The company seemed to see itself as a kind of intervention in its art form, openly injecting critical theory into its process in an attempt to revivify, if not revolutionize, the fabulous invalid ...The problem for the ART, of course, was what theory, exactly, should be injected into the drama to make it flower in an appropriately revolutionary way. And while Brustein had long proved himself an incisive writer and analyst, once it came time to prove himself as a practitioner, he resorted, as so many had before him, to pastiche. The ART became known for a cool, almost clinical, presentation in an empty, Brechtian space. But within that notionally "epic" theatre frame, just about anything went, as long as it seemed somehow opposed to bourgeois convention in an orgiastic, Artaudian kind of way.
What Should An Academic Theater Be? Part III is an examination of the Huntington Theatre Company which is another university supported theatrical entity here in the Hub.

(When Nicholas Martin took over) he began to hire local actors, and the company's participation in the expansion of the Boston Center for the Arts was probably instrumental in the opening of two new theatres there - a huge boon to both the South End, which became the "new Theatre District," and the city's smaller theatre companies. (What it did for the Huntington itself - which hasn't really been able to figure out what to do with its gorgeous new theatre, the Wimberley - is less clear.) The company also began to invest directly in playwrights by sponsoring fellowships and producing staged readings - and even took the landmark step of producing a locally-developed play on its new Wimberley Stage (Melinda Lopez's Sonia Flew - above left - which has gone on to several other regional productions).
But there were still a few flies in the ointment of all this success. Note that the roster of stand-out productions above includes not a single new play - and indeed, despite the fact that Martin had re-oriented his theatre from the classic and toward the contemporary, the Huntington seemed unable to strike artistic gold there. It was hard not to feel this might be partly due to Martin's own networking - just as the ART had been stifled by its own boho clique, so the "development mill" that the Huntington had become a part of was simply ignoring great new work done by already-established playwrights.

1 comment:

Thomas Garvey said...

Thanks for all the shout-outs, Art. Don't get me started on Brustein, though!

Just to toot my own horn for a second - I re-read those pieces and thought to myself, how DO the print types keep pretending that bloggers only put out a degraded mode of criticism? Those pieces are far more sophisticated and incisive (whether you agree with them or not) than anything ever put into print about Boston theatre. (And I mean anything ever.) Admittedly, I'm unusual, still - in this town there is really no argument for print in terms of quality, is there.