28 August 2009

To Note, Or Not To Note

A theater program booklet is a useful thing. In its most basic form, a program tells you the names of the characters and the actors playing them. It may also tell you the locations and times of the story; in musicals, it often lists the songs by title. Programs generally also name the creative and administrative people. All this is useful for those of us who like to know whom to credit for what. The brief biographies of company members are also nice reminders of what else these folks have done and where they got their experience and training. I like that; it helps me keep track of people I know and learn about new people. It also helps me understand why some actors or directors or designers did what I just saw. It puts them all in perspective in a way. Beyond that, the program may also be a wonderfully instructive document about the play, playwright, director, or theater company. This usually emanates from a “program note” of some kind, often written for or by the play’s director or the company’s artistic director. The notes seem to fall into two basic categories: specific explications of the production and general background essays. In this country, the latter is rarer than the former, and more’s the pity.

European programs, in fact, may end up being small texts about the playwright’s artistic philosophy and life, the cultural history of her or his milieu, or theoretical discussions of art or political movements which inspired the director and designers. Rarely do such programs go into detail about the purposes or techniques of the staging itself. As audience, we are given some data that the artists used, and left to make our own interpretations and judgments. Essentially, the performance is expected to stand on its own. In the U.S., Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater’s and Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company’s have been excellent examples of this kind of program. The notes in the program of the recent Lincoln Center Festival production of the Théâtre du Soleil’s Les Éphémères contained several revealing and interesting articles, including excerpts of an interview with company director, Ariane Mnouchkine. The same was so of the Katona József Theatre’s program for Ivanov, which director Támas Ascher had moved from 19th-century Russia to mid-20th-century Hungary. (The Katona program also included a short essay about the company, with which I was unfamiliar. It provided some information about their approach to theater, especially the classics, as well as some company history.) The recently-departed Broadway production of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County provided a family tree for the very large cast of characters (with photos of the actors playing the family members and others) so spectators could keep the relationships straight.

Usually in this country, however, when program notes are published, they are generally statements of what the director or playwright, or both, were trying to accomplish. This was the case with two Off-Off-Broadway productions I recall from some years ago of, first, Romeo and Juliet and, second, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both companies were attempting reinterpretations, and both felt it necessary to justify and explain their interpretations. My reaction, though, was dichotomous. If the ideas are well thought-out and the work is clear, the notes become superfluous. I don’t need to be told what I can plainly see. If the ideas are muddled and unfulfilled on stage, the note serves only to illuminate what might have happened, but didn’t. In the first instance, there is an implicit insult to the audience: we need help to see what’s right before our eyes. In the second, it suggests the company doesn’t have to worry about actuating its ideas: if they can’t get them on stage, they can write them in the program. Robert Brustein noted in an essay on “Reworking the Classics“ that this kind of production is “at best a platform for ideas.” He concluded, however, that it was “at worst an occasion for pranks,” and since what I saw on stage showed me nothing new about either play beyond the program notes, that’s all that the two productions seem to have been.

The R&J asserted a new approach. The production, with the Capulet party a backyard barbecue and the Tybalt-Mercutio duel fought with aluminum bats on a baseball diamond, was decked out as middle-class American suburbia. In “Notes From The Director” in the program, the director explained, “moral corruption masquerading as religious zeal is explored . . . tragically in Romeo and Juliet.” He believed that it “is a substantially different play thematically than traditional stagings and scholarship have rendered.” Invoking unspecified “dark forces,” the director saw Friar Laurence not as a “bumbling fool,” but “a dominant motivating force in the tragedy,” convinced that any sacrifice--even the lives of the two teenagers--is justified in order to heal the feud between the Capulets and Montagues.

The director based this interpretation on several “facts,” citing evidence from the text for his assertions, and the concept might well have worked at least theatrically, not to say intellectually, if he had followed through with it in his production. Only one of the proofs the director offered focused specifically on Friar Laurence: the priest’s opening speech makes no mention of God and refers to “a sophisticated moral view that is far more based in natural or pagan philosophies than in Christian teachings” such as that all things are equally good and bad and “that death is an essential component of the cycle of life.” His “other evidence” was that the lovers are called “star-crossed”--an astrological reference opposed to “the Christian concepts of . . . free will”; Juliet is 13--a magical number--and was weaned on the day of a great earthquake; Juliet describes the devil in 13 different ways when she learns Romeo has slain Tybalt. Except for the remarks regarding his first speech, none of this actually has nothing to do with the Friar--at least it didn’t in this staging.

To support his interpretation, the director adjusted the script. Principally, he gave the Prologues and Prince Escalus’ epilogue to the Friar, thus lending him an air of prescience that isn’t born out in the rest of the text. Additionally, in consonance with the company’s advertising that there would be “magic” in the production, the Friar performed two brief parlor tricks. Before the first Prologue, with several pantomimed street fights behind him, the Friar, sitting at the front center of the playing area flanked by a hooded bride on one side and groom on the other, cut out two paper dolls--one male and one female. As he rose to utter the first Prologue, the two dolls, cut from flash paper, burst into flame in his hands. In the second magic trick, at the end of the marriage scene, Friar Laurence made a paper bouquet appear in his hands. Neither trick elicited any reaction from the company. Nor, for that matter, did any characters react to the Friar’s putative machinations. In fact, other than these changes, the play proceeded fairly traditionally for the most part (aside, of course, from the overlay of American suburbia).

None of this seemed to raise the possibility of Friar Laurence’s control above that of an intellectual curiosity. The Friar’s part itself is simply too small, and while he may not be a “bumbling fool,” other, non-Machiavellian interpretations, such as a sincerely involved friend, have been played successfully. To create the impression that Friar Laurence is a controlling force in this tragedy, the director needed to put him on stage more and make his presence more substantially felt. There are a great many supernatural references in all of Shakespeare; that there are several in Romeo and Juliet does not mean that the Friar is the source.

The “Director’s Note” in the program for Midsummer, the second example of staging that didn’t carry through on the promise of a program note, stated that the director was “treating the ‘Dream’ as a new play.” After 400 years, that may be a little presumptuous, but the production did contain several ideas that were, to say the least, curious. Most, such as giving Puck and Peaseblossom/Egeus each a set of drums upstage which they played at selected moments or providing Bottom with an immense, green phallus along with his donkey’s head, didn’t seem to add anything to “the grand humor of Shakespeare,” but one might have, had the director and cast followed through on it. The director promised to explore the animalism in us all. Unhappily, they seem to have relegated it to little more than a design element, “an occasion for pranks.”

The costumes in this Midsummer were essentially non-representational--mostly tights and leotards or other tops. Color and the style of the top, along with certain accouterments such as a bright red miniskirt or a studded belt or wristlet, indicated character, but there was no attempt to create a specific period or culture. The fairies, however, were given definite animal elements for their costumes. Oberon had a pelt strapped to his left thigh and a piece of leopard-skin cloth over his right shoulder; Titania wore a lizard-skin body stocking; Puck wore leopard-skin tights, and Cobweb had a small lizard appliquéd on the back of her leotard. In some cases, animal images were continued in make-up, such as the spider web on Titania’s left foot and the “warts” on Cobweb’s face. The male fairies--Oberon, Puck, and Peaseblossom--were bare-chested, an added suggestion of their feral nature.

Of these characters, only Cobweb behaved in any way like an animal. She walked about in a crouch, her arms dangling in front of her and her tongue flicking in and out. She usually entered with Peaseblossom, whose character I was unable to determine, her left arm curled around his right leg as if she were a lizard clinging to a tree branch. Except for a stomping dance twice performed by Oberon and Titania, none of the fairies’ other behavior was in any clear way animalistic. Director McDanal seems to have left it to the costumier, uncredited in the program, to fulfill the “sometimes bestial” part of his concept.

Now, unlike making drummers out of Puck and Peaseblossom/Egeus--the same actor plays both characters, and he drums in both guises--the view of the forest folk as animal-like, even “bestial,” could be useful to the production, particularly if the idea were carried over to the lovers as they go deeper and deeper into the woods--and fall deeper and deeper under its fairy spell. Passion--love, fear, jealousy, hatred--has an animal aspect: in the grip of passion, people can behave more like beasts than thinking humans. But for the play to make this point, the production must commit to the idea and go with it. Animal images can be a wonderful, useful, and liberating technique for an actor, but a few costume trappings don’t accomplish anything. An actor must develop the image and communicate it in behavior--speech and gesture--to the audience, otherwise it adds little to the production.

It’s too bad. Among the confusion of incongruous images in this production, here was a good idea that went astray. Bestial humans and animal spirits could go together nicely, and using a fantasy-comedy to explore our brutishness might make a strong point. It could certainly be a stunning theatrical premise. The cast, though, didn’t follow through with the visual images created in their costumes and, having devised this interpretation, the director couldn’t or wouldn’t commit to it as a real production concept. In both these reinterpretations, the productions and staging concepts that might have born them out on stage remained imprinted only in the program. As I warned, the presence of the program notes gave away the decent ideas these directors had and showed how poorly they realized them with live actors.

One of the best innovative productions I ever saw, a Macbeth also Off-Off-Broadway, had no notes to explain what I was seeing. I had to figure it out myself. This may have required a little astuteness, but it wasn’t really all that hard. It was also fun, and gave me a sense of accomplishment. Determining, for instance, that Macbeth was in the hold of evil forces, not just swayed by the power of suggestion or caught up in a tide of action--other possible interpretations--this company trebled the presence of the witches, the symbols and representatives of the evil forces. By being cast as the servants, messengers, and other occasional characters and being placed silently on stage during all the scenes of portent and moment, the witches seemed to be controlling events and guiding the fates of Macbeth and his wife. The director had a message for me, and I got it. And he never needed to explain it to me.

25 August 2009

Missoula Children’s Theatre

Last month, the PBS program NewsHour broadcast a profile of the Missoula Children’s Theatre in Montana. I was greatly impressed with this company’s programs and its approach to theater for and by young people. MCT’s been around for 40 years and its work spreads all across the U.S. and into foreign countries where we have military bases, so it hardly needs my pat-on-the-back, but I was moved enough by Jeffrey Brown’s report that I sent founder and executive director Jim Caron a message through the company’s website, Missoula Children's Theatre: MCT Inc. (http://www.mctinc.org).

My own interest in children’s theater started when I was in college. Toward the end of my four years, the wife of the university theater’s director, Betty Kahn, and Pree Ray, the wife of one of my English profs, produced a performance of The Emperor’s New Clothes that toured county schools and community centers. (I played the evil Grand Vizier!). The following year, after I’d graduated and was working in the theater’s shop until I had to report for active military duty, Betty and Pree put together a children’s theater workshop and Betty recruited me to teach a class of third-graders. Besides both these efforts having been fun, the experience taught me some things. First, kids are natural actors and they have almost boundless imaginations. (Years later, working with some fourth-graders on a playwriting project, I learned just how far those imaginations can range.) Even the shiest kid can come alive with a little guidance and support and the right stimulus. Second, children are also natural audiences. Theater people often refer to “the willing suspension of disbelief,” the readiness to be fooled by what you see and hear, and children are born that way. Just as they believe implicitly in what they’re doing when they act out, they believe what they see on TV, in the movies, or on stage. (The challenge with audiences of children is that the performers have to keep them involved because, unlike adults, once the kids’ attention is lost, it’s almost impossible to get it back.)

But I also learned a third lesson from this early experience. Though children are natural audiences, they can’t become audiences unless they’re exposed to live theater. These days, with satellites, cable, and DVD’s, TV and movies go pretty much everywhere. Live theater only goes where people bring it. If it’s not indigenous, someone has to import it. Adults who have never learned to love live theater as children are less likely to appreciate its value later, which is why I campaign for stronger arts-in-education programs for schools. I also support community-based theater programs, especially those that include performances for and by children and young people. Ya gotta get ‘em while they’re young!

Unfortunately, I also learned another lesson later when I continued to work in what is “officially” (that is, by Actors’ Equity) known as Theater for Young Audiences: a lot of children’s theater, including the scripts, is awful. It’s silly and inane, full of frenetic movement and action that is often empty of any real thought or ideas, little more than artistic pabulum. Just because it’s theater for children doesn’t mean it has to be childish. (Childlike is an asset; childish isn’t.) One of the reasons that the PBS report on MCT caught my attention is that its work is thoughtful, well-planned, and still entirely child-oriented. Their whole philosophy, what they call their mission, is to bring theater and the performing experience to communities where there’s no performing arts program for children. “Most of the towns we go to don't even have a full-time music teacher,” observes Caron. The program provides the kids with another way to express themselves and succeed, alongside academics and sports. MCT serves as a stop-gap in communities where budget cuts have eliminated arts programs but sometimes it rekindles interest in the arts which can lead to the reestablishment of arts education in the schools and community centers. They go just about anywhere, focusing on small towns, military bases at home and abroad, and Indian reservations. Intrepid seems like the right word for the MCT teams that carry live theater into these communities. Generous might be another.

According to Caron, the whole thing was an accident. An out-of-work actor, he was on his way from Chicago to Oregon in the summer of 1970, on his way to a friend’s wedding. His van broke down in Montana and the nearest garage was in Missoula. Waiting for his VW bus to be repaired, Caron saw a poster announcing auditions for a local production of Man of La Mancha. “I'd always wanted to play Sancho,” the portly Caron said. “Any good role for a fat guy, I'm there.” So, just for fun, he auditioned. He got the part and developed a friendship with the actor playing Don Quixote, Don Collins. Collins convinced Caron to stick around Missoula, a college and mill town of almost 30,000 residents, and the two formed a troupe of adults to do plays for children in a local movie theater. They knew nothing about children’s theater--“in fact,” admits Caron, “we didn’t know anything about children.” The idea of performances for children, as well as the plays they staged, was enthusiastically received and nearby towns began inviting the company to present performances around Montana and Idaho. Caron and Collins had begun to use children in some of the plays, casting them as Hansel and Gretel, the dwarves in Snow White, and so on. In February 1972, what was now MCT was invited to do Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in Miles City, Montana, a cattle town with just under 10,000 inhabitants some 500 miles from Missoula, but the directors didn’t relish the idea of traveling across the frozen state with children in their care. They decided to cast local kids as the seven dwarves and Caron and Collins went off to Miles City a week before the rest of the troupe and put an ad in the Miles City Star. The two weren’t sure what kind of reception they’d get, but they were astounded when 450 children showed up at the auditions for the seven parts. Snow White sold out the whole week in Miles City and the idea of local participation was wildly successful among the parents, teachers, and the local media. MCT’s basic plan for its future productions was born.

What the company does now is translate a familiar children’s story into a one-hour musical. They’ve used such tales as Pinocchio, The Princess and the Pea, Little Red Riding Hood, as well as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, and most of the well-known fables of Western children’s lit. Caron, who writes most of the scripts, uses the familiar stories because they work best for the sponsoring communities, he says. When a community books a production, MCT sends a two-member team who function as both actors and directors (and theater teachers, casting directors, stage managers, choreographers, voice coaches, family counselors, therapists, new friends, referees, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera). (The team also provides “enrichment workshops” for schools or community groups.) Sometimes, the team has to explain what a play is and what “theater” is. “The whole thing,” says one road director, “we had to start from basics.” Perfection isn’t a priority goal--a good experience is.

The town provides housing for each team member for a week and during that period they cast the show, teach the children about putting on a performance, rehearse the show, and present it for the town. "We're a hit-and-run theater," a member of one MCT road team says. "We audition, rehearse all week and put on a show Saturday.” The team arrives on Sunday in a little red pick-up truck stocked with everything they need, from props to costumes to lights, to put up the show--except, of course, the cast. They hold their auditions on Monday, rehearse Tuesday through Friday, and present two performances of the production on Saturday. On the following Sunday, the team’s off to the next town to repeat the process with a new group of excited children.

The auditioners, ranging in age from 5 to 18 years old, are winnowed from hundreds down to the 50 or 60 who will appear on stage. (Kids interested in tech or directing are also recruited to staff the production crews and assist the road team.) It’s the hardest part of the process for both the team members and the children (and, of course, the parents, too). The Actor/Directors, as they’re called, learn how to say things like, “If you don’t get a role, don’t walk away upset. Walk away proud that you did something that 90 percent of the people in this world would be terrified to do,” and, “If you didn’t get [a] part, it doesn’t mean you’re not good. It just means there wasn’t a part that was exactly right for you. Keep acting”--and mean it. "We know what to look for," says Caron, "a kid who is eager to be involved and not necessarily talented, who has the emotional courage to stand up before an audience." A team member explains, "We are looking for different things, and you never know what you're auditioning for." Everything that happens at the audition session is part of the audition, they emphasize.

Back home in Missoula, where the headquarters is a new facility opened in 1998, the productions are booked, the road teams are coordinated, the costumes and props are built, and the scripts prepared. Each team’s route from Missoula is carefully mapped so that they can make stops along the most efficiently-planned course. (Each road team carries the wherewithal for one of the plays in MCT’s repertoire.) In 2009, MCT, the country’s largest touring children's theater, sent out 47 teams with 15 different productions across the U.S. and into Canada to 1,300 communities which pay from $2,000 to $4,000 for the service. The sponsor keeps all the money from ticket sales, which are invariably sell-outs. (Tickets run up to $15 or so. There is no charge for a child to participate in the production.) MCT also has a local season in its home theater, tours nationally and internationally, conducts performing arts camps and workshops for teachers across the country, and in the fall will open a performing arts high school for teens from all over the U.S.

Collins, who is MCT’s Senior Development Officer, and Caron are well into middle age now, of course, but most of the touring teams are in their early to mid-20s. Driving across the plains, especially in the dead of a northern winter, for weeks on end is surely a young person’s gig. They can go for 10 weeks before they get a day off, covering territory from the Pacific Northwest to New England. Caron estimates that it takes half a year to get good at the job, and most team members return for another gig--some as many as 10 seasons. I don’t know how much the road teams get paid--certainly not much, I wouldn’t think--but you can bet they earn it. And, I also suspect, they love the work. In fact, one team member insists, “It’s not easy but it certainly is rewarding,” and another echoes, “It’s really fun, but it’s a lot of work.” At the end of the performance, the enthusiasm and sheer joy is visible even through the TV screen. (Another lesson I learned working with children’s theater is that the kids’ glee when they succeed is immensely gratifying to see.) “To this day, I don't exactly understand how it works,” says Caron. “But, I mean, Mom and Dad are cheering for them, and so are all the friends, and, you know, the kid that made fun of them on the playground last week, they're all cheering for them.” Some communities have invited MCT back year after year, and children who were too shy or uncertain one year, are in front of the line for leading roles the next. Some participate from when they discover MCT until they age out--and then go on to find other outlets. "Our goal is not to teach acting, but to teach self-esteem," remarks Caron. “You can see the light bulbs going over their heads,” he maintains. “And they relate this experience and the elements of this experience to other things in their lives.”

Of course, I’ve been promoting children’s theater programs for their value to theater and the arts directly--building audiences and inculcating a sense of the value of the arts in our culture. But as Caron observed just now, theater by children has many other important repercussions, too. “You know,” declares the youth director of an Idaho Indian reservation, “when you're a lead role, I mean, how can that not make you feel good?” Concerned with substance abuse among young Indians, the youth director further affirms, “One of our goals in our programs is, when the kids have that self-esteem and they have that confidence, then they're less likely to, you know, choose drugs and alcohol.” The sense of accomplishment alone is a huge benefit, especially for children who have few other outlets. A road team member describes the effect on one young performer: “And I think that that will give her a sense of confidence, and then she'll know, ‘If I can do that, I could bring up my grades, and I could pass a test, and that will be easy compared to this.’" I taught theater to kids in middle school for a couple of years and I can attest to the feeling of having succeeded at something they invested in that the actors and crew got from presenting a performance they worked weeks to prepare. The reward? People applauded them! In my very first assignment at a private school in Brooklyn, I remember one girl in particular who learned something wonderful from the experience. I was supposed to do a one-act play in the spring term, and we were doing The Rude Mechanicals, compiled from the parts of Midsummer Night’s Dream that depict the laborers Bottom, Quince, and all rehearsing and performing Pyramus and Thisbe. The cast was all girls and I cast an enthusiastic eighth-grader named Ariadne as Snug, who did the lion’s part in P&T. She objected because the lion has no lines. I explained to Ariadne that she shouldn’t necessarily count lines as the measure of a role and that I guaranteed her that the lion would be an audience favorite. When my prediction proved right--the spectators just howled at her antics--Ariadne came to me, beaming from ear to ear, and admitted she’d had a lot of fun doing that role. As a teacher I counted that production a great success, not least because of what Ariadne said.

I continue to be interested in TYA, as it’s called nowadays. (I still really prefer “children’s theater,” despite whatever imprecision the term implies. It’s a warmer name.) I did more plays for children when I was in the army (including one we presented on the military TV network), later when I was in grad school, and after I started trying to work as a pro actor. (I did a mute clown, a mime role, in a production of Robin Short’s The Red Shoes which, like Ariadne’s experience, was an immense success with the kids in the audience. I still have the letters and drawings they sent me.) I stage-managed a touring children’s show in and around Middlesex County, New Jersey, and I directed an original version of Aladdin at the historic Provincetown Playhouse (in front of a permanent cyc Eugene O’Neill had helped build!). That last script was written by a friend, Kirk Woodward, who has composed a number of great children’s plays, both musical and straight, and I try to keep up with what he’s doing in that vein because his plays (available at http://spiceplays.com) are decidedly not among the children’s theater trash I complained about earlier. (Kirk also writes adult plays, but I have always told him that I think his children’s scripts are truly special.) My commitment to theater for kids isn’t as active as it once was, but I still applaud efforts that advance the cause. MCT is clearly one of the good guys.

The experience that is the Missoula Children’s Theatre is portrayed in a 2008 documentary, The Little Red Truck, by Robert Whitehair and Pam Voth, released by Tree and Sky Media Arts Ltd. The 98-minute, PG-rated film, narrated by actor J. K. Simmons (Law & Order, The Closer, Juno), depicts a composite one-week session of an MCT team in a small town (and one big one: Hollywood, California, of all places) as they go through the whole process of putting up a play. (An article in the Big Sky Journal of Bozeman, Montana, reports on the making of the documentary; see http://www.bigskyjournal.com/%20articles/big-sky-journal/fall-2008/52/local-knowledge-the-little-red-truck.html.) The film’s available on DVD at Blockbuster, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and the MCT website, among other sources.

21 August 2009

Theatrical Continuity

The 45-year-old Théâtre du Soleil, about which I’ve recently written, will soon lose its founder and guide. Ariane Mnouchkine, who’s 70, is already planning for her retirement. She’s doing this in consultation with the company, which works much like a cooperative and has already chosen Mnouchkine’s deputy, Charles-Henri Bradier, to replace her, but it’s bound to be a wrenching experience for the troupe. Some companies have foundered after the departure of an inaugural director. Others went on but changed measurably under new guidance, and still others have had trouble finding their feet again, but managed to right themselves after some stumbles.

The Piccolo Teatro di Milano, founded by Giorgio Strehler in 1947 as one of the first cultural endeavors of post-WWII Italy, has experienced the very throes of rebirth that the Théâtre du Soleil will be facing. Strehler, one of Europe’s most renowned and respected stage directors, died in 1997 and the Piccolo turned to two men to preserve Strehler’s vision: opera house manager Sergio Escobar and the experimental theater director Luca Ronconi. Through the continuity of artists like Ferruccio Soleri (who restaged Strehler’s Arlecchino four years ago), a member of Piccolo’s company since 1958, the troupe’s been able to keep up the work Strehler began, maintaining the Piccolo as a home to the classics and the works of the great writers of the 20th century like Beckett, Brecht, and Pirandello, becoming known as the “Theater of Art for Everyone.” Unlike the work of Mnouchkine, who imprints her productions with the stamp of her unique insight and understanding, Strehler took a less innovative view of the classic plays they presented, reviving their spirits and relevance without reinterpreting their milieux or texts. The Piccolo’s current production, Trilogia della Villeggiatura, for instance, is staged as an 18th-century comedy even if the energy and dynamic of the cast is as modern as David Mamet. Strehler, and now his successors, put an emphasis on the physical work of actors--Strehler was a specialist in Commedia--and that’s in evidence in Villeggiatura. Mnouchkine re-envisioned the Greek plays that tell the story of the House of Atreus as quasi-Kathakali dramas for Les Atrides and reset Tartuffe in the Middle East. It may be harder for the Théâtre du Soleil’s survivors to perpetuate the artistic vision Mnouchkine will leave behind than it has been for Strehler’s successors to keep his vision going, but I can imagine the wrench such efforts must create in either case. Strehler guided the Piccolo for 50 years; Mnouchkine’s been at the helm of the Théâtre du Soleil for 45 years now. In the theater, that’s several lifetimes of leadership.

Theaters across the country have gone through the hardship of succession and handled it in different way, with different results. ART in Cambridge, Massachusetts, took 18 months to find a successor to artistic director Robert Woodruff (2002-07). (Woodruff, who followed ART founder Robert Brustein, wasn’t rehired when the board decided his artistic leadership jeopardized the theater’s profitability.) L.A.’s Center Theatre Group, the Seattle Rep, and New Haven’s Long Wharf all recently experienced difficult transitions or took a long time to find their new directors, or both. Seattle’s Intiman Theatre followed a different route: the board essentially accepted departing director Bartlett Sher’s hand-picked recommendation after he agreed to stay on as co-director while the untried Kate Whoriskey, who has never run a theater before (she directed the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined Off-Broadway this season), finds her bearings. For each theater, the matter of regime change is unique, and fraught with difficulty and risk.

I think especially of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater here in New York City when Joe Papp retired and then died in 1991. Under JoAnne Akalaitis, there was some lurching, but under George Wolfe (1993-2005) NYSF found its sea legs again, and now under Oskar Eustis, the company’s going strong. Washington’s Arena picked up pretty quickly after Zelda Fichandler left in 1991, though she was nearby as advisor (and occasional production director) and Doug Wager (1991-98), her successor, had been her deputy for many years (and a part of Arena starting as an intern in 1974). Current artistic director Molly Smith has changed the repertoire slightly, but the company remains hearty and artistically robust. New York’s CSC, in contrast, changed entirely when the board ousted founder Chris Martin in 1985 and, as far as I’m concerned, it has never been the striking, innovative experimenter it had been when I first came to New York. (CSC has had six company leaders over the past 24 years, none so far staying at the theater for more than six years.) Of course, there remains the question of whether a company should remain true to the vision of a leader who’s gone or whether it should evolve under its new leadership and if it can’t, whether it should even survive.

In his article “SUCCESSION: Declare War!” (in Directions, the newsletter of the Theater Trustees of America, Fall 1988), Joseph Wesley Zeigler, a consultant in arts planning and marketing, struggles with several dilemmas facing theaters with changing artistic leaderships. First, he wonders, “How must a theater change to allow for new leadership? Can theaters pass from original to new leaders, with other and different (and sometimes contradictory) visions?” Second, he observes that theaters “that are strong institutionally can probably make the transition with ease . . . . Theaters that are weak institutionally, but perhaps very original and very distinctive artistically, may have a much harder time--because the vision of the original leader may be irreplaceable.” Finally, opining that “permanence may not be the ultimate point, and perhaps it should not be the ultimate goal,” Zeigler notes that when one theater fades, new ones “flower.” “Is it possible that endings like these,” he asks, “are the only way to open up the arts--to clear the air, and make room for new talents? In short, is succession (and so continuation) less good than new starts?”

Small theaters face the problem of directorial succession no less than large, institutional ones. It may be less noted and, perhaps, less felt in the community at large, but the wrenching struggle and often resulting disappointment affect these artists and administrators at least as much. The heartache may be worse if it happens because of a change from an original, visionary leadership to one whose ideas are “different” or “contradictory.” Sher, in picking Whoriskey, chose a successor who he said would bring different ideas and renewed vigor to the Intiman (whose success as an institution under Sher’s directorship brought it a regional theater Tony in 2006), not replicate his own leadership. None of us likes to see a dream die, however.

The central question, however, is Zeigler’s last: Which is more important, the vision or the institution that vision spawned? Few theaters are started by administrators, and they are seldom conceived as institutions. Most theaters, from the New York Shakespeare Festival and Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater Center to the smallest “showcase,” “off-Loop” or “waiver” companies all across the country, were founded by artists--playwrights, actors, and directors, usually--to fill some need. The need might have been an artistic one in themselves or a perceived one for the community in which they live. As far back as this century’s second decade, when the so-called little theater movement began, the Washington Square Players assembled to offer theater as art in competition with the commercialism of Broadway. In the late 1950s Joseph Papp began NYSF to bring classic plays to the streets and parks of New York for people who rarely saw live theater. When the Washington Square Players disbanded, the idea of “art theater” continued, expanded, and proliferated across the country. Papp’s concept has been picked up by smaller theater companies in New York and countless others around the nation; had NYSF died when Papp retired, his vision would have survived in the companies his ideas inspired.

Institutionalizing a theater so that it becomes an established entity on which several people depend for jobs and income and the continuation of which has assumed priority over every other consideration has been known to be the downfall of a few theaters. The famed Provincetown Players and the Washington Square Players both ultimately disappeared from the scene because of their own success. Having attracted critical attention, they were forced to match or surpass each successful production in the next season or close down. “Art for art’s sake,” which had been the unofficial motto of the Washington Square Players, was overshadowed by the need to meet the expectations of audiences and critics. They’d become “established” and could no longer be solely true to their original ideals and survive. In the case of the Washington Square Players, the advent of World War I disbursed most of its creative personnel, and it was reborn after the war as the Theatre Guild, essentially a commercial Broadway production company. Even had it not been for the war, however, it’s unlikely the Players could have continued as an art theater once it had become an institution. (Another repercussion of the success of the WSP was that its members, having become well-known, moved on to the commercial stage and, a few years later, the movies.)

This isn’t to argue that success is a poison pill for theaters. Allowing that success to be translated into institutionalization, however, may be the road to disaster. When the theater’s inner vision is clouded by the need to succeed in critical and financial terms, just in order to maintain a coveted position in the community, perhaps a reevaluation of the theater’s priorities is in order. As the new NEA chairman, Rocco Landesman, put it in the New York Times recently, “There are some institutions on the precipice that should go over it.” (Landesman was speaking of a financial precipice, but an artistic one fits just as accurately.) It might also behoove the critics and community leaders to reexamine why they want a theater at all and what they expect of it. Fighting to keep a theater alive just so it can occupy an otherwise useless building may, in the end, not be worth the effort. A man on total life support in the most technologically advanced hospital is surely not really alive. Perhaps it’s just his time to go.

At bottom, we must remember that theater’s an art form. Despite its commercial and institutional aspects and possibilities, it’s the art that’s its essence. When it comes time to replace a theater’s directorship, administrators and trustees need to remember why their particular theater was founded in the first place. Just finding someone who can successfully put asses in seats may be an answer, but it may not be the right answer. If a company cannot continue the artistic vision that was its raison d’être, either because a new leadership can’t follow through on the founders’ concepts or can’t find its own, equally valid ones, perhaps there’s no rationale for continuing the institution that is the shell of that vision. Preserving form with no content is the province of museums, not theaters.

[An earlier version of this essay was published as "Art and the Institution" in Directions (Theater Trustees of America, No. 13 [Winter 1989]: 9-10). It was a response to Zeigler’s column. (I also published an essay on the WSP, mentioned as an example above: "The Washington Square Players: Art for Art's Sake," Theatre History Studies no. 25 (2005): 149-72.]

17 August 2009

Tony Committee to Theater Journalists: “Yer Out!”

It’s been a while since I’ve had something to say (for public consumption, that is) about a current situation. On Wednesday, 15 July, the presenters of the Tony Awards, the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, announced: "After careful consideration, the Tony Awards Management Committee has determined that Tony-voting privileges will no longer be extended to members of the First Night Press List, commencing with the 2009-2010 season.” Thus, reviewers, editors, and columnists who cover theater for the First Night Press will no longer be on the list of Tony Award voters. The Tony Management Committee made notification by e-mail to the journalists on the First Night Press List, about 100 writers who cover theater on opening nights, on Tuesday evening but no concrete reason for the elimination was provided. (Second-nighters were not affected by the decision as they were not Tony voters.) Speculation, based in part on hints and clues in the message, has been circulating among reviewers. As a member of ATCA, the critics’ association, I’ve received some of the communications making the rounds, in particular the official response by the ATCA chairman, Christopher Rawson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to the Tony producers, a copy of which was sent out to the membership.

Now, let me confess first that I don’t really pay much attention to awards. In fact, I reject the whole idea of turning art into a competition, not the least because judging artistic efforts is a wholly subjective endeavor. The entire notion, however, that one artist’s work, whether it’s an actor, a painter, a writer, a dancer, a composer, or any other worker in the fields of art and culture, should be pitted against any other’s offends me. And that’s not even considering that such awards and prizes become marketing tools, even if they didn’t start out that way, used mostly in advertising and promotion. This development renders the awards ripe for the kinds of crass campaigning that are usually reserved for selling products on TV--or, God help us, political candidates. (The Tonys do this less overtly than the Oscars. The Hollywood press is filled with ads promoting this movie or that actor when the Academy Awards are nearing and studios send out all kinds of swag to Oscar electors, a practice the Tony administration prohibits.) But, having admitted that, let me then add that if you’re going to have awards and if those awards will be determined by votes from insiders, presumably people in the know (as opposed, say, to “people’s choice” awards or gold record-type designations which are based on popularity and sales), then theater reviewers seem to be the absolute best judges in the whole class of theater pros.

Journalists have been part of the Tony voting pool since the 1964 awards, the same year members of the League of New York Theatres and Producers also became Tony voters. (The League, the organization representing Broadway producers, tour presenters, and theater-owners, became the League of American Theatres and Producers in 1985 and then the Broadway League in 2008.) The League became co-presenters of the Tony Awards in 1967. Other Tony electors are drawn from the boards of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers, the Theatrical Council of the Casting Society of America, Dramatists Guild, Actors’ Equity, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, and United Scenic Artists. Members of the press, who don’t vote in significant numbers for any of the other major industry awards such as the Grammys, Emmys, or Oscars, were included to broaden the point of view of the pool of Tony electors beyond industry insiders. The loss of an outside eye, critics of the decision observe, turns the award process over to only those representing people whose incomes, or the incomes of their colleagues, depend on the success of some of the productions under consideration. Some observers have voiced concern that the purge will turn the Tonys into an industry-only honor dominated entirely by the producers, tour operators, and others with a financial interest in the nominated shows. As Rawson put it in his letter to the Tony administrators:

Among the artists, craftspeople and producers who comprise most of that electorate, critics are the least biased voters with the broadest, best informed view of the theatrical scene. Their participation enhances the legitimacy of the Tonys, which otherwise would look parochial and self-congratulatory.

Two principal speculations have sprung up among reviewers for reasons that the Tony folks have cut them out of the approximately 800 (now 700) voters. One is that the Tony Management Committee sought to assure that first-nighters “avoid any possible conflicts of interest in fulfilling their primary responsibilities as journalists," noting that “certain publications and individual critics have historically pursued a policy of abstaining from voting on entertainment awards in general.” (The New York Times prohibits its critics and reviewers from voting on any awards, but it’s the only paper that does so.) The other suggested reason is that Broadway producers resent handing out the additional free tix to the reviewers after giving out complimentary seats when the writers come to review the production the first time around. (Tony voters are admonished to see all the shows nominated, so producers are constrained to provide free seats to encourage all voters to catch shows they hadn’t seen already. It is probably true that many voters, including first-nighters, cop tix to shows they already saw, and furthermore, the producers always offer a pair of seats both to the press for reviewing and to the Tony electors, doubling the outlay for freebies. The street value of 800 pairs of Annie Oakleys for a Broadway play is over 200 G’s; considering how marginal profits are in today’s commercial theater, that amounts to a helluva lot of income.)

It’s probably stating the obvious to note that theater journalists all over the area (some suburban papers are on the First Night Press List) and even some voices from around the country are screeching in horror. ("This is the most absurd decision ever made since my 15 years in the theater," said David Richardson according to the New York Post. The WOR radio reviewer then added, "They can take this decision and shove it up their a--!") Some, such as Adam Feldman of Time Out New York, feel that this is just the latest gambit in the attempt by producers to marginalize reviewers whom they see as adversaries and spoilsports. As far back as 1915, the Shuberts (yep, those same guys for whom the biggest Broadway producing and theater-owning firm is named) tried to disenfranchise Alexander Woollcott, who wrote for the New York Times and was, by far, the most prominent reviewer of his day. Theater writers today see the Tony ban as a step along that same path. But let’s examine the putative reasons for eliminating reviewers from the ranks of Tony electors and see what we get.

First, let’s look at the notion that voting on the Tonys could generate a conflict of interest among journalists who cover theater. The Tony administrators didn’t define this conflict, so we have to speculate. There are two perspectives in which to examine this charge. One is that somehow the other voters are less conflicted and therefore eliminating journalists will keep the voting pool pure and unsullied. (I’m tempted to utter an expletive here, but I won’t.) I listed above the organizations from which the other voters are drawn, and all of them are made up of artists or professionals who depend on employment in theater for their livelihoods. Many of the organizations’ members will be working in shows that are nominated and whose continuation on Broadway or on tour will contribute to their financial well-being, not to mention their future employability, having been associated with a Tony Award-winning play. Does anyone actually believe that a producer who is a voter and has a play in contention won’t vote for her own production even if she actually believes another show is artistically better? Or vote against a competitor’s? The road producers blow into town at the end of the season to scope out the big hits. A Tony Award, which has actual value at the box office, is a huge marketing boon for a touring show, so is it hard to conceive that such a producer might vote for one of the shows he’s planning to buy? Faced with the choice of voting for a show which she thinks is artistically superior and financially stable and one which she feels is less good but could use the boost of a Tony win to keep running, might a member of the Equity board not consider casting her vote for the show she can help and thereby secure the further employment of some of her members? Equity suffers 85% unemployment in the best of times--what union councilor wouldn’t help his fellow actors out if he has the chance? The same situation prevails for all the other electors--not that I believe most of them fall into this scenario. But it’s viable, and to look at the circumstances and find that journalists are more liable to the conflict is absurd.

The other perspective is to look at the actual potential for a conflict of interest among journalists. What, in fact, are a journalist’s interests in covering theater productions? Reviewers don’t get paid more if they praise more shows (or, as some cynics may believe, if they pan more). Theoretically, at least, reviewers are driven by a desire to recognize excellence and praise creativity. Now, I know no reviewer is devoid of prejudices and biases, some of them personal, but as a rule, a professional journalist is trying to call it as she sees it. Journalists are generally disinterested and impartial, like jurors are supposed to be. So, if the reviewer doesn’t gain anything from covering productions, what could conflict with his vote for an award? What’s the worse that he could do? He could vote for a show he previously praised. Yeah, well, if he praised it, he probably thought it was good. How is it dishonest for him now to determine that it was the best he saw? Since voters are supposed to make a point of seeing all the nominated plays, let’s say our imaginary reviewer goes to Times Square and sees a couple of shows she missed because someone else got the assignment when they opened. ‘Wow,’ she thinks, ‘this performance beats the hell out of anything I saw all year!’ And what does she do now? She casts her vote for a play she didn’t even write about during the season. Man, that sure is a conflict! Oh, wait. No it isn’t! Okay, so maybe our fictive reviewer sees a few new shows and decides one of them is the best he saw all year . . . but then votes for one he had praised earlier just so he can validate his own opinion. Now that would be dishonest--but I’m still not sure it qualifies as a conflict of interests. Furthermore, I have a hard time believing many journalists would do that. What would it get them? Bragging rights maybe, if the play wins--but really only if they cast the deciding votes. That’s pretty slim winnings for what’s being charged here.

You could look at this same situation from the other end, too, of course. Knowing that she’s going to vote for the Tony Awards at the end of the season, Ms. Reviewer decides to promote a play she’s seen and liked well enough. So she writes the play a great review and then uses her by-line to keep mentioning the play in laudatory terms every chance she gets thereafter. I don’t know why she’d do this; it doesn’t get her much. Maybe she just wants to prove her strength. Again, I can’t really imagine any reviewer doing this, and I certainly can’t see anyone being successful at it. The New York Times has arguably the loudest critical voice on Broadway, but it’s out of the running because its reviewers can’t vote for the Tonys by Times policy. What other reviewer from what other New York paper could pull this off? I don’t think there’s anyone. (Even if the New York Times were in the mix, I don’t believe one of its reviewers could manage anything like this. I remember back in ’98 when Footloose opened on Broadway, Ben Brantley panned the show and ever thereafter, at every opportunity he had in subsequent columns, Brantley ran the play down in the most derogatory terms he could get away with. He seemed obsessed with this play and the low opinion he had of it. Nevertheless, despite Brantley’s efforts, Footloose ran for a year-and-a-half and 709 performances. It was nominated for four Tonys and didn’t win any of them, so maybe Brantley could take some pride in that dubious accomplishment.)

So, as I look at it (and many reviewers share this analysis, as you might guess), reviewers have nothing resembling a profession-wide conflict of interest and are certainly the least susceptible to such a clash of all the participants in the Tony decisions. As for the quasi-legitimate concerns the producers have in giving away thousands of ducats, there are ways to address the issue without disenfranchising what may be the best voting bloc in the award process. It’s only quasi-legit because, of course, all the other voting groups also get freebies and they account for 88% of the original roster of electors. Besides, of the 100 names purged from the Tony list, nearly all will still be receiving comps when they come to review the plays anyway, so the producers aren’t really saving much of the cost of free tix. Granted, the journalists may be the main group that might double-dip, but that can be addressed, too, less drastically. Simply forbid taking a second pair of complementary tix to a show any Tony elector has already seen. There are other reasonable measures, too, of course, such as restricting the Tony ducats to the voters themselves.

Another suggestion that’s being floated is to pare the list of voters who are members of the press to actual reviewers and purge the 70 or so who are editors and columnists, who seldom actually see productions as part of their work. The New York Drama Critics Circle maintains a pretty tight list of New York City reviewers, numbering about 20 members. Even adding in those on the First Night Press List, which is maintained by a committee of New York press agents not the League or ATW, who represent out-of-town papers, it still doesn’t add up to many more than a couple of dozen writers. ATCA chairman Rawson suggests that the Tony Committee just start with the NYDCC list and then add whomever they deem appropriate. (This might antagonize the columnists and editors who get cut, but then, ATCA represents reviewers, doesn’t it.)

Another, less salient reason that producers might want to remove reviewers from the Tony electorate is the hope that without their influence, awards won’t as often go to the quirky little show that catches reviewers’ attention and instead go to the big commercial hit the producers favor. Some believe, and I don’t know if there’s really any evidence for this assertion, that Tony winners like Rent (Tony 1996), Avenue Q (2004), Spring Awakening (2007), and In the Heights (2008) wouldn’t have gotten the honor if reviewers hadn’t championed them. Their competition for Best Musical those years might have been more favored by traditional Tony voters. Back Stage, the theater trade paper that bills itself as “The Actor’s Resource,” advising that “actors should care about this change,” warned:

That means producers will take fewer chances on such shows, and actors will have fewer opportunities to perform challenging musical roles on Broadway. We could end up with nothing but musicals based on popular movies, jukebox tuners, and kiddie shows. Not that there's anything wrong with such productions, but a steady diet of them would lead to artistically starved audiences and performers.

Not only reviewers and other journalists, whose ox it is that’s been gored, after all, are raising objections. The New York Times quotes several other Tony-interested theater pros who disagree with the League and ATW’s decision. “Losing 100 voters who are basically unbiased threatens to increase the influence of the biased producers,” said Jeffrey Seller, himself a Tony-winning producer. “The fact is, the press is potentially an unencumbered pool of voters, and I’m not sure we really want to leave the Tonys in the hands of encumbered producers.” Seller, a Tony voter, produced Best Musical winners In the Heights, Avenue Q, and Rent. Richard Kornberg, a Broadway press agent who worked on Rent, opined, “I just don’t understand why they have changed the rules. It makes the Tony more like a marketing tool and less like an award for excellence.”

ATCA members still vote to recommend the regional theater Tony and on membership in the Theatre Hall of Fame. In addition, the association gives its own awards which honor plays and playwrights. There are also local awards across the country in which the press are important participants such as the Joseph Jefferson Awards in Chicago, the Barrymore Awards in Philadelphia, the Helen Hayes Awards in Washington, and the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Awards. Here in New York City, the Drama Desk Awards and the Outer Critics Circle Awards are held in high esteem by theater people and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award is considered a sort of preview of the Tonys. In fact, some reviewers declare that in revenge for the Tony slight, they ought to build up the public profile of the NYDCC Award, expand its scope, make it a TV event, and thumb their noses at the Tony presenters. Michael Riedel of the New York Post puts it rather pungently: The theater press “still has platforms, it still has power. It can put its boot on Broadway's neck and break it.” I think he was joking. But only slightly.

In addition to enhancing the NYDCC Award, there are other actions Broadway reviewers can take to . . . ummm, compensate themselves for their elimination as Tony voters. Riedel has these suggestions:

Ignore the whole idea of a first night press performance.
Shows preview for weeks and weeks but still charge full price. Why should critics be told which performances they can attend? Give a show two weeks (if it's not ready by then, it never will be), buy a ticket, file your review and listen to the producers squeal.

Ignore the crass commercial shows.
There's no reason why thoughtful critics should bother with kiddie twaddle like "Shrek" or "Legally Blonde." Leave those things to correspondents from Highlights magazine and Buzznet.

Ignore the Broadway League and the American Theater Wing, the two useless organizations that control the Tonys.
The League specializes in "marketing" meetings, while the Wing's main activities appear to be pimping itself out to Visa (its biggest sponsor) and producing "The American Theater Wing Seminar," the most unwatchable television program in the history of telecommunications.

But both organizations always send out press releases asking for "coverage" of this or that "initiative" or "event."

The next time you get one, quote the great Times theater columnist Alex Witchel and bark: "Take out an ad!"

The Tony Awards are a private endeavor so the League and the American Theatre Wing can run them any way they want. If they don’t want journalists to participate, that’s their look-out. The public and the industry will make whatever judgment of the results that they want, as well. The reviewers and ATCA have no legal recourse; they can only use moral suasion to change the Tony administrators’ minds, which is what’s happening now. If they don’t succeed, then the first-nighters are out and that’s an end to it.

Marginalizing the reviewers, some feel, will strengthen the hand of the producers. Their interest lies in promoting the commercial hit, the big musical or the popular comedy, over the artistic success which may garner good press notices but draws smaller audiences. Adam Feldman observes: “Critics, and indeed criticism, are inconvenient to the modern theater marketer: Old-fashioned in our insistence on quality, unreliable in our support for expensive projects and less necessary in light of the diffusion of information in the Internet Age.” Looking into his crystal ball, Feldman concludes: “We can expect to see more such gestures of exclusion in the future, each chipping away, as intended, at the status of critics within the theater world.” Beyond New York City, there are cities where the theater reviewer has completely disappeared from the local newspapers altogether. Is that where we’re headed in this, the theater capital of the United States (and one of the most important cultural centers in the world)?

13 August 2009

Degrading the Arts

On Friday, 7 August, Rocco Landesman was confirmed as the new chairman of the NEA, following Dana Gioia (2003-09), a poet. Landesman is a successful and experienced Broadway producer and theater owner (he ran Jujamcyn Theaters, the third largest theater landlord in New York, after the Shuberts and the Nederlander Organization); that makes him a practical man of theater and the arts. At the same time, President Barack Obama, who appointed Landesman, has requested an increase in NEA funding and The House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee of the new Congress has approved $170 million, a raise of $15 million over the last NEA budget. On the surface, it looks like the arts have been returned to a place of prominence and respect in our society after years of animosity and disdain under Presidents Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II. Some arts professionals feel the corner has been turned: “I hope that time is over, the period when artist have been held as suspicious by the politicians,” says Michael Conforti, the president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. But all is not as well as these indicators suggest. First, the Culture Wars perpetrated by the hard right may be in abeyance, but there is still fight in that old dog. Second, the current economic crisis is taking a toll among arts programs and artists, as it is among other parts of our society. Between the two forces, as former NEA chairman Gioia observed, we have “dismantled the arts-education programs that used to be part of every public school.” The delicate balance in which the arts exist in the United States makes them more vulnerable than other aspects of society--unless those of us who care about the arts keep a watchful eye and stand strong.

On 3 and 4 February 1993, the New York Times ran a pair of articles reporting the decline of arts education in American schools. Now 16 years later, we are once again in a similar stage with respect to drama, dance, music, and art in the schools due to the economic downturn that began last year. In “As Schools Trim Budgets, The Arts Lose Their Place” and “Creativity vs. Academic Study: How Should Schools Teach Arts?” Susan Chira described the loss a decade-and-a-half ago and pointed out what some educators feel will be the consequences. Most stressed how the arts help encourage the students’ creativity and imagination and develop their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. And now, in “Arts Programs in Academia Are Forced to Nip Here, Adjust There,” also in the Times (10 August 2009), Patricia Cohen described the straights in which college and university arts programs find themselves, presaging the same consequences for an even wider spectrum of Americans. Students at all academic levels, from elementary to grad schools, will find their programs, teachers, and classes disappearing as budgets shrink and endowments and subsidies dry up. Cohen’s litany of departments and programs in jeopardy is already disheartening, and the process has only just started.

Chairman Landesman sees the arts as an engine for economic recovery and development: “When you bring artists into a town, it changes the character, attracts economic development, makes it more attractive to live in and renews the economics of that town.” He plans to campaign for increased arts funding on that basis. There is, however, another consequence to good arts education that’s hardly mentioned, one that is particularly important to contemplate when the arts are under attack from many quarters in our society. In a 3 February companion article to the two 1993 reports, “Arts Groups Step In to Fill the Gaps,” Glenn Collins pointed out that “early consistent exposure to the arts builds future audiences.” It also builds a citizenry that values our artistic and cultural heritage instead of being hostile to it. A citizen who has taken an art, theater, dance, or music course and who is thereafter encouraged to experience and enjoy this part of life is less likely to enlist in the forces that oppose free artistic expression.

We are fortunate now that the new administration not only isn’t antipathetic to art and culture but genuinely appreciates that part of our society and promotes it by example. When forces antithetical to the very principle on which our culture rests--the freedom to express ourselves openly--mobilize, institutions of learning must take strong, public stands to preserve the support of this vital element in society. There must be a philosophical commitment to spread the knowledge of America’s artistic life to all who call themselves educated; to reinforce the notion that the arts are for everyone, not just a peculiar elite; to assure that the arts are accessible for everyone’s enjoyment and enlightenment; to argue that our culture is as important a part of the democratic way of life as are the press and the law; and, finally, to teach everyone that we must support and encourage artistic diversity as avidly as we do the intellectual and political. The only way to counter those who would homogenize, standardize, and emasculate our country’s arts is to educate every citizen to respect, honor, and cherish this part of our society. We must constantly insist that this role of the artist be recognized for the importance it holds for society at large.

We in arts education must continue to remind ourselves, our colleagues, and our students of the real value of the arts to the vitality and honesty of society. Artists, as Hamlet notes, “hold the mirror up to nature” even when the reflection shows us as King Lear saw us: a “poor, bare forked animal.” Artists are the whistle-blowers of society. There are laws to protect whistle-blowers in industry and government; must we not also protect, indeed, encourage the cultural whistle-blowers?

Arts education reinforces the notion that artists see the future long before any scientist or engineer can invent it. Da Vinci saw flying machines half a millennium before the bothers Wright made history at Kitty Hawk; Cyrano de Bergerac envisioned men on the moon three centuries before any Apollo spacecraft was launched; Jules Verne put Captain Nemo in a submarine decades before a real one was built. For good or ill, as another Shakespearean character, Duke Theseus, noted:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

“Things unknown” are often also “things uncomprehended.” “Things uncomprehended” are often “things unwelcome.” It is the artist who is usually at the forefront of efforts to acquaint us with and explain these “things,” often whether we want to hear about them or not.

In “The Indispensable Opposition,” Walter Lippmann asserts:

It is all very well to say with Voltaire, “I wholly disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” but as a matter of fact most men will not defend to the death the rights of other men: if they disapprove sufficiently what other men say, they will somehow suppress those men if they can.

All around us, we see this suppression--these days often called “political correctness”--by both the right and the left. In a recent administration, according to a book by former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, John E. Frohnmayer, the first President Bush tried “to cripple the N.E.A.”; later, even President Clinton wanted to reinstitute the decency clause for N.E.A. awardees. Now it is budgetary concerns and the economy that are looming over our cultural diversity, even as the current administration seems to encourage multiple voices and creative impulses. (Elsewhere, forces of repression, usually in the form of religious zealots, suppress or attempt to suppress voices of which they disapprove.) Lippmann makes the point that we need to hear the opposing, unsettling voices on the basis that “because freedom of discussion improves our opinions, the liberties of other men are our own vital necessity.” He likens the situation to a visit to a doctor whom we pay “to ask us the most embarrassing questions and to prescribe the most disagreeable diet.” While we are free to seek additional opinions, we must listen to them all to determine the truth. As Lippmann observes, “any . . . sensible human being . . . learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters.” We arts educators must constantly remind the world that the artist is the loyal opposition, duty-bound to speak for--and to--the people.

The importance of this function is easy to demonstrate. We have only to look at the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe where writers like Vaclav Havel, later president of a free Czech Republic, and Janusz Glowacki of Poland constantly reminded the rest of the world what life was like there and evoked images of what it ought to be. Challengers in the Communist world were not alone, either, as witness Athol Fugard’s and Mbongeni Ngema’s pointed opposition to apartheid in South Africa. Today we hear of outspoken voices among Muslims, Hindus, and other cultural groups which suffer under authoritarianism and suppression in many parts of the world. Apart from the few political dissenters, whose voices were often silenced, only artists kept the world apprised of the conditions.

I was reminded of this all-important service artists provide when I attended a performance of Eimuntas Nekrosius’s The Square by the State Theater of Lithuania, presented in 1991 as part of The New York International Festival of the Arts. Briefly, the play tells of a prisoner for whom “everything is against the rules.” When he is finally released, he has been so conditioned to do only what he is told that he fails to start breathing again after an X-ray because the doctor did not instruct him to. He dies, literally, because he does not know how to be free. Freedom, Nekrosius is saying, cannot merely be legislated or declared, it must also be learned and prepared for; it also has its dangers. The reality of this lesson, dramatically and clearly demonstrated onstage, is becoming evident all over the region, particularly at this moment in the emerging democracy of Russia. Doubtless this is a message many people would rather not hear. Democracy and freedom are supposed to be the answer to all problems: once free, everyone’s life is supposed to be wonderful. It takes an artist, however, to point out the truth, unpalatable though it be, and to do so in an accessible way that may not be possible for the journalist or political essayist.

A society that ignores its people’s voice, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asserted in a 1991 interview with David Frost, cannot “work because it denie[s] the human spirit.” Jack O’Brien, then-artistic director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, in the March 1991 American Theatre, bemoaned the dissolution of “the link between civilization and the arts.” He reported: “With suspicion that the arts are too expensive or esoteric for them to understand or enjoy, many people have removed all consideration of art and culture from the ‘here and now.’“ These folks, O’Brien observed, have abandoned support for the arts to “the decadent rich, the only ones, in their estimation, able to enjoy them anyway.” It is this link we must reforge through arts education. It is a fight we dare not lose.

Unless all Americans are educated to esteem art and artists as indispensable contributors to the future--everyone’s future--campaigns to silence them, censor them, and abandon our support for them will succeed. Unless we all recognize the arts as a necessity, not a luxury, when we are confronted with the choice between more art and more guns, we will always choose the guns. The training camps for this battle are our schools. It is not enough simply to offer arts courses to those of us who have a personal and abiding interest in our cultural heritage and have elected to make our lives in the arts. We must redouble our efforts to include and maintain the arts as a strategic part of the curricula of all liberal-arts and general-education programs, to assure that those who make careers in the sciences, humanities, and business also appreciate the importance, as well as the pleasures, of culture and art.

In the face of academic budget cuts; federal, state, and local arts council drawbacks; and political efforts--from both sides of the spectrum--to suppress dissenting voices, those of us in arts education must fight publicly to maintain and increase programs in elementary and high schools, colleges and universities that introduce all students to our cultural heritage. If we lose this struggle, we shall surely see the prescience of William Blake’s 1808 admonition: “Degrade first the arts if you’d mankind degrade.”

[An earlier version of this essay was published as "Open Forum: Arts Education: 'Without Fear or Favor'" (ATHENews 6.1 [February 1992]: 3).]

09 August 2009


I’ve just posted three reports on European repertory troupes who presented productions at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival: the Théâtre du Soleil and the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, both of which I’ve seen before, and the Katona József Theatre of Hungary, which was new to me. In all the reports, on the Katona’s Ivanov, the Théâtre du Soleil’s Les Éphémères, and the Piccolo’s Trilogia della Villeggiatura, I remarked on the ensemble acting that was a hallmark of the productions. I’ve seen the Théâtre du Soleil twice before, the Piccolo once, and a number of other national theaters and established troupes from Europe and other regions. (These include a week at the Shaw Fetival in Ontario, Canada, and a three-week residency of the Grand Kabuki in Honolulu which incorporated demonstrations, seminars, and workshops by the company artists.) I am consistently impressed with the acting--and, obviously, directing as well--of companies like these. Every time I see the various national and other state-supported troupes that exist from London and Stratford across Europe to Moscow and St. Petersburg and all over Asia, they never fail to generate this kind of ensemble performance in which the company collaborates on a coherent and seamless little universe for the play. From Chekhov to Ibsen, from Strindberg to Shaw, from Shakespeare to Molière, and Goldoni to Pirandello to contemporary writers, as well as the works of the Kabuki and Beijing opera repertoires, the plays are almost always thoroughly encompassed in the environments presented by the troupes. I can attest to the immense advantage that actors gain when performing with others they know well and have worked with, sometimes even trained with, for many years. Individually, however, the casts are just as accomplished as any in the star-oriented West End or Broadway theater. Sometimes the ensembles themselves include stars--the Kabuki world is founded on a star system much older than the Hollywood rosters of the West--but often they don’t. Even when there are stars, the ensembles shine. (It’s not uncommon, even when the companies include nationally or internationally known actors, such as Italian movie star Toni Servillo in the Piccolo’s recent production here, they perform featured roles and tune their performances to the timbre of the ensemble.)

Now, I’m not saying I always like the interpretations--these companies and their directors can come up with some bad ideas. I still recall a modern reinterpretation of Ibsen’s Doll House by a Berlin troupe that was . . . well, I’ll be kind and just say it didn’t make much sense to me. But the stagework that I’ve seen has always left me impressed and wondering why we missed out on that here. Maybe it’s the star system that the U.S. developed as far back as the 18th century; maybe it’s the Hollywood influence. It may even have to do with the state subsidies the European companies receive that our cultural institutions don’t get. Sometimes the directors are great visionaries like Ariane Mnouchkine or Peter Brook or Giorgio Strehler or Ingmar Bergman, often they’re not--just master directors in the same vein as the master actors that make up the casts. We get to see some of the world-class companies here at events like the Lincoln Center Festival or the Next Wave Festival at BAM, and we’re privileged to see them. But there are small, almost unknown troupes as well. When I lived in Koblenz, a small city in central Germany with no great claim to cultural prominence, I was mightily impressed with the Stadttheater, the city theater company, and even the small Stadtoper, though I’m not an opera fan. (The town also supported a municipal orchestra. In both the opera company and the orchestra, foreign artists, including Americans, apprenticed because these small companies in Germany--many towns and cities had them--afforded them the only opportunities to get started in their professions. Companies back home would only hire the musicians and singers after they became established.) Later, when I tried to make a career as an actor, that’s what I wanted to be part of. But, with rare exceptions, we don’t have it here.

I don’t mean that we don’t have good companies. Of course we do, and certainly we have excellent actors and directors. Companies like Steppenwolf, Mabou Mines, and Wooster Group even generate true ensembles. Even commercial productions, like the last cast of Broadway’s August: Osage County which I saw after some of the original Steppenwolf actors had been replaced by outside actors, can develop ensemble work. So it’s not that we can’t do it here--we have the talent and capability--it's just that we don’t very often or very easily. The consistency is missing, and the cohesiveness that produces, time after time, show after show, a transporting experience that just envelops you in an artificial universe. I don’t know what the answer is, the formula if there is one. I only know that we’re the poorer for the lack. Maybe it’s just Europhilic snobbery . . . but I don’t think so.

I say I don’t know what the answer is, the reason we don’t make theatrical ensembles in the United States, but I can speculate. Part of the explanation, perhaps even a big part, is the American character, the nature of the society we created as far back as the colonial era. There’s probably nothing we can do about this aspect of the problem--except fight against it. As analysts from de Tocqueville on have noted, Americans put immense store in the preeminence of the individual in society. We have bred a nation of individualists; our folk heroes are the cowboys, explorers, fighters, and entrepreneurs who have gone up against the prevailing forces, whether natural or societal, and beat them. To get ahead in this country, even just to thrive, a person must rely on his or her own ingenuity and stick-to-itiveness. We distrust the commune, the cooperative, even the labor union. It’s the individual we admire, the guy who rises to the top on her or his own. Davy Crockett. Charles Lindbergh. Oprah Winfrey. We reward the Most Valuable Player, not the utility player. In this atmosphere, is it really a wonder that the star system grew to dominate our artistic culture as well?

Of course, historical circumstances helped foster this situation. In the earliest days of the European colonization of North America, when the innate artistic culture was just coalescing, the only alternative to the local amateur group, whether musicians or players, was the touring star. Taking a whole ensemble on tour in the colonies was prohibitively expensive and logistically precarious. So individuals or small groups of established actors, usually from England (at least until the middle of the 19th century when America had its own home-grown, or at least resident, star actors), traveled the New World while the rest of the cast was assembled locally. The companies rehearsed without the star, who, like opera leads today, already knew his or her role. Staging was simple, mostly making arcs across the stage with the star in the center, and any special requirements were communicated beforehand and prepared for the star’s insertion into the play. The appearances went on for no more than a night or two, then the star moved on to the next theater and the process was repeated. This kind of touring-star production was common for more than half a century; in the later 19th century, American companies out of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore (home of the acting Booths), Boston, and other cultural centers began to establish circuits for touring, but they were still formed around stars. (Touring companies were one of the few groups in society who could cross the military lines during the Civil War and not a few actors worked as spies for one side or the other, carrying messages, commodities, and intelligence back and forth. John Wilkes Booth was known to have smuggled quinine into the Confederacy to treat the soldiers.)

This system lasted well into the 20th century and firmly established the star system in the United States (as well as the syndicates which controlled the tour theaters and circuits). Combined with the cultural proclivity of Americans to revere the individual who rises to the top by whatever means--we’ve made folk heroes out of not a few crooks, robber barons, and villains right down to the present day--has helped make American theater something of a slave to the star system. Hollywood took it up, too, of course, so the dominance of star actors has been reproduced in both film and television. Though European and Asian theater have their stars, too, the dominance has never taken hold as forcefully elsewhere as it did here. The master actor, talented and skilled but who has nevertheless not become famous, has always been able to gain the respect of European audiences, producers, and directors and maintain employment on the European stage, screen, and television.

Along with the emphasis on individualism in the United States, our society has also put a premium on enterprises that support themselves and make a profit. The greater the profit, the greater the esteem the enterprise gets. (We talk a lot, especially during political campaigns, of the small businessman, but it’s the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and T. Boone Pickens who get all the attention. We may like George Bailey, but we admire Charles Foster Kane.) In art, we may understand that endeavors can’t always make a profit or pay their own way, but we nevertheless begrudge the support they need from the public coffers. Half the fight in the ‘90s over NEA funding was about whether the government ought to be in the business of supporting the arts at all. Americans, by our culture’s standards, must make it or fail on their own efforts. A Broadway play that succeeds is admirable because that’s the equivalent of making a product for the public marketplace where it sells to the audience and prospers or doesn’t and fails. (Most people outside the professional theater don’t realize that a play can be successful on Broadway and run for a year or more and still lose money. It is, however, the perception that prevails here, not the reality.) Hollywood is a business. Broadway is a business. Americans understand that. The non-profit theater company (or opera company or orchestra--the model’s the same) that needs public and corporate support to survive and produce, that’s a charity, and charities are suspect in our culture. No ensemble company, no theater with a standing company, which is the only way to create an ensemble, can exist without outside support; Shakespeare and Molière had their monarchs to subsidize them; their modern descendants, including the Kabuki theaters in Japan, have governments that back them. Even in the old Soviet Union, the great ballet and theater companies were prized. But it’s not our nature to put money into undertakings that don’t return a profit.

This, of course, plays into another aspect of our society that militates against subsidized ensembles. Theatrical success in this country is all but defined by the hit-or-flop dichotomy. We judge artistic viability by the easiest criterion, the one we can see readily: Is it popular? Is it a hit? A theater endeavor that is successful produces hits. That, of course, is a marketplace evaluation, not an artistic one, but that’s how we divide good and bad even in art. Now, while it’s possible to produce a hit from a true ensemble company--the surprise successes from repertory companies that end up moving to New York to a commercial theater on or off Broadway are examples of that--for the most part, the work of rep companies isn’t geared to creating hit plays. But if the theaters decide that’s the way to survive and prosper and go after the hit, it’s going to change the way they work, and it will inevitably lead away from the maintaining of an ensemble because hits almost require stars. If not a star actor, then a star director or a star writer. Stars don’t hang around and grow with a company: they go off after the production closes or their contract is up and find another gig. Even stars who grew out of an ensemble don’t stick around: look what happened to the big names that came out of Steppenwolf, Wooster Group, or Arena Stage back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. (The fact that most of those actors became stars because of a production that became a commercial hit only reinforces my assertion.) It appears to be axiomatic, then: If you esteem and pursue the hit production, you can’t maintain an ensemble company.

The confluence of the hit impulse and the drive of theaters to support themselves are linked, of course. A hit play can feed the theater’s coffers for years, sometimes into perpetuity. The New York Shakespeare Festival has been dining out on the revenues from A Chorus Line for over 30 years. The problem has been, I think, that the theater has been driven to find another Chorus Line ever since the original one. The same is true of other companies around the country--they've either had a taste of the “big hit” and, like the crocodile in Peter Pan after it tasted Hook’s hand, keep following the scent of another like it, or they see the financial boon a hit generates at another company and actively go after one to subsidize their other work. But that throws the company’s judgment off. Instead of looking for scripts that suit its troupe, stretch their talents, speak to their audience, they start looking at scripts for the potential box office boost it’ll have, the commercial potential, the marketing benefits. If you’re bound and determined to make a hit, then you have to sell it to the potential spectators in your community. Sooner or later, that means . . . stars. Names. Bid farewell to the ensemble.

Money is at the root of the ensemble dilemma in multiple ways, of course. It takes time and a quantum of permanence to breed an ensemble. Occasionally luck can bring together an ad hoc cast that melds over a short rehearsal period into cohesive group. The director or some of the actors can generate the atmosphere that catalyzes this. But in most cases, only time can produce ensembles in the theater, years of actors and other artists working together, learning each other’s idiosyncrasies, talents, strengths, and needs and how to accommodate them. Learning to share, give and take, work intuitively. Symbiosis. The Théâtre du Soleil practically lives together like a commune. Keeping a company together like that requires money. Not just salaries, preferably for 12 months, but support funds for the theater and the materials needed to do the work. As I’ve already observed, no theater company can sustain itself on its ticket sales. The economics just aren’t there. Sure, it’d be nice if all the actors could get lucrative TV and film work to subsidize their stage work, but that doesn’t happen except here and there. (One of the benefits of the European system is that the actors work in all three media without distinction. There are few “film” actors or “stage” actors there.) So, the money has to come from sponsors, either public or corporate or individual. But that brings us back to the issue of giving money to the arts and not expecting a return on the investment. It’s just not in our DNA.

Time and money, and the hit-flop dichotomy, come into play in another respect, too. The companies have to stay together and work together for years to achieve the kind of relationships that become ensemble-ness. But each production needs time to gestate, too. American theater is geared toward the four-week rehearsal period. Actors’ Equity puts limits on the time actors can rehearse and then it requires higher pay for extended development time. Because of this incentive to get the show up, long development periods are rare in the U.S. Furthermore, a play that’s in rehearsal isn’t making any money. It’s taking up space--stage space for rehearsals, storage space for the sets, props, and costumes--and not paying anything back. Techies and staffers are occupied with tasks to benefit a show that’s not bringing in any audiences. Patience also isn’t in our genes. The show must not only go on, but it must go up. Long rehearsals, the way to an ensemble production, must be subsidized, too. That’s just not efficient--and it’s not American.

Part of the problem of our lack of ensemble theaters is the fault of the artists, however. American artists are individualists, too, just like those entrepreneurs and cowboys. They strive to get on, move up, advance their careers. Being part of an ensemble is like being tied down: you can’t move on up! That mansion in the Hollywood Hills is out of the question. That duplex on the Upper East Side is not gonna happen. Now, not every American actor has that vision dancing in her or his head, but that’s what we’re taught to want. The Oscars and the Tonys. The Red Carpet. The Limo with the Chauffeur. The Star on Hollywood Boulevard. The Profile by 60 Minutes or People magazine. Ensembles don’t get you those. Now, that’s un-American!

It’s not as if we’re doing poorly as we are. We have many marvelous performances in terrific plays and productions all across the country. Some years ago, while I was doing some research that took me all over the U.S. to many of our premier theater towns like Seattle, Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Houston, I made a point of seeing what was playing at some of the theaters while I was in town. I would be in each city for several days, so I made an effort to check out the big, mainstream house, the smaller, Off-Broadway-type troupes, and, if there was one, the experimental-theater scene. I saw a lot of really good shows and not a few truly striking ones. Now, since those days, the U.S. has gone through some devastating economic downturns and a couple of equally dispiriting cultural battles that have decimated the ranks of the small theaters (and a few of the big ones), so the scene today is a little leaner than it was 20 years ago, but the spirit seems to be intact and the talent and the will to use it is still there in spades. A few of the troupes I saw back then were even working in an ensemble manner, especially the experimental companies. But that was rare, and I suspect it’s even rarer now. It’s hard to accomplish in our society; economic considerations and the American character, as I’ve hinted, conspire against its success. So why worry about it? Why even try? Well, no reason, I guess, as long as everyone’s happy with the status quo. But like the old song, once you’ve seen Paree, it’s hard to stay down on the farm. Those astonishing performances that come out of the ensembles, the startling virtual reality they can create and draw you into, are addictive. Once you’ve had a taste, you want more of that. I’d like to think that both strains of performance can exist at the same time, and I believe they can--but I’m not sure and maybe they can’t. Maybe one would dominate and starve the other out. I suspect that’s not so, since at least in England, both kinds of performances coexist: the West End does much the same kind of work we see here in our commercial theaters, yet companies like the Donmar Warehouse or Théâtre de Complicité (yes, it’s British) continue to produce fine work right within its shadow. Artists seem to manage to move back and forth between the two demi-worlds. We can only hope.

At least, I can.