Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Notes on Leonard Lopate's WNYC Discussion on Regional Theater

On WNYC Leonard Lopate discusses regional theater today--you can listen to it here, and this is the extract about the conversation from the WNYC website:

"We look into the role of regional theater in America today, and its contribution to the development of new American plays and playwrights. Director Bartlett Sher is Artistic Director at the The Intiman Theatre Company in Seattle; Kent Thompson is Artistic Director of the Denver Center Theatre Company; and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel is a professor at Yale School of Drama."

At the opener, Lopate read some boilerplate about why regional theater matters:

"Most people, and certainly most New Yorkers think of our city as being the theatrical center of the universe. But in 2007 it was estimated that not for profit theaters across America presented the work of 61,000 professional artists to 31 million audience members."

It's disappointing that out of 61,000 professional artists in the regional theater (a number I would love to see the homework for) we couldn't speak to a single working actor...or, if the emphasis has to be expressly on new work, one wishes we could have had ONE "EMERGING" PLAYWRIGHT who is not Paula Vogel to talk about what the system is like from their perspective.

There's also, as usual, no one from the money side speaking--so at one point, for example, all the panelists lament that new plays don't get five to seven productions across the country, but there's no reckoning or connection between this kind of massive undertaking and the fact that the existing infrastructure is unable to support itself even now.

Granted, that's not the emphasis of this conversation...but it should have been.

Bart Sher talks about his relationship with Craig Lucas--apparently Bart believes that he is discharging any duty that Intiman might have to playwright development by supporting the NYC-based-and-produced Lucas, for over ten productions, over the years. The collaboration is laudable if it creates great work, but counting this as "regional" theater development is quite a stretch.

Sher also talks about the fact of the "one-slot-a-year-new-play-rule", where an institution only does one new play a year--any more is always "too risky". This is presented as laudable, though if you connect the dots it is clear that that slot will be always taken by Craig Lucas, at least at Intiman, and it gives a window into how little new play development there can actually be--all 61,000 of those theoretical artists aren't working at places that do boatloads of new work.

No mention is made of regional playwrights of any kind--the only emerging playwright mentioned is Jason Grote, due to his skill and the connection to Denver Theater Center with 1001. Grote is an excellent playwright, and I really enjoyed 1001, but he lives in NYC.

DTC does develop a lot of new work, which makes their presence on this show clear, but it does unfortunately make all of American regional theater sound like it does a hell of a lot more new play development than it actually does, because DTC is an outlier, not the rule.

We also learn that Denver Theater Center takes 5% of playwrights royalties. This is excused because everyone else does it, and a lot of people do it with much higher percentages. The issue of DTC being a nonprofit is not raised by anyone, nor is the fact that some prominent nonprofits take no percentage in future productions.

After the first commercial break, the hub and spoke system is on full display--Sher is grateful that the regional theater system exists so that plays can be performed outside of NYC and "get them ready for New York". A lot of time is spent discussing the real complexities of sharpening and preparing plays, but the model is clearly that the regional theaters are the minor leagues that make the plays ready for NYC. Lopate puts it this way, and everyone says it is not this way, and then in their answers it becomes clear they agree with him that it is fundamentally this way.

A chunk of time is spent talking about critics, which feels to me like a pointless misdirection--you would never know that it's very clear that critics have less and less power to bring in audiences every year. They are talked about as though the entire system should be about winning over critics and reaching consensus with them, but the truth is that theater needs to reach way beyond the hermetic world of theater and critic. It's a telegram from an alternate universe where if the right audiences and the right critics love the right work, you can be a STAR! Sigh.

Paula Vogel has a few great moments, when Lopate quotes from her comments in the past about all of our theater being a theater of the ruling class and the rich. It's a sad moment however that when she responds today she feels the need to verbally state that she is speaking not for Yale or for Long Wharf when she expresses her opinion, and that the opinion is simply that Obama has an arts plank and might do something, perhaps, in the future. We've fallen pretty far, that we feel this much beneath our organizations and corporations that our artists reflexively clear their language.

Bless her for trying--she does have a nice moment when she talks about the changes in the NEA, and I also like this moment when she talked about the need for artists to be in theaters, speaking with marketing--that felt real.

It's a disappointing conversation--not terrible, or intentionally deceitful. It's just misguided about the nature of the journey we're on in the American theater. It's like listening to the activity director on the aft deck of the Titanic discuss what we'll be working on during this first exciting translatlantic journey. We'll be polishing the brass, working on the fittings and getting everything is, after all, going to be a long voyage.

3:57 PM