Theater

A 'Wonderful Town' Meeting

Just days after September 11, Mayor Rudy Giuliani told New Yorkers to go back to their normal lives—and encouraged them to spend money on dinner and a show. We don't know if he meant The Producers or Puppetry of the Penis, but he was probably considering the prominent role that New York theater plays in the local economy. Perhaps he also had in mind what's been a big topic in arts pages lately—theater's ability to heal, by fostering community, by commuting dark unknown quantities into art, or simply by providing a few hours of respite from the news.

On October 29 and 30, theater practitioners, researchers, and journalists gathered at Columbia University to discuss the future of theater in New York. The conference, "Wonderful Town," organized by Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and School of the Arts, had been planned months in advance, but the discussions about the future of theater inevitably pivoted around the World Trade Center events. The Times's Margo Jefferson, Shubert chair Gerald Schoenfeld,arts attorney John F. Bregilo, and Harvey Lichtenstein were among the notable speakers.

Theater-making is bracketed by the need for money and space, and the talks centered on such crucial issues as public policy, real estate, and the relations among theater, film, and television industries. A flurry of reports made clear that the events of 9-11 have exacerbated preexisting trends: people choosing stay-at-home entertainment, audiences hesitating to purchase tickets in advance, and government abandoning its support of the arts.

Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, praised the Broadway community for averting disaster by reducing costs and working to bring audiences back to the theaters: "If the commercial theater behaved all the time as it has in the last eight weeks, then we wouldn't need to have this conference." Virginia P. Louloudes, of the Alliance of Resident Theatres, reported that many of the city's 400 not-for-profits are in crisis. The week of September 11 saw the sharpest drop in theater attendance in history—worse than Pearl Harbor, worse than any time during any other war. Productions have closed on and off Broadway, and far fewer tourists have filled the seats.

It took an outsider, Marian A. Godfrey, of Philadelphia's Pew Charitable Trusts, to remind us that, along with the finance industry, culture is New York's other pillar of strength—a $13 billion-a-year industry. Theater will inevitably play a role in our city's recovery. Conference participants spoke about integrating the arts into downtown's reconstruction; about BAM's expansion plans in Fort Greene; about following the example of museums and transforming theaters into multi-faceted destinations. The most encouraging words came, appropriately, from a playwright, Frank Pugliese, who said he's ready to skip the play-development process, forgo fundraising, and do theater in his living room. After 9-11, he said, "it's about the immediate, visceral need to speak." —Martha Hostetter


The Vineyard's Big-Time Vision

In Annie Hall, Woody Allen compares a romantic relationship to a shark—it has to keep moving forward or it dies. The same goes for theaters, says Vineyard Theater founder Barbara Zinn Krieger. "Nothing stands still," she says. "You either go up or down. You can only hover for a little while, and I think we've been hovering."

So the Vineyard is celebrating its 20th anniversary season with an aggressive $5 million fundraising campaign aimed at catapulting it to the level of Manhattan Theater Club and Playwrights Horizons. "They have name recognition as strong as their shows," she says. Despite having staged Pulitzer winners like Edward Albee's Three Tall Women and Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, Krieger is still occasionally asked if she runs a theater on Martha's Vineyard. "We hope to say, 'Look how far we have gotten,' but also, 'Look how far we can go.' " Operating in the MTC/Playwrights arena, says Krieger, will also enable the Vineyard to "beef up our board" by attracting wealthier, more prestigious members.

With the economy stumbling and donors large and small diverting dollars to World Trade Center causes, artistic director Douglas Aibel says the Vineyard faces "tremendous uncertainty." But the campaign won't be scaled down; Krieger says it just may take longer to reach their goal.

Plans call for adding 60 seats, bringing the Vineyard's house to 190, and stepping up from letter-of-agreement union contracts to the standard Off-Broadway tier, allowing for longer runs and an increased subscriber base. The theater seeks to upgrade its lobby, as well as its backstage and rehearsal areas. They also want to rent or buy a 99-seat black box for more intimate or developing works. Extra space is essential to fulfill Aibel's long-held dream, a new salon for the Vineyard's "community of artists," which will meet bimonthly to discuss theater issues and do readings.

But the centerpiece of the fund drive is three $1 million endowments for commissions and workshops of musicals, plays, and children's productions. Aibel says the musical endowment is the most critical since "numbers are so prohibitive, we're lucky to do one musical every two or three years." The musical endowment will be named the Kitty Carlisle Hart Music Theater Lab for its first major donor. An October 1 gala in Hart's honor co-chaired by Julie Andrewsand Governor George Pataki was postponed because of the attacks. Aibel hopes that the affair, rescheduled for November 26, will give the fundraising campaign some much needed momentum.

"We feel we're at our peak artistically," says Aibel. "But without this ambitious plan we won't be able to fulfill our mission." Stuart Miller

 
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