Season Your Admiration

In the midst of global dimming, the theater could offer a few bright spots

For starts, they don't do plays they believe in. They do plays because someone else—a producing partner, a regional theater, a TV star's manager—told them to. Or because the writer's name is familiar from productions elsewhere. Or because the play fills a politically convenient niche. Or because some enhancement money has been dangled before them. None of these automatically makes a play bad. But none, I emphasize, is a reason for producing a play unless you already love that play. Not putting the play first has been, increasingly, the principal mistake of our theaters, from Broadway to Off-Off, profit and nonprofit alike. On far too many occasions this year, all I saw onstage was a producer's motive, glaring at me through the theatrical barrenness.

It may be that our producers and artistic directors don't know a good play when they read it. I am never sure how much any of them knows about dramatic literature, its past and its prospects. (I've often thought of teaching a course called "Literacy for Producers." But how many of them would confess their condition by enrolling?) Certainly their sense of it is alarmingly narrow: A scattering of today's "hot" writers; a few 10-best lists from the recent past; a smattering of current and currently revived British or Irish works. Of the vast and complex world of European and Asian playwriting they know nothing except via London. When London busies itself, as it currently does, with restaging old American musicals and staging American movies, all sense of foreign life vanishes from our theater—especially unwise when our country is increasingly at loggerheads with the world.

As with plays, so with actors, the theater's other basic nutrient. I don't deny that people buy tickets to see actual stage stars, like Hugh Jackman, or to help create new ones, like the Chenoweth-Menzel duo in Wicked. This is the public's glorious prerogative. But the myth that untrained movie and TV nobodies guarantee box office is just that—a myth, created by a pop media world isolated from the theater's reality. This year hopefully represented the myth's nadir; no producer is likely to announce Jasmine Guy, Ashley Judd, and Melora Walters in The Three Sisters anytime soon. Futile on Broadway, the practice is ludicrous for Off-Broadway, with its intimate houses, limited runs, and an audience more likely to recognize Cherry Jones than Liv Tyler. Trusting the audience is one of those basic principles our theaters have increasingly held in abeyance, like knowing the world and believing in the play.

Intimate Apparel: No dearth of fine things
photo: Joan Marcus
Intimate Apparel: No dearth of fine things

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    It's easy, now, to see how such principles got laid aside over the past decade. The boom times that produced global capitalism's stranglehold on the world had a parallel effect on our little world. But the boom times are over. Mega-capitalism's empty fraudulence, like that of the dogmatic bureaucracies that have turned the world's great religions into hate machines, has been exposed. We live on a planet that is running out of time; all vital institutions have to be rethought before we destroy the planet, or are destroyed ourselves. The theater—a place where much of the rethinking could occur—had better be one of the first, and the people who run it had better take notice. Otherwise, I may not be alone in finding it increasingly easy to do without.

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