A Seasonally Adjusted Ghost Story

To improve New York theater could take a Dickens of an update

The Marley was dead. The overpaid bank execs who inhabited that luxury apartment tower had all fled south for the holidays. Only Carl and Carol Commercial, the affluent Broadway producers, remained in their penthouse, having just thrown their annual Christmas party for their 2,000 dearest friends and investors. Weary from networking, as they surveyed the debris, they suddenly heard an ominous knock at their front door.

Carl glanced anxiously at Carol. “Who can that be?” he said. “Did you hear the elevator come up?”

“Maybe your broker,” suggested Carol. “I think I saw his hat on the Damien Hirst.”

“He left hours ago,” said Carl. He flung wide the door, and gasped. A pillar of sinister gray smoke oozed from the hallway into the Commercials’ foyer, instantly coalescing into three weirdly shaped figures.

“What the dickens—" Carl said, and froze mid-sentence. Carol, startled, squeaked in fright.

“Fear not,” said the tallest of the eerily translucent gray figures, a solemn-looking man in 18th-century costume. “You still have time to repent.”

“Repent!” barked Carl indignatly. “What do you mean, repent? Who are you, barging in here at this hour?”

“Be joyful!” exclaimed the wide-shouldered spirit in the center, decked out in a festoon of show posters and scripts. “ ’Tis the flamboyant season, of decorations and music.” He made a grand gesture, ending in a flurry of Fosse jazz hands.

“What—” stammered Carol, “What are you?”

“We are what you dream of,” piped the tiny third figure, in a squeaking treble voice. “You have mislaid your dreams. We have come to help you rediscover them.”

“Are you from La Cage?” Carl demanded. “You’re so blurry I can’t tell if you’re a boy or a girl.”

“Of course not,” said the diminutive spirit. “I am the ghost of Theater Yet to Come. No one can predict what I shall be. These are my esteemed predecessors, the spirits of Theater Past—" The tall ghost bowed gravely. “—and Theater Present.” The broad-shouldered spirit beamed.

“Is this a pitch?” asked Carol, recovering. “Are you here to sell us a property?”

The three spirits shook with silent, otherworldly laughter, scattering their gray haze in all directions.

“Property?” Theater Past enquired, mockingly. “A play is not a property. The land a theater stands on is property.”

“Yes,” said Carl, bitterly. “And the Shuberts and Nederlanders charge us plenty for the privilege of putting our shows into their theaters. I suppose you three hoodoos came to tell us that we should produce plays for love and not care how much money we lose. You’ve got some nerve.”

“What a facile assumption,” Theater Past retorted loftily. “In all my centuries, I never did a play unless I thought, or at least hope, it would make money.”

“I love seeing playwrights make money,” said Theater Present, jovially. “And everyone else involved too.”

“And we know how much it costs you,” tweeted little Yet to Come. “Your account books are on file in the future. And I don’t dare tell you how costly things will become. The theater will face terrible financial times.”

The Commercials groaned at the thought. “I need a drink,” Carol said.

“Manhattan straight up for me,” said Carl. Then, turning back to the three visitants, “But if you’re not kvetching about money, what’s there to repent? Carol and I only put money into shows we love. Sure, we also want to make a profit. So we look for plays that we think audiences will love as much as we do.”

“And just where,” said Theater Present, ruefully shaking his head, “do you look for these plays?”

“Why, in London, or the regions, like everybody else,” answered Carol, coming back with drinks and handing her husband his. “Or in the Off-Broadway nonprofits, sometimes.”

“Sometimes people bring us a project that needs devlopment,” added Carl, “and we put in enhancement money, for readings or workshops, or for productions in the nonprofits.”

“So,” said Theater Past, “you look for the plays that others have already found. That explains much.”

“And your money enhances them,” said Theater Present, grimly. “But does all this development truly enhance the theater?”

“What do you mean?” said Carl, frowning at his drink. “Honey, I said straight up. This Manhattan is on the rocks.”

“It certainly is,” chirped Yet to Come, “or soon will be, if the producers don’t start showing more enterprise.”

“Yes,” cried Theater Past. “Where do these nonprofits, whatever they may be, find the plays for you to like?”

“Why—" Carol paused, reflectively. “They do the plays that other nonprofits are doing.”

“Or the ones people like us bring them,” said Carl, “along with our enhancement money.”

“So,” said Theater Present sternly, folding his arms,”Everybody is doing plays that somebody else likes. So much for taste. So much for enterprise.”

“Sometimes the nonprofits commission,” Carol said defensively.

“And do you commission?” asked Theater Present. He glared at her, a threatening thundercloud.

“Why not find artists you like and hire them to create shows just for you?” asked Theater Past. “It always worked in my time. “And while you’re looking for them, why not read a thousand plays from the past and discover for yourself what makes a play great?”

“Why not ponder the life of your time,” queried Theater Present. “Look beyond the theater, to the art galleries, the new-music venues, poetry, fiction, politics. You might find great commercial success in connecting audiences to the world around them.”

“Risk—excitement—surprise,” Yet to Come chimed in. “Without them, profitability, like art, grows stale and dies.”

“That’s why we’ve come,” announced Theater Past. “Your theater has grown stale, profit and nonprofit sectors alike. It needs an awakening.”

“Awakening to what?” Carol asked, wide-eyed.

“To everything,” roared Theater Present. “To the magic and truth of the past, to the gravity and wildness of the present, to the early hints of what the future will bring.”

“And its economics—your department—need reconfiguring,” chirruped Yet to Come. “Too many people can’t afford to attend. Where’s the profit for you in that?”

“Your revisals wreck the old shows,” said Theater Past, “and your new shows feel like revivals. Why not leave the old shows as they are, and hunt for newness in the new?”

“Unplug and go green!” cheeped Yet to Come. “Reconfigure the experience! New modes of theater lie ahead.”

“New artists are here, ready for you,” shouted Theater Present, expansively.

“And our history,” cried Theater Past, “ever rich with treasure, lies in wait for your exploring.”

“You must!” they all murmured, coalescing again into a gray pillar of smoke. “You must—”

The smoke flowed over the Commercials and vanished as swiftly as it had come. Somewhere a church clock tolled one.

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