OBIES 2012: Don't Dress for Theater

A week of Broadway torture proves that hope lies with the scruffy

None of those producerial desires is good or bad in itself; all of them are good if the people creating them believe they add something to the life of the city and the life of the theater. But on today's account-conscious Broadway, that belief has been replaced by a faith in marketing calculations. It's no longer "Do we love this play?" or "Does New York really need to see this play for the fourth time in 10 years?" but "Does so-and-so the movie star, who will sell x weeks' worth of tickets, want to do this play for x weeks?"

This causes a kind of theater that those who love the theater for its own sake find very hard to care about. Not that we object to see so-and-so confronting the challenges of theater instead of film, nor mind revisiting a great play (though maybe four times in a decade is one too many, with the world full of unperformed great plays). Gauging by the message-board chat about discount codes and TDF seat locations, some have learned to cope with Broadway's insanely inflated ticket prices, as New Yorkers over the decades have learned to cope with every urban craziness.

But to say we don't mind, or have learned to cope, is not to say we care. Theater we care about can still occasionally be found on Broadway, but for the past few decades, increasingly, New Yorkers have needed to look elsewhere, meaning Off- and Off-Off Broadway.

The Debate Society give one another a hand for their Obie grant: Paul Thureen, Oliver Butler, and Hannah Bos
Robert Adam Mayer
The Debate Society give one another a hand for their Obie grant: Paul Thureen, Oliver Butler, and Hannah Bos
A Map of Virtue’s Obie-winning team: Director Ken Rus Schmoll and playwright Erin Courtney
Robert Adam Mayer
A Map of Virtue’s Obie-winning team: Director Ken Rus Schmoll and playwright Erin Courtney
Tribes actress Susan Pourfar joins the Obie tribe for her performance 
at the Barrow Street Theatre.
Robert Adam Mayer
Tribes actress Susan Pourfar joins the Obie tribe for her performance at the Barrow Street Theatre.
Downtown stalwart Jim Fletcher—Gatz’s Jay Gatsby, among many other roles—earns an Obie for Sustained Excellence of Performance.
Robert Adam Mayer
Downtown stalwart Jim Fletcher—Gatz’s Jay Gatsby, among many other roles—earns an Obie for Sustained Excellence of Performance.
Set designer Mimi Lien can now add an Obie for Sustained Excellence to her own decor.
Robert Adam Mayer
Set designer Mimi Lien can now add an Obie for Sustained Excellence to her own decor.

This situation ought to empower Off-Broadway more than it does. The nonprofit institutions that dominate our smaller-scale scene now constitute our theatrical mainstream. Yet with all sympathy for what they're up against financially—the economy that bloats Broadway costs and prices hasn't made institutional fundraising any easier either—they do what can only be described as a cautious, honorable job. Risk plays a severely limited role in their season selections; qualities like ambition, scope, and daring emanate chiefly from second-tier theaters and those slightly off the beaten track. Happy as I am when a treat like Once migrates north to the big-money realm, far too much of what I see Off- and Off-Off Broadway seems to have been put up with one eye angled toward that possible move—not, again, out of the producing theater's passion for the show, but in the hope that it will rake in the shekels to keep their institution going. And while nobody rejoices more than I do at the skill and versatility that our actors constantly reveal, the major nonprofits have started to evolve a pool of reliables who get reused so often that the scene starts to resemble a repertory company—only without the challenge and excitement of repertory.

The caution that mills down Off-Broadway's artistic choices isn't an isolated trait. It belongs to the larger miasma, fiscal and political, in which we're all caught. In some respects, this year's most theatrical phenomenon was the advent of Occupy Wall Street, proving that New York, like other urban areas, holds a very large mass of people dissatisfied with the way things are, and ready to demonstrate their dissatisfaction publicly. The theater has a lot worth communicating to them; finding ways to do so could recharge the theater's sapped energy with the fervor of that mass dissatisfaction. "The theater can never tell people what to think," said the British playwright John Arden, who died this year, "but it can confirm what they are beginning to feel."

Is Off-Broadway too small, or too tied in to the 1 Percent, to address that audience? I don't know. But apart from Signature Theatre, which has a seemingly magical gift for parlaying the support of the monied into broader access for the rest of us, the signs of hope I see—signs of a higher reach and a braver eagerness—lie mostly in young artists and young groups, all over the city. This year I found myself, quite accidentally, involved with one such group: A batch of crazy but highly literate young people called Marvell Rep decided to put on my translation of The Threepenny Opera, in repertory with Schnitzler's gigantic, virtually unknown Professor Bernhardi. Cramming large casts into a tiny theater, both productions had an edgy, scruffy excitement that brought these big plays home to the audience. Marvell has similarly big plans for the fall.

They are not alone: I know because my inbox is crammed with invitations from theaters doing what I used to think of as "marginal" work—repertories of new work by unknown writers, documentaries, group-created events, reinvestigations of classic works familiar and unfamiliar. One such group has taken on the mission of reviving every play the Group Theatre produced. Another has a passion for dystopian science-fiction serials. A third strives to present plays about working life that appeal to workers. Are these marginal? Or am I, by having continued to pay credence to Broadway after it had outlived its meaning, the one who marginalized himself? I think I will do less of that in the future. Sitting through that painful week on Broadway, I did not want to be home in bed with a book; I wanted to be cramped in a stuffy little theater, seeing Professor Bernhardi again. How many more such experiences are waiting for me? The torment that severed me from Broadway has, paradoxically, made me love the theater again.

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3 comments
Bill Krakauer
Bill Krakauer

Terrific. Marvell is a marvel. I came across it serendipitously through my long term fascination with the 3 Penny Opera and my recent curiosity about Schnitzler. The 3 Penny was the best in English in my opinion since the 40's, this including the memorable first one at the Theater de Lys (for which, to be fair, poor Mark Blitzstein did brilliantly within the limits of what it was possible to say on a public stage in that benighted era - but what a pleasure to hear the new translation!). The Schnitzler also was wonderful in its own way - a completely different way stylistically. How lucky for my to have found them.

So thank Whoever/Whatever for Marvell, Signature, Mint, Pearl, TFANA, Atlantic, 59E59, Primary Stages, Second Stage, whoever brought us Cock (wow), and all the other little guys, plus, OK, Roundabout and Manhattan Theater Club. And thanks for this article and 3 Penny.

Morganjen
Morganjen

Thanks so much for giving your articulation to what I think more and more people have been.feeling...

 
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