Last month, I wrote an essay for the Obie Awards issue (Voice, May 18, 2010) asking if our theater might not be living in a new Golden Age. I hadn’t expected much reaction from outside the limited circle of my loyal readership. So the response, of which there was a good deal, took me by surprise. For once, it seemed, a lot of people agreed with me: The New York theater is living through a time unbelievably rich in gifted artists, whose gifts are not being effectively employed or sufficiently recognized. Something in our theater’s system is deeply out of synch with itself.
Then, as every June, the Tony Awards came along. I ignored them, as I always do, but naturally couldn’t avoid hearing other people’s reaction to them, which brought another surprise: Even many Broadwayites, it seems, find themselves unhappy with the way things are. Hunter Foster, an excellent actor and former Tony nominee, even started a Facebook page titled “GIVE THE TONYS BACK TO BROADWAY,” which, when last I checked, had racked up around 7,400 supporters. If Broadway is purely a business, as commercial theater’s defenders love to maintain, then clearly business as usual has some problems.
I have a certain pity for Broadway. Artistically, it has almost nothing to offer New Yorkers, few of whom can afford its insanely escalated prices. Yet this city couldn’t live without either the tradition it represents (however shabbily) or the huge sums it pumps into our economy. Caught between its fast-rising costs and the demands of the affluent tourist market to which it increasingly caters, it doesn’t allow much wiggle room for art to thrive in. In this, it’s merely facing the same problems as many other kinds of small local businesses worldwide: Big-box stores and chain franchises have been supplanting them for decades. Tourists who once visited Broadway to see a typically “New York” show also used to come to patronize the great Fifth Avenue shops, which they can find today at their local malls or online. Hey, there’s a Starbucks in the Louvre; in its emphasis on pre-approved brands, Broadway is just keeping up with the regrettable times we live in.
The big question is what our theater can do in the face of such intense mass-market pressure. Corporations run the world; we can’t pretend they don’t. Through the mass media, they also run the popular mind, to the ongoing consternation of individualists like you and me. Ours is a small, embattled group, with few allies, and it, too, feels mass-marketing’s tug: As Facebook has taught me, a disheartening number of theater folk share the tourist audience’s preoccupation with mass culture, to the point where I sometimes feel like the hero of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, watching his friends turn into stampeding animals. But I’m not capitulating, even if the popularity of a show like Glee proves that an impulse from the theater can sometimes stir up TV’s currents.
Artists have limited options: They can accept things as they are, and not ask questions, but this makes it hard to view them as artists. Or they can attempt to buck the corporate trend, casting their avant-garde bread upon the theatrical waters and hoping that after many days someone will notice. It still happens occasionally. They can learn to work the twists and turns of the weird, semi-funded alternate system that Off-Broadway’s nonprofit institutions have evolved for themselves. This, too, has its good points: Currently such theaters offer the best opportunities New York has for American actors, writers, directors, and designers to display their abilities. Our actors in particular, as I said in that earlier essay, can turn even the weakest of those opportunities into an occasion of delight.
But that’s still not enough. Practitioners demand challenge, and our cautious nonprofits, playing close to the vest while they struggle to keep their semi-funded institutions from collapsing, provide very little of it. I pity them, too, more intensely than I do Broadway producers, because their intent goes beyond the mere raking-in of dollars. They, too, caught between the vagaries of funders and the devil’s lure of commercial enhancement money, leave little space for art to maneuver in. We have two large-size institutions that might show the way, Lincoln Center Theater and the Roundabout, but they ironically often seem to be the most cautious of all. LCT’s track record, always commendable in terms of production quality, shows a determination to play both the Broadway and the nonprofit Off-Broadway games, only at a classier level: South Pacific is like a commercial revival of an old musical without the skimping or media-pimping endemic on Broadway; the new plays in LCT3 are dressy equivalents of the new plays supplied by other Off-Broadway institutions.
The Roundabout, meanwhile, struggles to find shows to inhabit its vastly over-extended real estate empire: three Broadway-size houses and two smaller ones. If its generally sorry track record is any indication, it will do this erratically, with no particular sense of purpose beyond filling its many seats while grabbing what profit and glory it can from the commercial rat race to which it seems determined to ally itself. Its best service has been to bring in productions from resident theaters elsewhere (Present Laughter, The Glass Menagerie, Intimate Apparel). Beyond that, it hardly seems aware of a nonprofit institution’s obligation to the public—or to the community of artists in which it resides.
That latter obligation supplies the key to what’s missing: Apart from small and constantly struggling troupes like the Pearl, we have no resident theater company in New York, no band of artists prepared to test its mettle against classics and new plays in equal measure. Such companies have always had to fight for survival against New York’s flood of marketing and fashion trends: Eva le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre was largely ignored; Orson Welles and John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre succumbed to the lure of Hollywood; the APA found itself caught in the Broadway time-warp through its success with nostalgic Americana. None survived to become a permanent institution, but while they lived, they gave New York theater a substance and meaning that mere catering to the market could not provide. They also gave it Chekhov, Shaw, Molière, Pirandello, Marlowe, Giraudoux, Dekker, Ghelderode, Marc Blitzstein, Susan Glaspell, and George M. Cohan. And they did this, not as single elaborate events, but as what it is: the normal day’s work of a theater.
I don’t claim that this is possible in our time. I do know that some small groups are trying it, and that its existence would benefit everyone involved: testing actors, challenging directors and designers, setting the bar high for playwrights to extend their reach. And I know, too, that if made affordable (but how?), it would benefit a New York audience that has long since given up going to the theater, an audience not interested in fighting its way through ill-mannered tourist crowds to see old musicals redone cheaply and stars that it can see for free (or the cost of a Netflix download) on its home screen. The audience is ready; the artists are ready. What will the theater do?