Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Time Out Critiques the NY Theatre Scene

Time Out New York's theatre editor, David Cote, just published his 9 wishes for the New York theatre scene in the upcoming season. Now, I realize we are in San Francisco, with the entire country separating us from that theatre mecca, but let's face it: what happens in New York disseminates all the way out here--and pretty quickly at that.

In his article, Cote tells theatres everything from "you need to expand" to "you need a new, young artistic director." I really can't comment on most of this stuff, not being a New York resident. That said, there are some things that I had a very strong reaction to. My breakdown:

-Cote recommends that the Public Theater expand, putting up more productions more consistently and including events like art exhibitions and parties to attract a younger audience. Translation: Spend money you don't have to do what every theatre in the country is trying to do. Why is it only the Public Theater he recommends this for, and where does he expect anyone to find the money for it in the recession?

-Cote issues a call to arms to the blogosphere, telling it to get more angry and more exciting. He wants to "generate heat." What I find interesting is that he nowhere mentions traditional media. What about asking the few remaining theatre critics to imbue their words with more passion? In Chicago at least, Chris Jones, the Chicago Tribune's theatre critic, is still a force to be reckoned with. In a recent issue of Theatre Bay Area, associate editor Sam Hurwitt wrote about blogs as a niche medium, having less of an ability to attract wide audiences than the general interest newspapers. The niches are already passionate enough; it's the mass populace that should be reading diatribes and "noise." I refuse to believe that traditional media is dead--not yet.

-What has proven (thus far) to be the most controversial of his points on the article's comment thread is his #7: Architects should build new theatres to replace the "musty...antique jewel boxes." Those musty antique jewel boxes have so much character, though. Broadway theatres, at least, are big. Big modern spaces have a tendency to appear cold and austere. While that may suit big business just fine, it will only detract from the vibrant performing arts. And there is so much history in those theatres. Theatre as an art is ephemeral; the spaces in which it is performed should not be. It is all we have to remember the great productions of yesteryear--at least in the absence of archival video.

-Finally, Cote bemoans the sorry state of new pop-infused musical scores. He longs for lush orchestration and complexity. There is a whole school of composers producing invigorating and challenging work today, like Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, and Jason Robert Brown. It's not the music that's the problem, here, I think. It's the lack of originality in new musical books. Everything these days is an adaptation, a cash cow meant to capitalize on a franchise. We certainly do need more Next to Normals and fewer Legally Blondes, to use Cote's example, but the music is not the primary offender. Often, these big-budget knockoffs are written by very talented composers, but there's only so much you can do with something that's so blatantly profit-driven and pandering.

Take a look at the article and let me know what you think. What would you recommend for Bay Area theatre? Let's chat.

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At July 27, 2009 at 5:20 PM , Blogger Christian Cagigal said...

1) Stop trying to chase the young with parties and start getting them to show up for shows that actually have something to do with them and their lives...(this applies to the 15 to 40 set. And, in SF that means producing more playwrights writing about their lives in the Bay Area. We could use more local pride.)

2)Yes even here we could use more support of the independent theatre scene from AEA. Not saying that actors should be protected from independent producers too, but who protects the indy artist trying to make art?

3)yeah I guess sounds good

4)THAT'S NOT WHAT A FRINGE IS SUPPOSED TO BE!!! If you want THAT get another festival!!! (although I thought NY Fringe WAS curated...)

5)yeah sounds fun


7)He didn't say tear down the jewel boxes, he just said make new spaces. One's that can adapt and change to new forms an ideas that probably haven't been developed enough because there's only so far certain ideas can go in a tradtional big proscenium house. No harm in giving 21 Century ideas a better home to flourish in.


9)No, the music is still bad. Pretty contrived. But yes, the books aren't much better either (although I actually think "Blonde" is rather clever and smart in it's musical form.)

Big commercial theatre could use a pair of .... (ya know) when it comes down to not only it's music, books but also staging (more than just special effects) and oh a decent try and non-homogenous casting. But, that's always very commercial is it....

But, hey we got West Side, Heights and Lion King, that's enough right...............?

At July 28, 2009 at 4:41 PM , Blogger PianoFight said...

"Spend money you don't have to do what every theatre in the country is trying to do."

It doesn't cost any money to invite performers and audience to hang in the space after a show and mingle. And to go along with Christian's comment above, he is dead on - producing work by and for a younger audience will bring that audience, not another gala for a Shakespeare opening.

"What about asking the few remaining theatre critics to imbue their words with more passion?"

I don't believe this is his point - that critics should use a more vital vocabulary. I think what he's talking about is an idea that's been kicked around on Chatterbox and the PianoFight blog that the conversation needs to extend past criticism/promotion of specific shows/festivals/companies and take a more long form look at the industry as a whole. Outside of this blog, Arts Journal, and Chloe Veltman's occasionally, theater blogging has almost entirely followed traditional media's model - critique a show - and hasn't shown much innovation in terms of broadening the discussion, calling out bonehead moves/shows/standards, or providing insight into theater that is unavailable in newspapers. Ultimately, I agree with you in that the responsibility to innovate theatrical criticism lies both with trad media and bloggers.

It's an interesting article and thanks for pointing it out Sabrina - all I can really say is that theater is in dire need or more articles like this.

At July 29, 2009 at 10:35 AM , Blogger Sabrina Lazarus said...

Hi, all. Thanks for your comments.

In terms of the way to attract younger audiences, I think new programming that is relevant is excellent and necessary, of course. But I also don't think it's enough. Speaking as a young person myself, the people my age who enjoy theatre already go (thanks in large part to generous student discounts). But if you're trying to attract the person without a social support group for theatre attendance, who has never sat through a live performance willingly in their lives, they're not even going to find out about that innovative, relevant programming without some sort of universally-attractive event to market it BEFORE it starts. Parties get young people, at least if they're well-advertised, to a theatre without it FEELING like the theatre. Once there, they can see just how exciting and relevant the theatre can be in their lives. Programming and special events like parties need to work in conjunction to universalize theatre's appeal. And they can't just happen after a production with the audience that already came. Parties like that cost money, though--less than a production, but some nonetheless. You need food and drinks, and people are usually willing to pay only so much, and you probably would need to pay your staff overtime to attend the event and schmooze with everyone. That's why many theatres wait until they get grant money to develop this kind of aggressive outreach programming. And it's also why the events I believe Cote is discussing in his article are not very tenable right now, at least not if they will be effective in growing the audience.

In terms of the "jewel boxes," Cote may not be saying tear them down, but he is criticizing their relevance, and I think, were a shift to modern theatres happen on a wide enough scale, tearing down those historic theatres would be unavoidable. If we need to update these old theatres to make 21st-century theatrical design work inside them, we can renovate. But I think their preservation is important. If we didn't tear down those old theatres, where do you think the new theatres Cote advocates would go? In New York, at least, there's not really room to build--at least not in the theatre district. We barely fill the theatres we have around Times Square, so I don't think adding more would help the theatre industry's economic situation. Thus, not tearing down jewel boxes and buildng out modern space would just mean more dark theatres in what should be the most vital theatre landscape in the country. And that's not what the public should see.

Finally, with regard to trad media vs. blogs, my point is that traditional media is where the theatrical critique, both of production and of the industry, needs to happen, not the blogosphere. It won't have enough impact without the credibility of an institutional name and the wider reach of traditional media. Blogs in theory are accessible by anyone, but they need to be actively looked for. We would end up preaching to the choir instead of to those who need to hear it. I applaud TimeOut NY for starting that conversation on a traditional media stage, but I think the encouragement to get more vocal is misdirected. Theatre critics know the industry, they have voices the people trust, and thus they need to be the ones writing articles like Cote's.

Thanks again for your comments and feel free to respond.

At July 31, 2009 at 9:11 AM , Blogger Carl Benson said...

Some quick thoughts/suggestions:

1) Parties

Before PianoFight's first show, "Roommate Wanted," we threw a party at a pub in North Beach which had agreed to allow our cast to tend bar and the tips would go to a charity of our choosing (we didn't get a cut of bar revenue, but the tips came out to a few hundred dollars). Two great things happened - first, we made money that night (the charity of our choosing was our show) and second, basically everyone who came to the bar, ended up coming to the show. It was pretty easy to convince people to come to a bar, then, once they'd had a blast there, also convince them to come have a blast at the show.

Also, "You probably would need to pay your staff overtime to attend the event and schmooze with everyone." If you need to pay your people to go to a party, it must be a pretty shitty party.

2) Venues

One thing I would like to see are more theaters going up in non-traditional venues ... for example, our space, Off-Market, is on the second floor of an office building. Shotgun Players started in a pizza parlor. The Next Stage is in a church. What works, I think, about venues like these, is a certain sense of informality which ultimately lowers the access point of the art. The art is just as good as any big ole "jewel box," but much less stuffy and hoighty toighty (sp?).

3) Bloggos

If you look at news media, over the last few years the blogs have really begun dictating the hot topic of the day. Some story catches fire on HuffPo, Politico and DailyKos and suddenly the NY Times and NBC Nightly News are picking up that story. You're absolutely right that traditional media needs to step up it's theater criticism, and how we get them to do that is by blogging like hell, getting the word out, and providing a service that the papers have neglected, or, more basically, by doing exactly what you do here on Chatterbox. The more posts like this that you and others write, the more people that read those posts and get involved in the discussion, the sooner those traditional media outlets will stop neglecting this vibrant and vital slice of culture.

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