The Playgoer: London, continued

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

London, continued

The London dispatches continue as Mr. Brantley shares with us the benefits of his expense account. And you know what? I love it, really. My point about the NYT London coverage is not that it is odious to cover the Brit scene at all. Any reader of this blog knows Playgoer is at least as Anglophilic as they are. And pieces like this and this only reinforce why: London still enables a theatrical environment where adventurous artists are both putting on new work and reexploring classics at (to us) an astonishing rate. (What Brantley's been able to see in one week's visit there we would be lucky to see in one season here.)

Of course, a serious theatre page would cover more equitably New York, London, and the rest of America! That is my point. Now the Times might reply they review plenty (ok, some) "regional" shows. But let's face it: sending your critic up to Williamstown in the summer to review Gwynneth in As You Like It (as they did some years ago) is either just giving more ink to a celeb, or you're going at the behest of a press agent trying to engineer a Broadway transfer. What many of us would like to see in the paper of record is a critic writing up a major production in a LORT theatre done by serious artists and just saying "Gee, here's something I just thought it was really interesting." The Times, like the New York culture as a whole, still cannot see that the LORT network is not just "regional" but actually constitutes our "national theatre." It's where our best-trained and most talented actors, designers, and directors are working most of the year when they cannot find employment on Broadway or want to be paid more substantial Equity minimums than what they get in a downtown "showcase." For directors, such theatres may also be the only venues left for them to do something like The Wild Duck, which (see Brantley) may get a great new production at the Donmar in London, but it will be a while before the Roundabout touches it.

But what can we indeed learn from all this attention on London? Since the Times doesn't bother asking the question, let's consider this for a moment. In other words, why are they having this amazing season over there and we're still recovering from the cultural ink wasted on Blonde in the Thunderbird and In My Life? Is it something in the water there? Connecting to another recent post here (on Isherwood's bemoaning the dearth of rep companies in NYC), glancing across the pond reminds us of what we lose by not investing (and I use that word in all sorts of ways) in our theatre as a national resource. I have argued before against knee-jerk calls for a "national theatre"--but here is one really important benefit of such an institution: the fostering of a national repertory. In this way the theatre culture in the US (and especially NYC) really has been impoverished. In London they don't just "believe" in the classics. Institutions are funded and set up to be in continual production, mining not only their own national repertory but ours and much of the world's. (When you have to do a lot of plays, you do start reaching out.) I bet many Americans barf at the thought of restaging our "chestnuts" over and over--but in fact the British theatre is stronger for all its artists having done a gazillion "Midsummers". Every generation cuts its teeth on a body of work, may times at that. The fact that the RSC and RNT might stage 4 or 5 Hamlets in a decade means a constant reinvention of such plays. When that doesn't happen the classics do get stale and rusty, as they do here--like unused appliances buried in our basements.

And what about actors? Look, forget the question of are British actors just better. (And forget about the training issue. I would argue we have just as good training, in theory. Just fewer of our actors are getting it and able to make a career from it.) But an American director does have to envy the quality of the acting pool in London and how available it is. If you want to put on The Wild Duck in New York good luck finding the kinds of actors to pull off the subtleties required without resorting to "classical" stodginess. We have those great classical actors here, for sure. But you'll find those who have not gone out to the coast for pilot season are already in the new Roundabout show, getting paid lots more than the Equity minimum your little company can offer for a three-weekend run. Plus, you can't put them on Broadway, which is the only way they have a shot a career-enhancing Tony.

(Speaking of the L.A. effect, btw, an English actor once pointed out to me something earthshatteringly simple about the difference between US and UK acting careers: English actors don't have to choose as much between stage, tv, and film because it's all in one city. In fact some do some of each in the same day! The LA/NY dilemma many of our finest stage actors face jeopardizes the future of the acting pool increasingly every day. When's the next time you think we'll see Paul Giamatti on stage, for instance?)

The result in NY is you have fine, well-intentioned companies like The Mint and The Keen doing the lord's work in mining the repertory and rediscovering "neglected masterpieces"--but whenever I see their shows I am inevitably disappointed by the cheap scenery and generally mediocre acting, especially in such plays' crucial older roles. The ambition is there, the vision is there, but at some point the resources matter. This is the lesson I believe London can teach us. And so can many of our "regional" colleagues, where our best artists flock to do our classics justice.

And so I wish all the coverage of London would inspire efforts to emulate its successes. Instead, I fear, it only fosters inferiority complexes. And attempts at bad British accents.


June said...

Let me try out a theory I've long had about one reason British theater thrives: set books. Because British youth have to read certain texts (generally including at least two plays) for the two sets of GCSE exams, the companies know that they'll have guaranteed audiences for work that might not otherwise attract an audience on the scale of, say, The Blonde in the Thunderbird. Similarly, the actors are forced to struggle with "difficult" texts, knowing that they're part of the bread-and-butter of decent-sized companies, so they can't choose to focus on contemporary one-handers and dinner-theater repertoire for their training. Subsidies in disguise!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

I think this thing of "Oh, they have the film and theatre industry in one city" is overstated. London's culture of celebrity is different than ours. You don't need to be a movie star to be valued. Theatre has a cultural value it doesn't have here. Most of our actors are too narcissistic to do something as marginal as theatre. They want to be famous, rich, and do movies. If they really cared about the theatre, they could take sixmonths off every 16 months to do a play. They just don't care.

Scott Walters said...

From an interview with Kurt Vonnegut in the Milwaukee Journal:

Q. Do you consider yourself a Midwestern writer?

A. Yes I do, because I was born there. Most of my jokes are Indiana jokes.

Q. Some writers don't want to sound like they've come from the Midwest.

A. I guess the critical world is largely on the coasts. That's flyover country, and they really don't know anything about it. I'm living in New York, the most provincial city in the country. They can't stand to hear that any sort of radical reformer or union organizer came from the Midwest. So they don't want to hear about Jane Addams from Chicago or Walter Reuther. There was all kinds of great labor ferment out there.

Anonymous said...

Matt Wolf just got fired from Variety. He will still cover London theatre for the IHT. This is bad though -- he was a real champion for the real thing. But David Benedict who is replacing him is not bad, former Idependent critic, very smart.

It appears Matt Wolf got fired for panning BILLY ELLIOT.

Another London dispatch from Brantley... do American theatres read these dispatches from London and feel ashamed of themselves?

Anonymous said...

In reference to your comment about a "national theatre" and the link to your older post about Time Out New York's cover story "How to Fix Broadway": It's all very well to say that a national theatre already exists in the U.S., but what about centrality and convenience? You cannot overlook the fact that the UK is a tiny country with one great city, and in that great city is the National, right across the Thames. I wish the same existed in NYC. I can't just jump on the subway and see a great new play at the Guthrie or Seattle Rep. Just a thought: Is this country simply too big for a national theater? Full discolosure: I'm the theater editor of TONY, with deadline blinders and the memory of a fruit fly, but it's an honest question...

Anonymous said...

It is not just that America is too big. Population of London is 7.5 million. Of NYC is 8 million. London probably has 5x as much quality professional theatre as NYC. There are probably 20 playwrights under 30 having their plays professionally produced in London every year. Yes funding is a big part of it, and different cultural traditions... but at the end of the day, something seems lazy, sloppy, even destructive about the American theatre community, that has nothing to do with economics. It seems to verge on sheer greed and tastelessness.

Playgoer said...

Dear June--a viable theory about the school reading lists. Indeed the place of "drama" in our school curricula (in English, let alone arts education) needs some serious looking at. Thank god they do still read Shakespeare, and "Salesman" and "Menagerie" I understand. And apparently "Angels in America" is now popular, too. But does that translate into theatre attendance appetites? Or do those kids still just want to see Rent?

Dear Matt Wolf fan club of one--my god, man, where are you getting your scoops! Fascinating news. I'm familiar with Wolf's work and value him as a London correspondent, but don't know much more than that. But that firing does sounds disturbing. WHat else should we expect though from a trade booster like Variety.

Dear Not-So-Anonymous (Mr Time Out)--First, thanks for joining the fray and enduring my swipe at your article once more! I agree it would not even be part of Time Out NEW YORK's purview to cover the regionals. So no point in expecting you to live out of a suitcase.... But wouldn't it be nice if a more national-minded publication like the Times had, say, a regional correspondent or two? (So Brantley and Isherwood don't have to leave home too much either)

June said...

Just to clarify my point about set books, in Britain there are a series of plays that kids across the country study for the public exams. The theatre companies set their schedules based on the "set books." (I grew up in England and remember that going to see the plays we were studying was one of the few occasions when we'd run into kids from other schools.) So, quite small local theaters (the Octagon, Bolton, in my case) will put on "serious" plays from the repertory. They might do the Shakespearean plays--though most schools take a day trip to Stratford, putting bums on seats there, for the Bard--but also whatever non-Shakespeare play is being studied.

There's some variation on what books are studied from school to school and even class to class, but if you offer one or more of these plays, you are guaranteed to bring in a decent amount of money from the (sometimes daytime) performances. I imagine the funds brought in from these performances subsidize the companies and allow them to put on more ambitious shows that might not cover their costs otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Dear Playgoer: I understand your dismay at the Times' lack of national coverage. I suspect they'd do a story on a show in, say, Omaha, if there were some controversy (sex act onstage or blasphemous use of relgious object), but the paper feels no mandate. (Like producers in NYC, they suffer from what Theresa Rebeck calls "premieritis" or somesuch, if it ain't done in NYC first, it don't matter) Isn't it the same true for galleries & museums in other cities/towns as well - the times doesn't much cover their new exhibits? And what do you think about American Theatre, which IS the regional theater bible. (I like its long overdue redesign). I'm just idly & meanderingly commenting at the end of a long day... Plus, I DO appreciate criticism of TONY - it's nice to know that somebody's reading it.

Playgoer said...

Yes, it might be hard convincing the Times to take on the Mandate of the nation-wide theatre scene. But this recent London orgy there does for me put this in a new persepctive--i.e. that they're spending far more resources there than elsewhere in the US...In sum, I think that once upon a time (until 1980, say) one could be content with B'way as the de-facto National theatre. But no more. Our best artists are increasingly doing their best work in the rest of the country. And the Times is just beyond the times, frankly, in not acknowledging that change.

And funny you mention museums because I feel they actually do a BETTER job at that! (I've read lots of exhibition reviews in places way beyond the tri-state area). Ditto with classical music and other concerts. So it's a theatre problem.

As for TONY, I will continue reading and I'm sure not always criticising. Just get those guys to give you a better website, with a real theatre "page" I can easily bookmark and link to. And how about getting yourself a blog on it while you're at it. Time that TONY joined the conversation!

Playgoer said...

Dear June,

From your description of the student involvement in UK theatre, it actually sounds similar to what many regional professional theatre in the US do. Often 2 or 3 shows in the season would be planned specifically for their appeal to schools (familiar classics like Raisin in the Sun or Glass Menagerie, e.g.). Then the theatre offers special "student matinees" which are actually at 1oam or some ungodly hour so that schools can buy up huge blocks of seats at discount rates and the kids can be brought in by the busload.

Sounds all well and good, and helped with revenue. But I always felt bad for the actors who sometimes had to do half their performances early in the morning and for an audience of sleeping or heckling pre-pubescents. There's got to be a better way!