The Playgoer: Sam-BAM-Thank You, Brits!

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Sam-BAM-Thank You, Brits!

What to make of the big BAM-Old Vic-Sam Mendes partnership announced today?

On the one hand, great! I'm a super, super Sam fan. I can't wait to see Simon Russell Beale play Leontes and Lopakhin. Be nice of Sir Kevin (Spacey) made an appearance, too, but strangely not, for now. (No matter how much money BAM raises, it won't be enough to pay Spacey's current B'way salary.)

But it is a big, big gimmick, that's for sure. And a disconcerting turning point for BAM, as signalled at the bottom of the article.

Mr. Melillo [Joseph V. Melillo, BAM executive producer], who has been criticized in the past for risk-averse programming, acknowledged that he had relied heavily on British productions but insisted that it was because the work was of such high quality.

Mr. Mendes was more forthrightly pragmatic. “The truth is, there is and has to be in any English-speaking city a limited audience for foreign-language shows,” he said.

For those of us who have cherished BAM over the years, its value has not been the occasional Brit-import retread (Peter Hall's lifeless Importance of Being Earnest packaged tour, e.g.), but the odd foreign language visits from all over the globe. Sure, I've spent a few deadly nights staring at supertitles while listening to screeching. But where else could I catch up with the new European avant-garde directors? I've always thought BAM has saved me thousands of dollars in airfare! Yes, some of the highlights have involved British artists. But honestly, the greatest shows I saw by Declan Donnelan and Peter Brook were with international casts. At its best, BAM has truly been a center for constantly varying international performance.

Now remember the French 4:48 Psychosis d├ębacle last season? I'm afraid this may be the result. As BAM (like all arts orgs on the move) seeks to widen its subscription base, supertitle theatre is less and less attractive to them, I'm sure. Note what Mendes says about "limited audience." BAM's got a couple of huge venues to fill. From their view, the only way to recoup after booking an expensive tour is to sell out the house every night. That's hard to do for even 3 or 4 nights, when people hear there's going to be reading involved, I guess.

From there it's not too great a leap to asking: hmm, what does pack the house. Oh--Brits!!!

Another shift in thinking here is from the other side of the pond. Spacey needs this deal bad to keep his quixotic Old Vic eneterprise afloat. Once upon a time, the subsidized English theatre could depend on Broadway transfers--"Nicholas Nickleby" was on Broadway, after all, not at Lincoln Center. Even "Les Miz" made such a transition. "History Boys" was the most recent success, when the Royal National formed a partnership with commercial producers to transfer a set number of shows a year. But their latest venture "Journey's End," alas, has not proven snobby or charming enough.

So, their nonprofits now have to increasingly rely on our nonprofits (like BAM) to get their work over here. And of course the synergy helps the fundraising on both sides.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Two observations:

1. As someone who once upon a time did development at an NYC non-profit, it always killed me when Brit companies came over and poached local donor dollars. Because of the much higher gov't subsidy in the UK, the tax code there doesn't encourage private philanthropy as it does here, so deep American pockets are easy marks for charming British accents. Imagine a "British Friends of the Metropolitan Museum of Art" -- unthinkable. Yet every quilting bee in the UK raises money here. I worry that Mendes and Melillo are going to drain money from TFANA, the Public, and others.

2. The real story here is Mendes' Oscar and Hollywood career (and spouse). His stage work has always been solid but not earthshaking. Without the movies, he'd just be another plummy-voweled director for the BAM rotation. Now the producers are star-f**king not just the actors, but the directors, too. What's next? Costume design by Robert Zemeckis?

Mayor Mike once said that even the arts have to get used to the idea of competition. In a Bloombergian market, and one in which the audience has been taught by the critical establishment that only Brits can do classical plays, the Brits get a huge edge and can out-compete American work. Am I calling for artistic protectionism? You bet. Without it, the New York classical theater -- and eventually every other branch -- will wither away.

Anonymous said...

Costumes by Robert Zemeckis? That's not fair. Mendes's Uncle Vanya at BAM was as good as any major New York Chekhov in the past 20 years.

Anonymous said...

Which says more about the deficiencies of New York Chekhov than about the strenghts of Mendes' production.

The supporting cast was utterly mediocre, the staging cliched and derivative, and the level of intensity about as gripping as a Masterpiece Theater rerun. I cannot for the life of me understand why everyone fawned over that production, other than the ususal reasons: 1. the critics told us to like it; 2. the accents were British; 3. there were movie stars involved; and 4. the director had earlier won an oscar.

All good wishes to Messrs. Mendes and Melillo. I'm only saying that to the extent this venture is going to damage the already fragile ecosystem of NY and American companies -- and it surely will -- it's a development to be resisted.

Anonymous said...

Movie stars? Where?

Simon Russell Beale, one of our greatest living actors, gave a truly extraordinary performance. I will never forget it.

Anonymous said...

This kind of umbrage always makes me laugh. We put up with all varieties of the most mediocre theater, shoveled at us year after year, but let anyone with movie credits take a step toward the stage and suddenly we have "standards" to preserve. For every movie director or actor who makes a misstep when he/she tries theater, I can think of at least one example of a stage director or performer whose abilities seem to vanish in the presence of a movie camera. Contemporary theater has not earned the right to be snobbish about movies.

This sounds like a great project to me--good actors in good plays and an attempt to turn the age-old debate about British and American acting styles into something other than a silly competition. Beware the bullying first-person-plural, Playgoer: "Those of us who have cherished BAM over the years" have cherished it for all kinds of reasons, including but not limited to catching up with avant-garde directors from Europe.