The Playgoer: Paper Mill lives... but for what?

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Paper Mill lives... but for what?

Yes, we were glad about the little regional theatre that could.

But on second thought...

The financially troubled Paper Mill Playhouse is in talks to present the musical Happy Days, based on the 1970s TV sitcom set in the 1950s....

The show would jibe with a new dedication to broad-based family shows that Paper Mill brass have indicated is a key to their future as a nonprofit.
Yes, their future as a nonprofit is to house tax-free tryouts for Garry Marshall (who is indeed directing).

Maybe we should redistribute those emergency bank loans to some other suffering NJ theatres?


Freeman said...

Such a Catch-22, for the regional theater, couched in suburbia, aching for funds. On one hand, we shouldn't hope to lose a staple of the theatre community. On the other, in order to stay afloat, they choose what appear to be family-friendly tripe to appear on their stages.

If the Papermill did, suddenly, change their programming to a steady diet of Soho Rep mainstays, my guess is that Millburn would reject that work. If they don't, they appear to be a kiddie ride of a theatre, completely irrelevant and utterly ticket-obsessed.

I'd be curious what the solution is. If you were (or any reader) the Artistic Director of a company challenged to stay afloat in a suburban community that can just as easily spend its dollars in NYC, what would you program?

Michael said...

I am the Managing Artistic Director of a small professional company located in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. Although the Papermill is a much larger company - I have been following their story very closely because I know that our company is headed down the same dead-end road. Ticket sales are our bread and butter. We have a solid 75% subscriber base who expect "family-friendly" programming. Whenever I have attempted to insert a "riskier" piece into the season (and you would laugh if I named the plays that qualify as "risky"), the board refuses to produce them for fear of losing the loyal audience.
I've warned them often that this is a dangerous game. We are not bringing in new audiences. We are not getting the institutional funding that other Bay Area companies are getting for producing new work, diverse work, or politically/socially conscious work. As the loyal base dies off (and as crass as that may sound, it is in fact the truth...thank goodness for theatre-going seniors!) the inevitable outcome will be decreased revenue and a financial "emergency".
So long as it continues to work, I don't have the support to change anything. It isn't artistically fulfilling, and it is incredibly frustrating to see the path so clearly and yet be treated as the boy crying "wolf". I do, however, feel a responsibility to the board and the patrons. There are people who attend the theatre solely for entertainment and so long as they keep coming companies like ours will struggle through. My job is to provide the paying audiences with quality entertainment and to keep the board properly apprised of our financial condition at all times. Other than that - I have to determine for myself when I can no longer handle the mindlessness of the programming or the board's ignorance. (It should be said that I do have a modicum of pride left in me...I refused to stage Gilligan's Island - The Musical when it was recently suggested to me by a board member. I hope they don't hear about Happy Days...)

Anonymous said...

Seldom have I been happier as a performer than when I worked at Papermill. Not only did they treat me right everyday, I got to work with Jose Ferrer (randy, but a real pro). They didn't do the kind of work i'd go see then, but we never played to less than a soldout house (and it's a big one).

So, although I loved the place, I'd never want them to do anything close to the edgy, risky, ground-breaking work I prefer to attend. Sometimes theaters just need to do what they do - NJ seniors deserve the work they enjoy, and I'll stay downtown.

And if they do their thing well, they won't need loans or govt' funding, or whatever else. There will always be more old people who love musicals and the attention that comes with footing the bill.

Ever since their original theater "mysteriously" burned down, they have built a facility to do a particuliar kind of work, so to change that work now would be grossly against the grain.

Wouldn't want to be 'em, but god love 'em.

Gil said...

a company challenged to stay afloat in a suburban community that can just as easily spend its dollars in NYC

You program two things:
1. Quality revivals you won't find in NYC. Papermill is the sort of place I can see the shows I haven't ever been able to, but often starring Broadway actors.
2. The new works that stretch the theatre company's legs and bring the New York Theatre crowd because it's a show they can't see in the city.

The ratio of 1 to 2, I can't say.
What I can say is that Happy Days the Musical doesn't fit either. Neither does "Pirates", the original of which already had 2-3 production in Manhattan this past year.