The Playgoer: Tale of 2 Theatres

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tale of 2 Theatres

Two fascinating post-mortems, of a sort, of shake-ups (reported earlier here and here) in the leadership of two of North America's largest and most prestigious resident theatre companies: the Old Globe and the Stratford Festival.

First, LA Times' Charles McNulty addresses the significance of Jerry Patch's departure from Old Globe for MTC in New York. And really makes a case for it being more significant than I even imagined. I had imagined Patch might have been uncomfortable with the "power sharing" arrangement set up there with Darko Tresnjak--but maybe it was the Managing Director he had a problem with. Especially in light of what the Old Globe--symptomatic of so many other major theatre institutions--is becoming.

The top guy at the Old Globe is Louis G. Spisto, an arts administrator who assumed the unusual title of CEO/executive producer after veteran artistic director Jack O'Brien stepped down at the start of this year. Spisto's bio touts his having brought to the theater "A Catered Affair," the touring production of "Avenue Q" and the Broadway transfers of "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life" and the Twyla Tharp/Bob Dylan bomb "The Times They Are A-Changin'." He has also produced scores of plays and musicals, including "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and the holiday show "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"


In an unusual organizational setup, Patch and [co-Artistic Directo Darko Tresnjak] reported to Spisto, who has final say in artistic programming. The Old Globe's press rep has compared the arrangement to a symphony leadership model (Spisto was formerly the executive director of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra in Orange County), and has also pointed to New York's Roundabout Theatre Company, whose artistic director, Todd Haimes, was formerly the managing director.

But for all its flaws, the traditional regional-theater structure, which places an artistic director in charge of artistic decisions and a managing director in charge of the budget, shouldn't be lightly relinquished.

Just as newspapers have struggled to preserve the firewall between editorial and advertising, nonprofit theaters have benefited from the productive tension between creative dreaming and economic safeguarding.

Patch is a dramaturge whose track record makes him worthy of leading a major theater. But the current environment, marked by diminishing arts funding and a new survival strategy of corporate branding through attention-grabbing hits, is more hospitable to white-collar professionals who are more apt to prioritize the bottom line.
In other news...

We saw the crumbling of another patched together (ho ho!) team up at Stratford, Ontario last week when Des McAnuff emerged as last man standing after his two cohorts walked out on the arrangement.

The latest from the Toronto Globe & Mail:

Refusing to exit silently, Marti Maraden says her resignation as co-artistic director 12 days ago was the result of creative interference and an agenda imposed by general director Antoni Cimolino despite earlier assurances that the unusual triumvirate arrangement that was put in place 21 months ago would work as a partnership.

In an exclusive interview, Ms. Maraden said she was “misled” about the unconventional leadership construct that she, Don Shipley, Des McAnuff and Mr. Cimolino agreed to in 2006.

“It was supposed to be a partnership, a shared leadership, and Antoni would intervene only if it was urgent, and it came not to be that,” Ms. Maraden said. “We were misled as to how we were actually functioning.”


In a formal statement issued Saturday, Ms. Maraden contradicted the festival's account of how the resignations unfolded and gave fresh details about how the festival's leadership unravelled.

According to her contract, she was to share the “creative responsibilities and authority of an artistic director,” Ms. Maraden wrote in her statement. “Though Antoni clearly held ultimate authority, he repeatedly told us that we three … were to make artistic decisions … while he looked after the festival and sought the means to make our dreams … a reality. However, [his] increasing involvement in artistic decision-making on large and small matters, especially as the 2009 programming began, and … a virtual unilateral imposition of [his] agenda made it impossible for me to continue. … I cannot be an Artistic Director in name only. … Either a leadership is shared or it isn't.”

See a pattern?

Shall we call it the Des McAnuff/Jack O'Brien conundrum? Or, How to benefit from your more popular shows' crossover appeal without becoming an "enhancement" factory for B'way transfer prospects.

One more interesting if tangential journalistic revelation of the story:
The second factor [in the delayed announcement of the resignations] was a pending New York Times article expected to trumpet the success of the triumvirate's relationship. With no new protocol agreed upon, Mr. Cimolino said he realized “there was simply not enough trust to be able to continue.” The subsequent resignations would prove the Times' salute to harmony as “patently untrue and would be damaging to everyone personally and to the festival as an institution. It all came together, the ultimatum and the Times story. We had to acknowledge where we were at.”
What on earth was the Times' interest in puffing up the Festival?


Scott Walters said...

Excellent post -- fascinating to see these two examples juxtaposed. I was puzzled by your final question, though. Wouldn't the Time being interested in a regional theatre be a positive? Why would that be "puffing up"?

Playgoer said...

Ah. What I meant, Scott, was that the description of the proposed Times article made it SEEM like a puff piece, or at least greatly misinformed about how well this triumverate was going.

My question was actually not meant rhetorically. I was just honestly surprised the New York Times would even bother paying attention to Stratford if it was NOT some horrible lurid scandal! So pessimistic am I of their priorities...

It strikes me as not the kind of article that gets assigned UNLESS the Stratford Press Office really pushes for it. Anyway--I don't mean to imply anything shady or conspiratorial. Just surprised.