A must-read from David Cote in this week's Time Out on why Broadway is no longer a realistic measure of "success" in the theatre--and to theatre artists.
What healthy tonic to a small NY Times piece last month that profiled a bunch of folks from LA trying to put on an Off-Off Showcase-Code show here. (Having pledged a personal moratorium on Times-bashing I refrained at the time. But now it can be told!) Though otherwise fine in its accounting of the struggles required to put up work in this city, a couple of lines still gave away how much the only point of comparison in the horizons of the Times reporter (and, more importantly, reader) is the commercial world of Big B'way. For instance, you can't see it online, but in print, I swear, there was an inserted header that read something like: what young artists will do to get to Broadway. And the financial context also consists of a simple Broadway/amateur binary, such as:
Under the rules of Actors Equity, the union, the maximum amount that can be spent on a showcase is $20,000, a pittance compared with the millions it costs to stage a full-blown Broadway production.Of course, nothing about anything in between--like the mere six figures a mid-level nonprofit theatre like the Atlantic or Playwrights Horizons might budget per production?
In case this seems like a petty distinction, consider this: an audience coming to your $20,000
showcase production only used to Broadway budgets is indeed going to laugh off your production values as "ratty." But many Off-Off shows we see these days are remarkably close in level of design and stagecraft to the smaller nonprofits--and thus, totally up to par, professionally. But you wouldn't know that if your standard of "production" is only flying helicopters.
But anyway, back to Cote. (More about what is right, not what is wrong.) Aside from the fine overall analysis, there are three personal anecdotes recounted I would draw special to. One is the fact that Anne Kauffman--by all measures one of the most gifted and successful downtown directors (The Thugs, God's Ear)--has never and probably will never direct on Broadway. (And indeed why should she, if not for the paycheck.) Second is this revelation from Adam Rapp on the rationale behind his independent Off Broadway run of his Red Light Winter:
“There was an offer to do it through the Roundabout, produce it at the Walter Kerr and sell preview performances to the subscribers,” Rapp recalls. “I just felt that I’d formed a bit of a following that was used to paying $20 to $40, and if I did a show with $100 tickets, I’d lose my audience.” So Rapp and his producer, Scott Rudin, opted for a commercial Off Broadway run at the Barrow Street Theatre, where it played for six months and lost money.I'm sure such "victims" of Broadway transfers as Stew, Lisa Kron, and (potentially) the [title of show] guys would now concur. And that phrase: "an audience used to paying $20-$40"--Artistic Directors take note.
And lastly, John Clancy blows the cover on what really sustains alternative American theatre artists: Europe. It ain't just for the Wooster Group anymore.
Clancy is a veteran of the Edinburgh Fringe and has brought productions to London and Australia. He savors the international profile…not that he would turn down a job at a more established venue. “I’m an American artist and I want to work here,” he insists. “[Urinetown book writer] Greg Kotis once asked me, ‘This is what you want to do, be like a jazz artist—big in Europe?’ And I said, ‘God, no. But that’s who’s been paying the bills for the last six, seven years.’”Wait till the Europeans realize they can have our best artists for the right price--and then take them away from us.
Or better yet...let's not wait.
I leave you with one special plea. Reading this and contemplating the issue, you may shrug your shoulders and sigh: "what can you do about it." Well even if you don't have the deep pockets of a foundation, or don't have the goods to blackmail NEA chief Dana Gioia for more grants...you can still help change the conversation, by changing the language.
The American theatre is plagued by a constant, often involuntary conflation of the terms "theatre" and "Broadway." In most people's minds, the term "Broadway" stands for all American theatre--whether it's literally Tony-eligible or not. As that Times piece demonstrates, in the popular imaginary, all theatre is either "on Broadway" or "dying to get to Broadway." Hence any gifted artist putting on a successful show is immediately barraged with the faint praise: "this deserves to be on Broadway!" Followed by the question: "are you taking this to Broadway?" The result is often tragic implosions like Glory Days.
This also, of course, feeds the mentality behind the commercial "enhancement" of nonprofit productions--sought out by commercial and noncommercial producers alike.
So here's what you can do. Just catch people when they slip into that language, when they use the word "Broadway" describe anything happening outside of a 500+ seat house in the greater Times Square area. (Or outside of a national tour of product originating there.) Or when they respond to your impassioned praise of a show only by asking "Is it on Broadway?" or "When will it come to Broadway?"--remind them that is not the definition of success any longer.
Also, journalists must stop asking every single "little show that could" when they are going to Broadway, or speculating in print or on air whether the next downtown hit "could make it" there.
Yes, this will make you annoying--very annoying--to your non-theatre friends. But bit by bit, person by person, maybe we can change things, and change the equation by which our theatre artists have to calculate their lives.