The Playgoer: RSC's "Bridge" to Nowhere?

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

RSC's "Bridge" to Nowhere?

I imagine some out there are a bit aghast at Charles Isherwood's pronounced Anglophilia in today's Times, celebrating the much ballyhooed New York season the RSC will play here next summer.  (That's 2011, folks, so take it easy.)  I myself can't wait for the spirited letters that hopefully the Times will publish tomorrow from the Public, Theatre for a New Audience, and The Pearl rebutting Isherwood's claims that NYC has no company devoted to classical repertory.

Not to mention, his clear implication throughout that Brits just do Shakespeare better (he suggests the RSC actors perform the public service of "teaching artists" while they're here) and that we need to create something modeled on the RSC.

Getting past the effrontery of those comments, I do sympathize with some of the impulses motivating  the essay, such as

for heaven’s sake, people, it’s not every day that somebody wanders into town and — presto! — builds a classical auditorium from the ground up. The heavy lifting, construction-wise, has already been accounted for. Let’s seize the day.
And, yes, it is kind of head-scratching to realize NYC does not have quite the equivalent of not only the government-subsidized RSC but also merely nonprofit American counterparts in other cities, like Chicago Shakespeare and DC's Shakespeare theatres.
If you lived in Washington, this season alone you would have had the opportunity to see “As You Like It,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Richard II” and “Henry V,” as well as productions of plays by Shaw, Corneille and Ben Jonson — all at the Shakespeare Theater. No major New York company comes close to doing the same, and the city’s theatrical culture is the poorer for it.
Well let's be fair, Charles: you might not get to see all of them in the same place.  Or literally in the same season.  But over, say, two or three seasons? I'm betting these plays have been done somewhere in NYC.

But--he's right if he means New Yorkers won't see them all as highly produced as at the DC Shakespeare Co., with its large budget and beautiful new venue. We certainly do have companies devoted to classic revivals (broadly meaning Shakespeare and others pre-1945, which is what Chicago and DC do, in truth).  The difference, most of those doing that here are doing it on about .001% of RSC's budget!  I'm thinking not just of Theatre for a New Audience (which doesn't have its own home, and might be especially interested in that faux-Globe RSC is leaving behind) and the Pearl (which barely affords sets and costumes) but also, Classical Theatre of Harlem, Irish Rep (no Shakes but plenty of 19th cent), and a bunch that may not do Shakespeare but lots of early 20th century fare: Keen, Pecadillo, and Transport Group.  I'm sure there are even more companies I'm leaving out. (Please tell us who!)

What Isherwood is really proposing is basically a "National Theatre" in the sense of Classical Rep (not one devoted to nurturing American plays past and present).  And we've all had this debate before, about why NYC does not have one and whether it's even a good idea.  In fact, it reminds me... one of my first ever Playgoer posts was on this very subject.  It was a rather, if I may say, snarky rebuttal to a Time Out story(!) advocating for one.  Looking back on my rant, I must say I certainly still agree with this:
Why set up another boring, safe institution. How about supporting what we have?
And I'm afraid what Isherwood is yearning for in theory would, in reality (in this town, at least), quickly turn into, yes, another boring safe institution.  Don't we have enough of those?

(Let's call it: "Presitigious $500 Subscription Theatre with VIP Lounge." And speaking of such, Lincoln Center's about to get a club of their own: a $100 million restaurant adjoining LCT's Vivian Beaumont theatre.  Quoth Lincoln Center's Prez: "'There is the issue of 'the V.I.P.’s,' Mr. Levy said. 'There are 12 constituencies with 500 board members. They have spouses, children and parents. There are corporate sponsors, foundation benefactors, donors. They will want every courtesy extended to them at the restaurant.'” )

But I'm afraid Isherwood is imagining just that.  He gives it away in citing the BAM so-called "Bridge Project" as a model, daydreaming that the RSC could "be a partner and participant in the new venture, offering advice and expertise as well as presenting visiting productions — making for a more ambitious, formalized version of the Bridge Project, Sam Mendes’s partnership between American and British actors on classic plays."

Well the Bridge Projet is a very revealing example.  Because based on last year's debut at BAM it was, in my opinion at least, pretty bloody boring.  Those who saw Mendes' early classical work at London's Donmar in the 90s describe it as exciting and edgy, which I don't doubt.  But house him in some big impersonal institution like BAM (which by the way is still really a touring house, not a producer), throw him in a room with a bunch of actors chosen chiefly for some misguided ideal of seeing if American and British actors can really work together (like they couldn't? haven't?), and sure enough he turned out two stuffy productions of very familiar classics (Cherry Orchard & Winter's Tale) which had nothing new to say about either. 

Oh, and by the way, let's face it they were basically still British productions.  Mystical "bridging cultures" collaboration my arse.  Except for possibly Ethan Hawke's wild-west Autolycus, the Yanks brought nothing distinctive and in many cases, intentionally or not, actually put on RP accents just to blend in!  The shows reminded me, frankly, of the more boring imports that have visited BAM in the past from, yes, the RSC, but with a few mild indie-marquis names (like Hawke and Josh Hamilton) thrown in for marketing.  And let's not forget, it was no coincidence that both Hawke, Hamilton, and a third Bridger, Richard Easton, had all just starred in Lincoln Center's Coast of Utopia, NYC's biggest snob hit in years.  (Which was also a thoroughly faux-British inflected Stoppardian production, even though they were all playing Russians.)

The Bridge shows were also indistinguishable from Mendes' last visit to BAM which, that's right, paired a Shakespeare (Twelfth Night) and a Chekhov (Vanya) but with all British actors in a Donmar presentation. So BAM clearly decided: Mendes + "Utopia"=$$.  (Note that Stoppard was involved too; Bridge used his version of Cherry Orchard.)

Bridge strikes me as hardly a model; instead it demonstrates what's most wrong with the modern nonprofit "festival circuit" mentality (as Michael Feingold delineated it at a previous Lincoln Center Festival event).  The sterility of the Bridge shows must have something to do with the fact there's no real company there.  No shared experience, no artistic reason for being other than a marketing coup for a few big institutions The website describes the venture as: "a unique three-year series of co-productions by BAM, The Old Vic, and Neal Street devoted to producing large-scale, classical theater for international audiences." Well aren't fine companies around the world already doing that?  You know, touring? So maybe that's why Bridge has the whiff of the pre-fab about it--all the lamest things about big institutional theatre with none of the strengths.

(By the way in case, like me, you're wondering who "Neal Street" is, they are "the UK based independent film and theatre production company set up by Sam Mendes" after he left Donmar.)

I'm sure there's something one could say about how Late Capitalism and Neo Liberalism make such synthetic theatre inevitable, where multiple international institutions have to collaborate to make any large project possible in order to market it globally (and Bridge does tour globally), thereby sucking any life out of the endeavor preemptively...but I'll skip it.

Can you tell I have a problem with this Bridge Project thing?  Maybe it's better this year.  Is it?

To bring it back to the RSC, there's nothing wrong with visits from foreign companies at all, really.  As an embarrassingly lazy traveler, I'm so grateful to all the touring productions (starting by the way with RSC's Nicholas Nickleby in '82) that have come and shown me what theatre can be beyond Broadway.  But the goal one should hope for is to inspire us here to do new things--not necessarily the same thing.  The Moscow Art Theatre came to New York in 1924 for a similarly long "sit down" residency, performing many plays in rep.  When some young eager New York theatre rebels saw it, their eyes were opened by a kind of acting they had never seen before so they went and made a new company--The Group Theatre--that would learn from that.  But while inspired by Stanislavsky's example, they did no Russian plays nor anything written before 1930, and all by American playwrights.  And it changed the American theatre forever.

Sorry, that sounded jingoistic.  Not the point.  What I meant was: Americans have already been making Shakespeare their own for over two hundred years the histories tell us. (See: Riots, Astor Place.)  So what we need to nurture our American classicists is, yes, continued glimpses of how other cultures do him; but, no, not more "lessons" in how to stage large-budgeted safe productions we won't be able to stage more of anyway without a big cozy subsidized theatre of our own.  Let's acknowledge that the greatest Shakespeare productions we've seen in NY have usually been in small underfunded theatrea done Off Off Broadway on a Showcase code.  Julie Taymor's original Titus Andronicus for TFANA in 1995 was not much more high budget than that, in the little St. Clement's theatre.  And it was amazing. 

So if the RSC visit galvanizes us in any way, let's use it to celebrate those artists already working in this town who are making magic with Shakespeare with much less, who don't have nearly the number of American donors the RSC has.  If the Armory ever is convinced to stay open as a Shakespeare space, let's give that space to folks who will do something totally different than our visitors, not the same.

Otherwise, the RSC will just take up all the theatre oxygen in a town where that is so precious.  And having said that...maybe I should stop taking up so much blog-oxygen as well.


Andrew said...

Playgoer, this post rocks. More in this vein, please! There is no need to be throwing money at that kind of posh crap. While I haven't seen the Bridge Project shows, I have seen Sam Mendes's movies, as well as that Uncle Vanya he did at BAM, and they were each a middlebrow snooze (as was what I saw at the Donmar a few years ago, for that matter, although it was post-SM).

We have tons of theater worth supporting that isn't more boring Shakespeare!

Matthew said...

Amen. Thank God someone has the clarity to call a spade a spade. The last thing the New York theater needs is more imported British anything, let alone British theater dressed up in American clothes. When do we (American) theater actors and creators get to strut our stuff doing classical theater in New York on a grand scale? It's a shame and a crime that our culture hides the vast majority of it's abundant theatrical talent in the shadows, doomed to an impoverished and curtailed existence, while celebrating already-established, "prestigious", tried-and-true snooze fests from overseas. Where are the great American theater artists? And please, don't say Hollywood. They're all around us, especially in New York, if only they could catch a break!

Sky Jack Morgan said...

ASC in Staunton is pretty awesome, too. You'll find lots of "great American Theatre artists" here. And if you throw money at us, we catch it and put it to really good use like our touring troupe and other awesomeness. There's never a snoozefest at the Blackfriars Playhouse.

Great article.

Anonymous said...

I saw AYLI at BAM last month, and it was absolutely terrible. I have never left a show at intermission -- until this play. It took nearly 90 minutes to get the intermission. And the acting, by and large, was insincere and wooden, not to mention the fact that in a play (while heavily prose still contains a good deal of verse), I could not hear it when we got to it.

I haven't seen ASC's work in a few years now, but they have produced some of the finest theater I have ever seen. Just because they are not in a major city should not exclude them from being considered a national player.

RLewis said...

Thanks for this terrific post. Reminded me of how the Abbey Theater's visit to the US in the early 1900's birthed Off Bway. We should be so lucky to have such an influence to our current theater community. Your blog is always great about keeping us in the loop, but it's even better when you toss in such a well-thoughtout, ideas piece.

Anonymous said...

I help fundraise for a small NYC theater that produces Shakespeare. I can tell you that this RSC thing is going to make my job way harder than it already is.

Isherwood's argument is poppycock, as you rightly point out. He's basically saying that since we can't make American Shakespeare anymore, we should stop trying and just import it. We stopped building refrigerators and now we import them from China because they make them better. We stopped being able to man cheap call centers and have outsourced them to India. So why not the same with culture? We'll let the Germans handle classical music, the Poles take care of the theatrical avant-garde, and the Brits will take classical theater. We'll stick with jazz, Broadway musicals, and standup comedy.

But Ish: Why not invest the resources in new theatrical infrastructure for our own future? That's the Obama way! Tom Friedman argues for it daily on the op-ed page of the NYT, but the arts desk doesn't seem to be reading him!

One more thing: The RSC uses an American 501(c)3, RSC America, to raise funds here. Am I the only one wondering if the IRS intended the non-profit status to be exploited by overseas charities that are already MASSIVELY SUBSIDIZED by their own government? In the private sector, when a foreign corporation enters the American market with help from its own government, the US Congress takes steps to level the playing field through tariffs and other trade treaty provisions, and everyone agrees that that's fair and square. Jobs are jobs, whether you're harvesting timber or playing Hamlet. Let's take some steps to keep American philanthropy in American non-profits, and shut down 501(c)3s for overseas competitors.

cgeye said...

Funny thing: We've had legislation in place for a national theatre since 1935:

And the single implemented piece from that legislation -- a national actor training facility -- will now be shut down due to lack of funds:

If Denver no longer has claim on a National Theatre Conservatory, is it time for someone else with vision and fundraising skill to claim the whole megillah?

cgeye said...

And, to clarify: I don't want to see the NTC go, but sadly the only way to rally Coloradans to save anything is to imply that if they let that thing of value move away, then yes, Denver *will* turn back into a punk-ass cowtown overnight. We're not as close to a fully-sourced resident theatre scene as we should be, but losing one of the few acting MFA programs in the state's not going to help.

(and after reading the initial reactions to this news, it's funny how the refrain "yeah, there are too many acting MFA programs" gets said, as if we can't unequivocally sell ourselves and fight for ourselves from the first word....)