The Playgoer: Where's Our National Theatre? Don't look to NYC

Custom Search

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Where's Our National Theatre? Don't look to NYC

I imagine David Cote's expression of National Theatre-envy got a friendly reception on the UK's Guardian website. And I totally am with him on the sentiment--namely that the thing to envy most is not just the ethereal ideal of a "national" or "civic" theatre, but just the sheer magnitude of production that Nicholas Hytner's RNT puts out and its staggering (and I mean this in the best sense) competency. (For an example of institutional, um, non-competency see here.) In other words: is there any permanent theatre company in the US that stages so many productions at so consistently a high level and is lead by someone like Hytner who is as dynamic a director as he is administrator?

Before one tries to answer that question, though, consider some key factors. First, obviously, let's not get carried away with the National's track-record. They have their duds like anyone else, to be sure. The local audience would know that better than us, since we only get to see the hits that transfer over. The pioneering NT Live simulcast program, though, now helps give us a broader perspective on four to five shows a year. From the sampling I've enjoyed in my local cinema, I would say, indeed, not every show's a gem--but their baseline is pretty, pretty good by American standards. Especially given how much they produce.

Second: the subsidy the National gets from the government of the UK--even these times of "austerity"--dwarfs what any American arts institution would ever dream of receiving from federal, state, and foundational support combined. Hytner has a very nice financial-cushion to lean upon when he's feeling more risk-taking and, while I imagine commercial successes are surely desired by his overseers, he does not have to pursue Broadway-style "enhancement" as desperately as American AD's. (Instead, he struck a deal with a team of US producers a while ago to give them basically exclusive "first refusal" rights on transferring any National shows.) So while the pressure to end each season in the black and win some awards must be there, it seems not as straightjacketing as it can often be over on this side of the ocean.

It's also hard to find a New York theatre working on the scale of the National because of sheer space. First, the National actually owns their own building at all! (Or at least they act like they do.) Second, said building has three fully functioning stages all equipped with the latest in stage technology. The Public has three or four functioning spaces, but not all are up to speed, shall we say. (We'll see after the renovation, I guess.) Lincoln Center Theatre will soon debut their new rooftop space for the "LCT3" new play program. So that will actually get them pretty close to the National's set up. But otherwise, all our other companies wishing to produce more than one play at a time need to rent space elsewhere.

There's also the issue of having a permanent repertory company of actors. The National has struck what seems like a workable balance between allowing "name" stars to join for one or two productions a season while relying on a corps of versatile actors to fill out most of the cast, each doing three (or more) shows at a time. This is something that seems well-nigh impossible in New York, outside of the brave little Pearl Theatre. American actors, it seems, simply cannot afford to tie themselves down to one gig for a whole year, especially at an Equity Off Broadway minimum salary. (Roughly $250-$350/week on average.) They can't even afford to stay in one city a whole year, what with Pilot Season in LA and the temptation of supplementary summer, stock, and regional gigs.

So there's that.

For something the sheer size, scope and budget of the National to exist in NYC, a very big building would have to be given over to someone and without the worry of ever turning a profit. Good luck with that.

But we would feel better about ourselves if we looked beyond New York and sought out the potential for National-esque accomplishment in some of our larger LORT theatres around the country. The Guthrie certainly has the right kind of building--a gynormous complex of stages, shops, and workspaces. Trouble is: it's been a while since something came out of there artistically that people talked about. (Except perhaps the premiere of the last Kushner play.) And now that they finally have their shot at a PBS broadcast, they're doing HMS Pinafore??? So much for a US "national" theatre.

Staying on the subject of size, Oregon Shakespeare Festival still holds the potential for competing. But consistency and quality seem to have long been holding back nation-wide enthusiasm. Let's see if new AD Bill Rauch can turn that reputation around.

In terms of sheer plaudits and cultural capital, Steppenwolf would have a claim. Their landmark productions of uber-Americana epics like Grapes of Wrath and August: Osage County toured the world and put two new "classics" into the repertory. Not to mention their history showcasing definitive productions of the work of Sam Shepard. Still... there's a reason we don't hear about most of the average Steppenwolf season: it's often made up of humdrum regional theatre fare and successful English plays. They've expanded their spaces recently so stay tuned.

Might I suggest that Bob Falls' Goodman Theatre--Steppenwolf's downtown rival--may be coming closer than any other US company to the National model: i.e., a big building led by an adventurous, seasoned director producing at a professionally high level to frequent wide acclaim?  They even have some resident star actors, like Brian Dennehy, who may not live in Chicago but whose ongoing collaboration with Falls has helped make the Goodman perhaps the premiere site for the exploration of the O'Neill oeuvre. (Note their big Iceman Cometh this season, with Dennehy and Nathan Lane.) Falls and Dennehy also developed that landmark Death of a Salesman a decade ago that then conquered Broadway. So much for American meat and potatoes, but even with their rare outings with the classics they make noise. Falls' Balkan-set King Lear was, for me, one of the best US Shakespeares in quite a while. His sponsorship of another major Chicago-based American director, Mary Zimmerman, has also brought dividends--most recently with her beautiful reimagining of Leonard Berinstein's Candide, which I caught in DC and is now playing in Boston...but has seemingly not had any interest in NYC.

(By the way, on the subsidy question: I can't speak off the cuff about this, but my sense is that the city of Chicago has been instrumental in supporting and promoting both Goodman and Steppenwolf--even if to the chagrin of the city's many fine smaller troupes. Smaller pond perhaps for Chicago grants and arts-philanthropy bucks than in NYC. But still: subsidies help.)

Anyway, I hardly go to the Goodman regularly enough to stand by this argument. I offer it only as a provocation to us, that next time we go searching for that American National Theatre, let's remember to looking at...America. All of America. Some cities may just be better able to support such an endeavor than the overcrowded, price-inflated, 24-hour real-estate scramble that is the island of Manhattan.

20 comments:

David said...

What about DC's Arena Stage? Their space keeps them from transferring, but in terms of sheer productions and level of artistic quality, along with legit dedication to a specific mission and special events with appeal and excellence, could well be a very good case.

Daniel Bourque said...

Great overview of the situation. One of the things which always fascinates me about large institutional theatres is that by all argument and merit, they *Should* be able to say that whatever they are producing is the best. They have access to the best actors, directors, designers, etc... but we all know that's not true. I've seen more then a few dogs on our stages here in Boston over the last few years, let alone in NYC. As other people have more succinctly described it then me, the situation at the Roundabout recently has been dire! The funding is undeniably a big part of the problem - you just can't take the risks you can and control the massive infrastructure you need to create the kind of stuff a National Theatre can in America. Or at least nobody has figured out the magic formula to do it yet. LCT, the Guthrie and Goodman do some of the things that the National does in London but they don't have anywhere near the kind of cultural impact that it does. I'm not faulting them for this either; it's hard to see how they could scale up without massive changes in the way things work in America.

By the way, that Candide, which is now playing here in Boston at the Huntington is just fabulous - I was there the other evening. From what I've heard, there have been producers looking at it with the possibility of moving it at some point in the future. It's from that Goodman/Shakespeare Theatre/Huntington pipeline which seems to pump out a mega hit every few years. I'm really struck when watching it how different audiences respond to Mary Zimmerman's adaptation and direction - I've seen a lot of her operas at the Met (three total) and Metamorphoses so I have some sense of her style and the theatrical techniques she employs; it's something straight and musical theatre audiences seem to appreciate, but opera audiences dislike and even resent.

David Cote said...

One of the nice things about flinging a cri de coeur out there on the Guardian's stage blog is that the (civil) dissent and clarification helps to expand the argument I was trying to make.

So, thanks, Garrett, for expanding the frame and including the big regionals and identifying the very real limitations to having an NT-type theater in NYC.

I do want to say that the main thrust of my blog post was not so much "why don't we have an NT" so much as "why can't we have artistic directors like Hytner?" which is a related but not identical question. Over in London, you see AD's changing ever five or maybe 10 years at the National, the Royal Court, Donmar, etc. But our ADs hang on for 30 or 40 years. I just think that is a recipe for calcified seasons.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I second David Cote: NYC has an artistic-director problem. One problem among many: There have been several Roundabout and MTC productions in recent years when I thought, Are these ADs blind? Didn't anybody have a good look at those sets and costumes? Couldn't somebody with, you know, functioning eyeballs and authority nix something that was visually repellent?

MorganJen said...

No offense to the Goodman - which I very much respect - but I would make an argument for Arena Stage - there in the nation's capital. Though I ultimately suspect our National Theater is more shared over various spaces in various parts of the country and perhaps it's more about the communicative umbrella reach of that than just one building....however large and outfitred and well run

Robert Stanton said...

Agreed, Morgan, about our national theater being spread across the country. And I think, David C. and Ms. Vincentelli, that pointing the finger at artistic leadership is a mistake--I think, rather, it's what's behind the leadership. I have concerns about the not-for-profit model itself (and not just in the theater!), a problem with the chamber of commerce being the board of directors. I think artists should be invited onto the boards of directors with the businesspeople, and the businesspeople need to be invited into the spaces occupied by the artists, craftspeople, and dramaturgs--the rehearsal spaces, the costume shops, the scene shops, the literary offices--so that they feel proprietary toward the work inside the building, and not just the building. Everybody should be employed, engaged--just cutting a check doesn't cut it. A greater understanding of the process of making theater could also lead to greater parity in salaries between artists and artistic leadership, which would help support the repertory model Garrett describes in his article. This organizations underneath the umbrella Morgan describes need some shaking up. Oh, and I think everybody's idealizing the Royal National Theatre a little. I've seen some great things on its stages, but I've also left dissatisfied. It's hard to make something good.

Everybody, watch the Brooklyn Philharmonic this season. See how they engage the community. I think there's something happening there that can teach us, in other disciplines, about how to engage a larger audience. My eyes are open and my fingers are crossed.

The Playgoer said...

Thank you all for this lively discussion so far. An all-star roster of commenters!

A few afterthoughts,clarifications and qualifications:

-Agreed, Robert, about the risk of fetishizing the National in particular. In fact, I should have said up front that other European state theatres (indeed dare we say non-European as well) might be even better exemplars. So let me concede that my own lack of travels and my foreign-language limitations prevent me from commenting more in depth on other State Theaters.

-Arena Stage is certainly worth considering in this context. I'm just less familiar with their work personally. But indeed, Arena is arguably where it all began! (i.e. the regional theatre upsurge in the late 60s.) However, I can't say I've been sensing much buzz about their work more recently. The new building might, however, give them the opportunity to produce on a National-esque scale. And their resident writers program is a good omen--one similar in fact to the European State Theatre model.

-Size does matter after all. For this discussion at least. Generally, I'm all about "intimate" performance in smaller spaces. But the question David C has raised is basically what makes the National so special from our perspective. And part of the answer is the scale they are able to produce on--while even our poshest stages here are constantly putting up cheap, corner-cutting physical productions and casting two actors in twenty roles....I raise this as another, more forgiving way of understanding just why the NYC institutions so often go for broke and transfer to Broadway. The Public, for instance, just CAN'T mount truly large productions on their stages. Their largest space is only 299 and (from what I can tell) practically no fly or wing space....In comparison, though, it seems all the more a shame that Manhattan Theatre Club shelled out for a B'way house only to still put on the same small plays they do otherwise. How wonderful it would be to commission one of their playwrights to write a big 25-character epic specifically FOR the Freidman stage. Instead they waste it on a revival of "Collected Stories."

-Speaking of questionable choices of NYC Artistic Directors...These criticisms of Haimes (Roundabout) and Meadow (MTC) certainly still resonate strongly throughout the community here. Indeed what both have most in common is their tenure--about 40 years each--and that they basically were there at the founding of each theatre. (Or very, very early.) Meadow is by trade a director, but not an especially notable one. Like Haimes she has served essentially as a creative producer. So neither are able to put an artistic stamp on (or even take artistic responsibility) for the work on their stages like Hytner can in London.

I don't know if length of tenure is the problem. But in the case of MTC and Roundabout in particular, the power those two individuals have been able to accumulate over the years has probably made change harder.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Robert: Yes, it's what's behind the leadership, but shouldn't we address the issue of final responsibility? I'm not sure that issue can be dealt with by collectively, no matter how engaged the collective is. A board can't be responsible for ensuring that a specific show has, for lack of a better word, integrity, or that everybody working for a company is engaged. A good AD's job is to keep everybody passionate and on their toes, so they can do the best job they can in the best conditions possible. We're talking about someone with passion and charisma here -- not the type we see leading our local nonprofits (except maybe for Oskar Eustis).

And yes, better salary parity would go a long way toward fostering morale, though I'm not sure it would help bring about a repertory model in America. Is the latter really what we want, in any case?

Daniel Bourque said...

When I've had a chance to talk with theatre practitioners from other countries one of the things which has struck me is how singular the American system of having Artistic Directors reign for year after year is. Mendes or Grandage could have conceivably stayed at the Donmar for years, but didn't, and ditto for Hall, Nunn, etc at their respective organizations. How much of that is cultural, how much of it is personal aspirations by the individuals to move on I have no idea, but it certainly is different from the way things work here. Also, it's important to realize, I think, when you work for a National Theatre, you are quite literally a state employee with all the benefits and ills that correspond to that status. When I attended the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, there were Hungarian directors there who spoke of Theatres literally being opened and closed on the whim of government officials with little or no correlation to artistic worth, and several French directors indicated that the programs which funded directors in their system would send employees to and from theatres which were judged to not be as well staffed, representative of their region, etc without regard to individual wishes in the way that a clergyman might be packed off to the provinces. So clearly, there are pluses and minuses that abound to having more government funding.

The Playgoer said...

One more thought about that "Artistic Director for Life" problem: David and Daniel point to the London AD's moving on after five years or so. But let us not forget that one reason they do that is because they CAN. Yes, Sam Mendes has a Hollywood film career, but Michael Grandrage doesn't. And neither does Trevor freakin' Nunn! (Although his royalties from Cats probably go a long way.) They scary (for us) truth is that in the theatre culture of Britain there actually is enough theatrical activity to give those guys steady work...At the other extreme, I'm not sure what Todd Haymes and Lynn Meadow would do if they left their fiefdoms.

Robert Stanton said...

Elizabeth, I didn't make myself clear: I'm talking about engaging board members. They must be actively employed, put to work for the institution and welcomed into the process, so that they understand that what happens INSIDE the building is more important than the edifice. And I don't agree with you about the artistic director's job. I think that that is one of programming a season that speaks to an audience, that actively engages an audience, that matches a great director with a great text, and then lets him do his work; it is the artistic director's job to to build community, a community of artists and spectators. It is not quality control. (This is why I think what Alan Pierson is doing with his Brooklyn Philharmonic, an orchestra without a building, is so exciting this season. Do take a look. http://www.brooklynphilharmonic.org)

I've been a part of a repertory company and grew up watching a repertory company, and, you know what? As an artist and an audience member, it's pretty darn great: being a part of Robert Brustein's American Repertory Theatre, and growing up watching Zelda Fichandler's company at Arena Stage, were both important for me as an artist and as a spectator. I was surrounded by or observed fine actors taking on challenging texts, working with world-class directors. I will never forget watching Alvin Epstein dance with a leaf in Robert Wilson's production of "When We Dead Awaken," having just had the chance to play opposite him in Anne Bogart's production of "Once in a Lifetime." I will always remember Richard Bauer's Porfiry in Yuri Lubimov's "Crime and Punishment" in Washington, and his Gayev in Lucien Pintilie's "Cherry Orchard" (and Shirley Knight's Renevskaya? I never have to see the play again.) Look abroad to long-lasting, multi-generational, sustainable companies like Joël Pommerat's Compagnie Louis Brouillard and Ariane Mnouchkine's Théâtre du Soleil. I walked into the Comédie Française with trepidation, thinking I'd find a museum, or a mausoleum, and was delighted to see a fantastic company deliver a timely, dark and side-splitting "Malade imaginaire" to a packed, lively audience of all ages, and then turn around and do Robert Wilson's stylized "Fables of la Fontaine" for an equally packed house of enthusiastic children.

Do we not want this? Why wouldn't we?

As far as tenure, I don't begrudge NY Artistic Directors their longevity nor their salaries, but the issues Daniel Bourque raise have to do, in part, I think, with the not-for-profit corporate model, which is built on the for-profit one. If we write off government funding (I think we pretty much can, right?), is there any other way for the theater to be sustainable in the US?

cgeye said...

I'm old enough to have seen more than one repertory company effectively become a waystation for itinerant actor employment, which is sad because such compromises remove actors and other creative staffs from the lobbying/community involvement that lets a business grow roots. That imbalance necessarily privileges the opinions of civic leaders on the board, who necessarily support AD's-for-life, to be the public face of the company. It's a bargain that drives accomplishment toward a mean of crowd-pleasing/'not pissing anyone off'. That would be okay, if that meant companies did *better* as time went on. They aren't.

(And Mr. Stanton, hello. I *knew* I recognized your name from an early MEASURE FOR MEASURE where a certain Mr. Shalhoub addressed his Angelo soliloquy to his penis....)

Robert Stanton said...

That sounds like a wild "Measure," but my Angelo was Richard Jordan, rest his soul.

Dan Stearns said...

Just FYI, you were picked up by WBEZ,Chicago Public Radio, and mentioned on their blog: http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2011-09-30/daily-rehearsal-goodman-chicagos-version-national-theatre-92668#

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Robert, I completely agree with board members being engaged, but I also do think that an artistic director's job includes a measure of quality control.
As for repertory companies, having grown up in France I tend to be mostly in favor, though sometimes the reality doesn't quite compute with the ideal. I remember Théâtre du Soleil productions in which some parts were poorly cast/handled. Does it have something to do with the fact they could only use actors from the company and none fit a particular bill?

Robert Stanton said...

cgeye, Aha, that was Robert Stattel.

Elisabeth, with the gentlest of hands, especially if s/he's done a good job of setting the wheels in motion.

As to whether you feel someone's overparted, that's subjective, right? And can happen whether you're watching a show within or without the repertory model? Lord knows I live in a glass house, and that stone's been thrown at me.

But back to the job of AD, I keep harping on this story, but I think this guy and his managing director show some incredibly exciting thinking, in reinventing a cultural institution that was in serious trouble--THIS is artistic direction:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/02/arts/music/brooklyn-philharmonic-lands-alan-pierson-as-artistic-director.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&sq=pierson&st=cse&scp=1

Robert Stanton said...

Bad link. Here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/02/arts/music/brooklyn-philharmonic-lands-alan-pierson-as-artistic-director.html

cgeye said...

Sir, my apologies.

Isn't there a paradox at work here -- as soon as a troupe gathers enough steam to be successful, it will be stripped for parts, by Broadway and Hollywood?

Isn't it near impossible for artistic directors to shape a company's excellence, before that company dissolves itself?

Robert Stanton said...

cgeye, No apology necessary; he's a fantastic actor, and I'm happy I'd be confused, even if it were just because our names are almost homonyms.

Cherry Jones, Alvin Epstein, Jeremy Geidt, Thomas Derrah and Will Lebow put in years, some of them decades, at A.R.T.; Robert Prosky, Stanley Anderson, Richard Bauer, Halo Wines, Mark Hammer, and many others did the same at Arena. Which is why I think parity in salaries between artists and management does more than improve morale, Elisabeth; it can give the artists an opportunity to establish roots in a community, pay a mortgage, and put their kids through college. I know many a journeyman actor who can do the same thing in New York CIty, which seems miraculous, but it happens. Living wages, together with the joy of being a part of a collective under a visionary leader, can spell loyalty to a company; opportunities for resident artists to job-out to or leave for Hollywood and commercial theater leads to the introduction of fresh blood, and, hence, sustainability. (And if the artists have established roots in a community, I don't understand how they are incapable of "lobbying"--this point was lost on me, cgeye.)

If the AD is visionary, like Brustein or Woodruff or Fichandler or Papp or Wolfe or Nicola or Bishop/Gersten (best double-act in New York) or Eustis, who *cares* if they hold their job for decades, David Cote? It's like term limits: I feel they're essentially undemocratic, and I should be able to vote for who ever I want as often as I want. The theatre needs its FDRs.

cgeye said...

I think what I was trying for was this: If actors are perceived to be temps -- someone who comes in for a play, leaves for other work soon after -- it's harder for that person to advocate for why a specific theatre matters to a community.

As you said, being able to put down roots, own a home, raise families, makes actors part of a community. That doesn't mean jobbing-out isn't possible; rather, the implicit promise is to return, and do more good work. When a theatre gives up that vision entirely, until only a handful of actors continue from year to year, that means that theatre also gives up its purpose-built advocates for its mission -- the people audiences pay to see, rather than the AD or development staff.

But I also see the point of criticizing institutions that might have calcified -- if the mission's been lost, or the spark has fled, but funders still fund, who will tell a company that it has to change? The audience? Are they still right, in this case, when theatrical peers say otherwise?