The Playgoer: The "National Theatre" Pipedream

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Friday, July 15, 2005

The "National Theatre" Pipedream

Time Out New York's cover story a few weeks back on "How to Fix Broadway" is finally available online. Worth reading, if only for arguing with and provoking one's own thoughts.

While TONY has generally been a good booster of non-Broadway & downtown theatre here, the very premise of this feature reveals these otherwise fine theatre writers are captive to the Broadway mentality. I mean--"why fix Broadway?" would seem a more apt topic to me. Devote whatever resources such reformists would muster toward the health of the theatre producers who are already contributing to the artform, not looking for a return on a real estate investment.
Case in point: yet another call for a National Theatre on Broadway (setting aside a house, enlisting stars with theatre chops, etc). The TONY writers constantly invoke the model of the Royal National in London. But they ignore the fact Olivier and his co-founders completely avoided the West End and set themselves up on the South Bank as a clear alternative. Tony Randall had this dream and, of course, fell short because he realized his National Actors Theatre would have to survive and compete as just another non-profit company--but paying Broadway-rate union wages and real estate! (And it took Roundabout and Lincoln Center literally decades to develop a successful business model for that.)

When will we in the New York Theatre Community acknowledge we have a national theatre already. It just is, inconveniently, not located in one place. First, of course, there's the whole LORT network ("League of Resident Theatres") of 75 professional regional companies throughout the "nation". The New York-based actors, directors, and designers who depend on this circuit for much of its employment certainly consider it our national theatre. (It's the media that remains so myopic and B'way-obsessed.) But, ok, let's stick with New York for the moment. How would any imagined "National Theatre" in reality be much different from what Lincoln Center and the Roundabout already are doing? In fact, if you lump together those two along with Manhattan Theatre Club (at least in their better days) and the Public-- there you have it, no?* Classics, new work, American, foreign, hot directors. Are we totally satisfied with these existing theatres? No. But why set up another boring, safe institution. How about supporting what we have?

*(I mention the bigees, as something comparable to Broadway. The other NYC Lorts do fine work Off-Broadway, of course).

Personally I find the TONY guys' idealism way ahead of the economics. And the urging for Broadway producers to raid more downtown plays? Nice way to kill some young careers, guys, forcing their avant-garde work before tourists who couldn't get into Phantom, and closing the show within a week, when it can't book 90% capacity.... But hey, read for yourself, and tell me which prescriptions you think have merit.


Anonymous said...

I haven't yet read the TONY piece, but "why fix Broadway?" seems a more apt question to me too. Maybe it's my rebellious streak, but I've always wondered why so much attention has been given to something that's essentially just an economic category. And I wonder whether distinctions of this kind are a routine part of theater practice and discourse in other countries. Does anyone in Paris, Rome, or Berlin talk with special fervor about shows in thousand-plus-seat houses?

Maybe I'll add another comment whenever I get a chance to read the TONY piece.

Playgoer said...

Good point. I don't hear Londoners bemoaning the travails of the West End. Maybe because they can go to the National, the Court, and the Fringe for their meat and accept the West End for the commercial thoroughfare it is....Any thoughts, Webloge?

Anonymous said...

On the thought of a national theatre:

Those of us who don't live in the Big Apple, or even on the East Coast, are by and large condemned to a diet of the dramas and musicals of two to three seasons past, with touring casts of relatively unknown actors. Many of the LORTs are cutting their new play development programs and dramaturgical staff (see Denver Center as one example), not exactly a harbinger of good new things to come to the center of the country.

The hope might be that a national theatre would have some responsibility to the ENTIRE nation--maybe they'd premiere work in Omaha, Detroit, Nashville, Oklahoma City, or other cities where theatregoers would love to see big-name actors for a drastic change. Also, perhaps a National Theatre would be subsidized by the U.S. government. Don't get me started on the possible bunch of problems there, but a bright side might be that government subsidies and programs would keep ticket prices much, much lower. The article suggested that the average theatregoer is "about 96", but you try convincing college students that they should spend $50 for two hours at a play they've never heard of, when they can take a date to Star Wars for $20. Perhaps a national approach of some sort could address these economic realities. But please, don't put one more theatre in New York and call it "National".