The Playgoer: Shiny Happy Buildings

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Shiny Happy Buildings

In recent years many of the 75 companies that form the League of Resident Theaters have looked at their aging or unaesthetic homes and joined what amounts to a nonprofit theatrical building boom. Since 2000 they and other institutions coast to coast have initiated dozens of construction projects whose combined tab is approaching $1 billion. The size of the scrums of dignitaries and donors who inevitably attend the groundbreakings and galas (and whose names seem to serve as wallpaper inside) suggests what it takes to get these buildings up. What’s less evident is what it really means to operate them once they’re built.
From Jesse Green's excellent Sunday piece on the "edifice complex" (to borrow Harold Clurman's phrase of a previous "boom" era) in regional theatre today.

So if you haven't gotten around to your Arts & Leisure yet, it's definitely worth the long read.

Once again, we have the big dilemma of our nonprofit theatres: put your resources into your physical plant or your plays.

I really don't mean that facetiously. Obviously, an improved theatre space can help your plays. (At least certain plays.) And attract the needed audiences.

But these are huge expenses we're looking at. I mean, duh!--it's real estate and it's the 21st century. Not to mention celebrity-architecture.
[I]t’s true that the building boom, particularly among the aging lions of the regional movement, is partly about creating whiz-bang “destination” theaters that will attract national talent. (Also, younger audiences.) But the companies say they are doing this to enhance or recapture their mission, not discard it.

At the same time they seem to be making pre-emptive statements about their centrality to the culture. In the last two years alone the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis moved into its new $125 million Jean Nouvel home overlooking the Mississippi River; Arena Stage in Washington broke ground on the $120 million Mead Center, designed by Bing Thom; and the Dallas Theater Center, in the city where the regional movement arguably began, started building Rem Koolhaas’s Wyly Theater, part of a cultural complex pegged at a Texas-size $338 million.

“You either grow or you die,” said Joe Dowling, the Guthrie’s artistic director.

Gee--I hope he's being facetious. I understand "grow" artistically, but that is completely the wrong message for companies without huge donor pools and/or endowments.

For most of the LORT theatres--like Buffalo's ill-fated Studio Arena--I'm afraid the formula is looking like grow and die.

So isn't it funny how the juxtaposition of this story with the increasing woes of the "mid-size" theatres (like Studio Arena) kinda brings to mind that mantra of the US economy as a whole lately: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

I sympathize with the plight of the companies who have truly "outgrown" their original spaces. Like the Arlington/DC Signature whose ticket demand (and potential profitability) went way beyond the small seating capacity of the abandoned warehouse they set up shop in when they were poor. And if you want your designers to be able to paint on a 21st century palette, you just can't do that in a shack that just isn't up to code.

But such artist concerns are not always on the companies' minds. Says Green of the Philadelphia Theatre Company:
[T]he Philadelphia Theater Company, which for 25 years had rented a charming but dysfunctional theater a few blocks away. That 1912 building was called Plays and Players; it often seemed that the word audience was omitted deliberately. Sara Garonzik, the company’s producing artistic director, said that many of its 324 seats were broken, that the lobby was too small to shelter patrons, and that the two hideous little bathrooms were barely accessible even to people not in wheelchairs....


[Another] problem: an aging core of subscribers who would not renew because of the physical discomfort of Plays and Players. “They told our telemarketers that they just couldn’t do it anymore,” [Garonzik] said.
OK, let's not be cruel and ageist toward those subscribers now. But I do hope it's possible for similarly beleaguered companies without billionaire donors to get smaller grants just to renovate the seats, without having to stake their future on a whole new building!

Otherwise you get, as at the Philly company's new home, the Suzanne Roberts Theater: "plush seats, roomy ground-floor bathrooms and lobby amenities reminiscent of a suburban bookstore," but where "backstage accommodations for the players are more modest."

Anyway, read for yourself and you decide if this is good or bad. Just remember Eduardo Machado's protest at the philanthropy world's advice to his INTAR theatre's problems: "They kept telling me if I hired the right consultants, everything would be fine. I would be able to raise the millions needed for the building. But where to find the funding for productions?"

I was also glad to see Green give a shout-out to Mike Daisey's screed against the Regionals, in which such privileging of concrete over content is part of the problem. Looks like Green's been reading the blogs!


Malachy Walsh said...

Thanks for connecting some of the dots between the article, Daisey and Machado.

A very interesting place we've come to, indeed.

Anonymous said...

"If you build them, they will come." ok, i don't know about that, but come on, i saw Spring Awakening this week and Passing Strange last week, and the only complaint that I had leaving the theaters was - damn, those chairs are tight! And don't even get me started on the Off and Off Off houses (unpadded, folding chairs have a 1/2 hour limit - period!).

It's hard to enjoy a show if every 5 minutes I'm worrying about whether the person next to me is scared that my elbow is leaning on theirs. I watch the guy on the other side of me exhale only to see the hair on the woman in front of him flutter upward - that can't be fun for her.

Coats in our laps, holding a cocktail in one hand and program in another, trying to feel on the floor for the flying "tonight's understudy" slips of paper. I was angry before the lights went down.

And intermission offered no relief as my girlfriend couldn't go to the bathroom cuz the line was so long, and that after the whole row's teamwork just to get us into the aisle. I can't be the only person who's uncomfortable bothering strangers like that.

Look, I love antiques as much as the next person, but sitting in one can be a chore. I know I'm pushing my 170lb limit, but I just don't think folks are as small as they were when some of these houses were built.

Imagine going to a movie and not sitting in one of those cushey chairs (cup-holder optional). And we wonder why folks hate going to the theater. I could enjoy a bad play, if I could just cross my legs from time to time.

I worry that too often we give audiences the impression that they are not as important as our plays are... and that can't be good. Somethings shouldn't be torn down, but building new theaters isn't always the devil's work, is it?

Tony Adams said...

new buildings don't have to be palaces either