The Playgoer: NYT downplays Provincetown

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

NYT downplays Provincetown

The Times today goes wide with the Provincetown Playhouse story. But the article smacks of the worst of corporate journalism, of big NY institutions (NYT & NYU) cozying up to each other.

Basically it's covered as just a real estate squabble. And the NYU side of the story is given far more play than any other, giving the impression it's exactly the story the university would want the Times to run.

I'm no professional journalist, I know. But seems to me the outline of a straight-news story on this conflict would be a no-brainer and read something like this:

I NYU is considering plans for a new building that would demolish the Provincetown Playhouse.
II This upsets people because...
a) its significance to US theatre history and Off Broadway
b) yet another encroachment by the University on the character and history of Greenwich Village
III NYU's response: "Nothing to worry about, we're being responsible," etc, etc.
IV Meeting planned. "Only time will tell..." The End.

In other words, since this story has only been reported in the community paper The Villager, and on a couple of websites and blogs, doesn't it behoove the Times--in their first piece about this--to lay out the story in this Journalism 101 way?

Instead we get a lot of Part III (NYU's defense) up front. That is, before the argument against has even been fully voiced.

Also--not one theatre artist is interviewed or quoted for the piece. For a statement on the significance of the Playhouse they go not to a theatre historian or O'Neill literary scholar,but to the head of the Merchants House Museum, another old building in the neighborhood, that luckily has been preserved. (And, by the way, wouldn't the Provincetown--if nothing else--make at least a nice museum?)

Toward the end they finally get to an artist, the head of a Yale-based "Playwrights Theatre " group that NYU periodically allows to stage readings at the Provincetown. Hardly critical he has only respectful non-committal words about the university.

Meanwhile, such theatre luminaries as Robert Brustein have already gone on record. I wonder what Edward Albee would say, whose Zoo Story received its legendary US premiere there in 1959. How about an O'Neill biographer? Or an actor. Anyone???
Also unexamined is NYU's argument that the new theatre they plan to replace it with (as part of the overall enlarged complex) would somehow be more like the Provincetown than the Provincetown!

“I would not be taking down a building that had any architectural merit,” [architect Morris Adjmi] said. The new design, he added, “looks more similar to what was there than when it was renovated in the 1940s.”
So is what's being proposed a "recreation"? A replica? Not the Provincetown but an incredible simulation?

You know that feeling you get in some "heritage" museums or old home where you expect everything to be authentic, but there's a little tag that says, "historical replica"? And how your heart sinks? Well that's what I imagine theatre-struck youngsters saying in the future as they stroll around Washington Square Park and walk past what they thought to be historic.

Look--I know full well that the building currently standing at 133 MacDougal has had heavy "work" since the glory days of O'Neill. And as the Times tells us, it can't be landmarked because the NY Landmarks Commission deems it void of “historical and architectural integrity." And I also know that as a functioning theatre space it is cramped, old, and almost unusable for fully professional public performances (at least according to fire codes).

But to me these lacking qualities almost make it more urgent that we preserve it. To step inside this humble, cozy 170-seater, and to realize that The Emperor Jones was originally staged here--on this tiny stage!--is to be reminded how down to earth and basic much of our great theatre has always been. As unimpressive as the old house is to some, it still can inspire future generations, though its living historical memory.

Once you take down the building--no matter what memorial is put in its place--part of that memory goes with it. Inevitable, you say? Hardly. It's just a question of priorities.


Anonymous said...

Actually, two things: First of all, I've been in that theatre quite recently, and though it's a functioning theatre space it's no more cramped than many downtown theatres. It functions quite well for the student productions and presentations that are done there (though I couldn't tell you about its fire code status).

Second, it's not really "old." Some research would have to be done, but the stage in that theatre is in all likelihood not at all the stage on which The Emperor Jones was first produced -- the theatre space (like the building has a whole) has been gutted and rebuilt several times. It wasn't lit with the same lights; the audience didn't sit in the same seats.

If you look at a photograph of the Provincetown's exterior from the 1920s or 1930s and compare it to its appearance today, the changes that have been made over the years are obvious. All you'd really be preserving is the ghost of a theatre -- the Provincetown Playhouse in which O'Neill and Susan Glaspell worked has been a mere memory for years. Better to take the spirit of O'Neill and Glaspell as an inspiration rather than bricks and mortar.

Playgoer said...

Thanks for these valid points, Anon.

First let me say I don't know anythin g about the Playhouse's fire code either. Just meant it as a shorthand for general accessibility for performance. So I admit to being sloppy there.

Also, thanks for spelling out more of the nature of the renovations there. Yes, I see now how much both the exterior AND interior have probably changed since O'Neill's time. I certainly didn't mean that Emperor Jones played literally on those exact boards. But I imagine the dimensions of the interior were the same. Weren't they? I honestly don't know and suppose I should try to find out.

Still--I'm fully ready to admit what's at stake here might very well be more a symbolic loss than an architectural or even practical one. But to me symbolism really matters in time like these. It really matters to the legacy and reputation of the American Theatre if a major educational(!) institution can casually dismantle a building that--rightly or wrongly--has represented a certain tradition in American theatre for close to a century.

Or to put it another way--watching a wrecking ball take down the Providence would be a sad, sad sight. Not just a "sad, but get over it" sight. But a sight with real meaning for the disregard with which theatre is held in even the elite strata of our society.

It would be physical violence and "symbolic violence" combined.

Anonymous said...

Fuck O'Neill, this is where The Zoo Story took place. No renovations. The Zoo Story damnit! That may not seem like history to some, but in 20, 30 years, we will hate ourselves for destroying the place where Albee got his start. Also, the first play to transfer from Off-Off to Off Broadway was Home Movies into the Provincetown. No renovations. And would we know Charles Busch if Vampire Lesbians hadn't run there for so long? No renovations. Can't we see the history ahead of us?

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, NYU's theatre school and Experimental Theatre Wing continue to train future artists -- which is, frankly, the mission of the university: to educate and train.

If we're serious about this, we'd better get up a torchlight procession to Mario Batali's Po restaurant at 31 Cornelia Street, where the Cafe Cino was located, and urge him to put a stage up in the back. Arguably the Cino was just as important to American theatre as was the Provincetown Playhouse (and structurally the location is, unlike the building in which the Provincetown is located, much the same as it was in the 1960s).

If we don't want the art of theatre to become a museum, maybe we shouldn't start putting glass cases up around inanimate objects. All the nervous energy and righteous indignation directed at NYU (which, I understand, may include a theatre in the revamped Playhouse location -- more a gesture to the future of theatre than its past) might better be directed at becoming, finding or enthusiastically supporting the next O'Neill and Glaspell. The status of the building and the history of its structure seem ambiguous at best -- what ultimately would have been accomplished? And if we're getting to the point where we're trying to defend the status of the dimensions of a theatre space, aren't we indulging in just a little too much nostalgia?

So much of this seems to be the result of the justified or unjustified hostility towards NYU as a landowner or institution, rather than a real affection for or knowledge of the Provincetown Playhouse. I live in the Village. I remember -- and miss -- the Bleecker Street Cinema; Edgard Varese's house is just around the corner; the Circle in the Square originally opened in 1961 just steps away from my front door. Hell, Beat poet Gregory Corso was born in the building in which I live. But when I see these places (and the original theatres are long gone, whatever's there now), it's the work these artists produced that inspires me, not the locations. The mistake of an object for the thing itself is the definition of fetishism. Surely our time and energy should be spent looking to the art's future.

Anonymous said...

of course, the previous post would be made Anon' - pussy! I've never wanted to ring a commentor's neck more than the above, because there is so much wrong and told as if it's just obvious observation.

- "educate and train" - but stop eating our history and neighborhood. One does not necessarily mean the other is mandatory.

- Provincetown vs. Cino, is a false premise not even close to "Arguably"; but still, the Provincetown was last renovated in 1941, way before the "1960s". (And I'll debate anyone over the importance of earlier P-town, too.) Cino was in use less than a decade - it doesn't compare to a century on MacDougal St.

- cherishing the history of our theater doesn't make it a museum; it inspires new generations to reach such heights; and who said anything about "putting glasses cases up" - we want it functioning. Besides, NYU is about to build a big new theater school in the old Tower Video building. Why isn't that enough?

I've lived in the area since I arrived in '81 to go to... NYU. I would have given a dozen black box shows at 721 Bway to have one credit on my resume that says my New York premiere was in the Provincetown Playhouse - what a recruiting scam that could be for NYU!

And while I do spend most of my time championing today's generation of theater-makers, I have also protested to save Poe House, Judson House, Circle in the Square, and just a few days ago took part in celebrating the new plaque on the wall of Po with Joe's pic and good words about the Cino. If they try to tear that building down, I will be there, too, torchlight in hand.

History and the future are not mutually exclusive - I can support both along with my other "fetishism"s - please don't slander them, too.

Historic Greenwich Village is a destination that almost everyone visiting this City will make pilgrimage. If there is nothing Historic left, who will care about all the great things Anon' faux-ly laments? Folks surely will not be coming to see NYU's Greenwich Village.

I'll be happy to put my "real affection for or knowledge of the Provincetown Playhouse" and the rest of Greenwich Village up against anyone's desire to destroy my inspirations. Like those who restored the Apollo, Fords Theater, and any number of historic buildings, I am proudly nostalgic, and no one will cower from that. It is the very history of my craft that drives me to do great things in the future.

John Branch said...

Why not tear down the real thing and create a virtual version of the Provincetown, maybe even two or three (one at the time of Emperor Jones, one at the time of Zoo Story)? This could be in one of the architectural 3-D model formats, or as a built thing in one of the online virtual worlds. Or both.

You can't go very far in trying to keep a place as it was simply for the reason that something happened there. The mere fact that time has passed means it's not the same place in one sense. And in another sense, mere geographical location, a particular spot (a set of longitude and latitude coordinates) will always be the place where The Emperor Jones and Zoo Story began, regardless of what physical structure is there.