The Playgoer: "Broadway": meaningless?

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Friday, July 25, 2008

"Broadway": meaningless?

A must-read from David Cote in this week's Time Out on why Broadway is no longer a realistic measure of "success" in the theatre--and to theatre artists.

What healthy tonic to a small NY Times piece last month that profiled a bunch of folks from LA trying to put on an Off-Off Showcase-Code show here. (Having pledged a personal moratorium on Times-bashing I refrained at the time. But now it can be told!) Though otherwise fine in its accounting of the struggles required to put up work in this city, a couple of lines still gave away how much the only point of comparison in the horizons of the Times reporter (and, more importantly, reader) is the commercial world of Big B'way. For instance, you can't see it online, but in print, I swear, there was an inserted header that read something like: what young artists will do to get to Broadway. And the financial context also consists of a simple Broadway/amateur binary, such as:

Under the rules of Actors Equity, the union, the maximum amount that can be spent on a showcase is $20,000, a pittance compared with the millions it costs to stage a full-blown Broadway production.
Of course, nothing about anything in between--like the mere six figures a mid-level nonprofit theatre like the Atlantic or Playwrights Horizons might budget per production?

In case this seems like a petty distinction, consider this: an audience coming to your $20,000
showcase production only used to Broadway budgets is indeed going to laugh off your production values as "ratty." But many Off-Off shows we see these days are remarkably close in level of design and stagecraft to the smaller nonprofits--and thus, totally up to par, professionally. But you wouldn't know that if your standard of "production" is only flying helicopters.

But anyway, back to Cote. (More about what is right, not what is wrong.) Aside from the fine overall analysis, there are three personal anecdotes recounted I would draw special to. One is the fact that Anne Kauffman--by all measures one of the most gifted and successful downtown directors (The Thugs, God's Ear)--has never and probably will never direct on Broadway. (And indeed why should she, if not for the paycheck.) Second is this revelation from Adam Rapp on the rationale behind his independent Off Broadway run of his Red Light Winter:
“There was an offer to do it through the Roundabout, produce it at the Walter Kerr and sell preview performances to the subscribers,” Rapp recalls. “I just felt that I’d formed a bit of a following that was used to paying $20 to $40, and if I did a show with $100 tickets, I’d lose my audience.” So Rapp and his producer, Scott Rudin, opted for a commercial Off Broadway run at the Barrow Street Theatre, where it played for six months and lost money.
I'm sure such "victims" of Broadway transfers as Stew, Lisa Kron, and (potentially) the [title of show] guys would now concur. And that phrase: "an audience used to paying $20-$40"--Artistic Directors take note.

And lastly, John Clancy blows the cover on what really sustains alternative American theatre artists: Europe. It ain't just for the Wooster Group anymore.
Clancy is a veteran of the Edinburgh Fringe and has brought productions to London and Australia. He savors the international profile…not that he would turn down a job at a more established venue. “I’m an American artist and I want to work here,” he insists. “[Urinetown book writer] Greg Kotis once asked me, ‘This is what you want to do, be like a jazz artist—big in Europe?’ And I said, ‘God, no. But that’s who’s been paying the bills for the last six, seven years.’”
Wait till the Europeans realize they can have our best artists for the right price--and then take them away from us.

Or better yet...let's not wait.

I leave you with one special plea. Reading this and contemplating the issue, you may shrug your shoulders and sigh: "what can you do about it." Well even if you don't have the deep pockets of a foundation, or don't have the goods to blackmail NEA chief Dana Gioia for more can still help change the conversation, by changing the language.

The American theatre is plagued by a constant, often involuntary conflation of the terms "theatre" and "Broadway." In most people's minds, the term "Broadway" stands for all American theatre--whether it's literally Tony-eligible or not. As that Times piece demonstrates, in the popular imaginary, all theatre is either "on Broadway" or "dying to get to Broadway." Hence any gifted artist putting on a successful show is immediately barraged with the faint praise: "this deserves to be on Broadway!" Followed by the question: "are you taking this to Broadway?" The result is often tragic implosions like Glory Days.

This also, of course, feeds the mentality behind the commercial "enhancement" of nonprofit productions--sought out by commercial and noncommercial producers alike.

So here's what you can do. Just catch people when they slip into that language, when they use the word "Broadway" describe anything happening outside of a 500+ seat house in the greater Times Square area. (Or outside of a national tour of product originating there.) Or when they respond to your impassioned praise of a show only by asking "Is it on Broadway?" or "When will it come to Broadway?"--remind them that is not the definition of success any longer.

Also, journalists must stop asking every single "little show that could" when they are going to Broadway, or speculating in print or on air whether the next downtown hit "could make it" there.

Yes, this will make you annoying--very annoying--to your non-theatre friends. But bit by bit, person by person, maybe we can change things, and change the equation by which our theatre artists have to calculate their lives.


Anonymous said...

Success is defined many ways. To me it's paying everyone involved in a production a living wage so they don't have to have second jobs (or be otherwise subsidized). Unfortunately there are only two types of theaters that can really do this: Broadway and the mega, non-profit regionals (like the Goodman, the Roundabout and the Guthrie). The Vineyard creates very fine work, but many (if not most) of the actors can't live exclusively on their salaries. As one Vineyard actor said to me "Lot's of cache and little cash."

Perhaps the economics of theater just don't work. It's nearly impossible to pay everyone and cover costs at under $100 a ticket without major subsidies (governmental or private grants/donations). But at $100 (or even $50) at ticket, you lose much of your audience. The Europeans can do it because they get governmental support. The mega regionals can do it because they get millions from corporations and foundations.

I don't think everyone is dying to get to Broadway because it's Broadway (although some are). People are dying to get to Broadway because of the money and the emotional satisfaction of being able to support oneself doing what one is trained to do. The cache of Broadway is not merely production values (which, in my opinion are often quite poor compared with the mega regionals). It about seeing people for whom theater no longer a "hobby" but a "career." If people could have a career (in the financial sense) in small theaters, those theaters would have the same respect as Broadway (as is the case in Europe).

Anonymous said...

Here, here, to both you and Cote! I hope that everyone reads you guys and this speads faster than a good slam of new play development.

"person by person, maybe we can change things, and change the equation by which our theatre artists have to calculate their lives."

When often the blog-talk is about New Models and tearing down the old system, you end with this great call to arms. I doubt there will ever be a new model, new tribe, new revolution, but if we take this to the streets and one-by-one change the thinking toward the direction we want to head, well, there's our best shot at success.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - that's about the best argument I've ever read for arts funding. And are you saying the only ground for respect is money? Now, that's depressing!


I very much agree with the fact that Broadway may not necessarily be the standard for success anymore. In fact, despite what one may see on my blog (which is laden with little ditties on musical theatre shows that either were on bway, are currently on bway, or are going to be), I have always felt it to be the case.

I have always been slightly derisive to anyone who's referred to all theatre as "Broadway". It seems that not only are you not deemed a viable production unless you are on the Great White Way, but also that people's knowledge of theatre is only limited to those running on bway.

We definitely need to change that. While I'm a lover of the big shows, it's the ones that don't get the bright-lit marquees that reinforce my love of this art form.

I think artists should be able to say they have successful careers without feeling like they have to "make it to Broadway". In a way, that's de-crediting (for lack of a better word) all of off- and off- off- broadway theatre, as if they don't "count".

Esther said...

You know, one thing that seeing "August: Osage County" on Broadway really brought home to me is that there's great theater going on all over this country. I see a lot where I live, in Providence, and some in Boston. I see a lot of touring productions. You can have an incredible experience anywhere. I know people who love theater but never get to a Broadway show because they don't live anywhere near New York.

For me, the great thing about coming to New York is that there's so much interesting theater, so many great stories, being told all within a 10-block area. (Not to mention off-Broadway). But that doesn't mean it's the only place where good things are going on.

Playgoer said...

I heartily agree with so much of the above. Let me just follow up on that sentiment of "making it on Broadway."

My only caveat to my friend David's article is the line where he references chorus boys & girls making a $75,000 minimum. I just wish he had clarified that was IF you're in a show that runs a year, AND you're in it for that whole year. (Pretty big IF's and AND's.) It is hardly the norm, neither for every show, NOR for every year in even a chorus performer's career.

So one should never assume that an average Broadway performer could be lucky enough to average 75 grand over, say, ten years. It's much more likely that someone lucky enough to score that big, big salary for one or two years, quickly uses it up paying the bills from the other 8 or 9 years eeking out 40-50K or well below.

My bigger point is to ask: what does it even mean to "make it on Broadway" any more? How many professional performers do just that on average? (that is, earn over, say, 75% of their annual income on Broadway.)

And, of course, one year you think you've made it on B'way, the next year you're waiting tables or working phone sex.

So, just another way in which Broadway has become practically meaningless for the vast majority of artistically excellent professional stage performers.

(I'm too tired now, but it wouldn't be that hard for someone to find out just how many paying jobs--and how many weeks' employment--there were for actors on Broadway this past season, for instance. AEA must publish those records I imagine.)

Anonymous said...

It's not about money for money's sake. It's about independence and being able to support yourself. It's hard to have self-respect (or the respect of others) if you have to have a day job.

Eric said...

In terms of the single season success of a Broadway actor, that may be true, but it's substantially easier to get the big regionals and the mega regionals to bite based on that one Broadway credit. It would seem that the largest export New York produces is actors.

I would love it if Broadway was no longer seen as the acme of the theatrical profession, but it's the home of a few key factors, the largest probably being money. There's also the Tony Awards, which seem to be one of the, if not the, biggest award in American Theatre.

Anonymous said...

Say au revoir to Dana Gioia; he should be announcing his resignation shortly.