The Playgoer: What Happened to "Producing"

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Friday, September 05, 2008

What Happened to "Producing"

Not quite back up to full speed blogging yet, but hopefully getting there soon...

Meanwhile, two interesting quotes on the decline of the art of producing for the theatre--in both the commercial and nonprofit spheres alike.

First, from Broadway, veteran auteur/impresario Hal Prince:

"The problem is that there are too few creative producers...There are a lot of people who are writing checks - and I'm glad they're making out those checks - but can they honestly say, when they're holding their Tony Award, 'Did I create this show? Or did I just write a check?'"
But even in our "art" theatres, Michael Feingold expects more creative programming from those in charge of the house. Not just new plays, of course. But even when you are devoted to "the classics" can't we at least explore the repertory with a more expert sensibility--i.e. going beyond the Drama 101 syllabus?

Worth quoting at length:
One might say that today's producers, among their other failings, don't digress enough. And by "producers," I mean our nonprofit institutions as well as those vast phalanxes of backers whose names now make up a dense paragraph over the show's title on every Broadway playbill. Relying on what they think succeeded once to be successful again, they've become almost fixated on a very small number of play titles as salable. They don't see plays as a wildly varied assortment of choices, or authors as the creators of a substantial body of work. For them, the names to conjure with are the few that have been profitably conjured with before.

The result is a systematic de-education of New York's audiences. Not exactly a dumbing-down—you could hardly say audiences are being dumbed down when they're urged to see Mamet's Speed-the-Plow and American Buffalo, which will shortly be playing a few midtown blocks from each other. But these two excellent plays, though they happen to have been commercial successes, hardly constitute Mamet's entire artistic output. The management that dreams of expanding our audience's Mamet awareness by taking a risk on, say, The Cryptogram or The Shawl—plays that didn't get such rousing receptions the first time around—is an element our theater lacks.....

Ibsen and Williams wrote other plays, which we rarely get to see in major venues, and even their less-than-great works carry a fascination that New York deserves to experience. Our rare glimpses of it tend to come in half-baked tries under shortchanged Off-Off circumstances.

Indeed thank god for the Mint, Keen, Pearl, and Metropolitan companies. But it seems the willingness to expand the repertoire is often in distressingly inverse proportion to the resources and, alas, talent to truly bring those plays to life.


Anonymous said...

There is at least one excellent producer of new work who creates plays in the sense Hal Prince means: Melanie Joseph and her crew at the Foundry Theater. They commission works - paying real cash to playwrights - -and give them real productions.

Anonymous said...

Michael Feingold is correct. The trend has definitely been toward "safer bets" in the past decade or so. Also, related to this trend, I think, is the tendency of non-profits to produce work that is "High Concept" in the Hollywood sense. For more on this, see my post on Extra Criticum, "High Concept: Choking American Theatre to Death."

- Rolando Teco
(of Extra Criticum dot com)

Theater of Ideas said...

I have to object to the phrase "half-baked tries under shortchanged Off-Off circumstances" Yes, the Off-Off scene is one that, pretty much by definition, does not have the finances of Off-Broadway or Broadway, and yes, more shows fail than succeed (one could argue that about Off-Broadway and Broadway as well). But Feingold seems to imply that an Off-Off-Broadway version of a play that would be otherwise unseen is by necessity a failure. It is an attitude that subverts his arguments. He wants to see shows that are by definition financially risky, at best, yet refuses to acknowledge anyone who is not able to pour huge finances into them. And that in turn prevents people who might be the Off-Broadway producers of the future from having the opportunity to showcase their talents, instead perpetuating the institutional model that refuses to acknowledge those outside the institutions. Thus, the situation he complains about is the situation he helps create.