Photo Courtesy of John Phelan via WikiCommons
Lots to discuss today. If you've been keeping an ear out for the latest rumblings in The Boston Globe, you might've read or heard about an article published last week regarding Diane Paulus and the recent change of direction at the American Repertory Theatre. In addition to an analysis of Paulus's first two seasons, the article also quotes an open letter published by elder statesman of Boston theatre, Will LeBow, in which he criticizes "populism" as "more accurately called 'commercialism' ".
Before reading any further, I recommend that you go ahead and check out both for yourself.
In my analysis, and that of many others I've spoken with, it seems that everyone involved has a valid concern or a legitimate gripe on some scale. Generally speaking, I do think that the A.R.T. is potentially moving in the right direction. However, I must stress the use of the word potential.
Personally, I think many of the artists and patrons in the Boston theatre community were growing tired of the avant-garde, big ideas, eating babies and crazy concepts theatre that the A.R.T. was becoming known for. I'm not saying that risk taking is a bad thing... but I do feel that many of us feel that the kind of work being produced by the A.R.T. wasn't risky at all. In many ways, the A.R.T. is an institution with a dedicated base that will always go to see their shows simply because of the three letters, A, R and T. I generally see at least two A.R.T. shows a year, and usually more.
I have to be honest. I don't particularly like the A.R.T., though I greatly respect it. I think they have brilliant actors and do interesting work. But it's a 50-50 hit ratio, and when they're charging ticket prices that high, I can't afford a 50-50 chance of hating or enjoying a show.
So that's where I come from. In recent years, the best A.R.T. shows I saw were Romance and Endgame. The worst I saw were The Seagull and Paradise Lost. But ultimately, I still want to go to the A.R.T. It's a brand and an institution I hold to a higher standard.
"Populist" theatre is not a bad thing. While it's important that theatre remain holy, the last thing we want to do is make it "sacred". Something sacred cannot be changed, and theatre is constantly changing. Moreoever, I fear that this aversion to "populist" theatre is part of the elite atmosphere that I've written about previously. I'm not going to lie, as a young latino man, I feel uncomfortable in the audience at the A.R.T. Even when I'm loud and obnoxious (I'm a full bodied laugher), I can't completely enjoy my experience because I feel judged.
And there lies a large elephant in the room. The culture of elitism, whether it's accidental or not, does exist. This anti-populist rhetoric doesn't help. (I won't even bother getting into the debate over the term's use, but I do feel that using this term is mildly insulting to the Populist movement of the 19th century, a movement that is the idealogical precursor to the progressive movement of the 20th and 21st century. But that's the history geek in me.)
So Diane Paulus introduces some more interactive, more "pop" theatre and turns everything on it's head. I do have reservations of the very "poppy" nature of some of the season choices, but shouldn't we wait and see the results before we judge?
I understand that some people find the interactive theatre of The Donkey Show and Sleep No More "unshakespeare". However, I can't remember the last time there was such excitement amongst the artist community about the possibilities of theatre can be. When Sleep No More was in town, artists were buzzing. I myself missed this experience, and I'm very sad. But many people were saying "Even if you don't like it, you're learning alot from it and getting great ideas."
Isn't that what art should be? Is it a problem if art both inspires artists AND brings in new audiences?
Now, before I imply that I'm 100% percent on board with everthing going on, I do have to say that I'm not pleased with the de facto dissolution of the resident acting company. We have so few true resident acting companies, and I do think that's something the A.R.T. offered that we need. Not all theatres should have resident acting companies, but we do need that sort of an institution. Theatre has changed, but we've transformed the market into "gig to gig" contract hell for most actors and we've lost the tradition of repertory theatre, and career actors who would work at one theatre their whole lives and develop over time, training future artists. I love the actors at the A.R.T., Will LeBow especially. We shouldn't be throwing that away.
I can't say that I know what's going on at the A.R.T. in terms of human resources, but I do have some reservations when people are cut or let go as part of an overhaul. I won't pretend to know what's going on, but I do express solidarity with the artists and administrators who feel as if they've been purged in the new era. However, as far as I know the Staffers left by their own volition. While it's sad that these professional relationships turned sour, I also feel that these are the inherent growing pains that come along with a transforming entity. If a staffer chooses to leave, I would hope it was after careful consideration and not by pressure.
Back to the actors. I hope that in the future, the casting and employement decisions are made with the Boston theatre scene in mind. Quite frankly, there is a wealth of talent and passion in this city and a NYC centric attitude will NOT help the A.R.T. in the long run. These numbers are encouraging, but as a member of the local theatre community, I still feel like the A.R.T. doesn't care about me or my colleagues. This is a problem, if not of substance, then of communication. I think The Donkey Show has been great for the community. I don't know if an absentee Artistic Director has been. I have no problem with Diane working her own projects, but if she's going to be a Boston area Artistic Director, I want to see her reach out and tap into the local artist community ask about OUR needs.
First, there's nothing wrong with populist theatre. I do think it's important to do Shakespeare's texts. But that doesn't mean "Ten Things I Hate About You" wasn't a kickass movie. I'm still in love with Heath Ledger, despite my status as a heteresexual male. There were about four lines of Shakespeare in that movie. But that doesn't mean I don't want to gay marry his character.
If it's good, it's good. If you insist on judging a book by it's cover, don't judge it as Shakespeare. Judge it according to what it is. Talk to Chuck Mee, I'm sure he'd like to have a debate with you about the validity of reimagining classic texts.
Second, we should wait and see before we judge. I don't want the A.R.T. to go clearchannel either. But I don't think we've seen that yet. And quite frankly, clearchannel rarely excites artists and if anything, attempts to stiffle creativity. Diane Paulus, to her credit, has excited artists in Boston and reminded many people what the possibilities of theatre are.
Finally, the A.R.T. (and all non-commercial theatres) should focus on their community. We are all in this together, whether penniless fringe or LORT contract behemoth. Don't dismantle your company of actors, and don't ignore the large community of artists around you. Work with them. Hire them. Inspire them.
Because in 30 years, our children will be the ones who keep the American Theatre, and especially Boston theatre, alive.
P.S. Please read this article about "Populism". I vote that we remove it from this debate, as it has nothing to do with what populism really is. It really distracts from the real issue here, which is creativity and commercialism.
P.P.S. Seriously, read about Chuck Mee's attitude towards texts. Here's a gem: "...none of Shakespeare's plays are original: they are all taken from earlier work. As You Like It is taken from a novel by Thomas Lodge published just 10 years before Shakespeare put on his play without attribution or acknowledgment. Chunks of Antony and Cleopatra are taken verbatim, and, to be sure, without apology, from a contemporary translation of Plutarch's Lives."
Food for thought.