WARNING: The opinions expressed below are DEFINITELY those of The CoLab Theatre Company! Learn more at www.colabtheatre.org!

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Globe, A.R.T. and Will LeBow's Open Letter

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.

In conclusion:

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.


  1. I think the article is over-focused on Shakespeare Exploded; potentially the most troubling ART development was Johnny Baseball, an old-style Broadway musical rehearsed in NYC up 'til tech.

    Diane's eyes towards the commercial are tough to deny, but I don't think ART's soul has been sold quite so neatly as folks would have you believe. Going down the line:

    Donkey Show--I have serious qualms about the DS and the choice to gut the Zero Arrow Theatre's long-term implications, but it does offer many things that are new to Boston theatre--more improvisational relations between actor and audience and the sing-along musical form among them.

    Sleep No More--An immensely bold undertaking. I've never seen anything like it in Boston, bringing in one of the hottest groups in London to work on a huge scale.

    Best of Both Worlds--I'm a little too close to this one to comment.

    Gatz--A fairly established piece to bring in, all things considered, but still a very interesting adaptation.

    Paradise Lost--Now, Kenny, I have to defend this. I agree it was a failed production, BUT a devotion to "expanding the boundaries of theatre" (which is ART's official mission statement, BTW) I think needs to embrace the old Brustein approach to this as well; some absolutely stellar shows that truly do expand what theatre can be, like Woodruff's works and Stern's production of Endgame, have come out of this. And at the end of the day I'll defend Diane more than I question her as she continues to respect this tradition (and I think she still is, given her choice to stage Ajax in her second season).

    Johnny Baseball--see above.

    Season 2:

    Cabaret--Yes, Amanda Palmer sold out The Onion Cellar, and will be a big commercial draw; and yes, her work is notoriously uneven (and I don't buy for a second that the director's the real helmsman on this project); but this is my all-time favorite musical, and I'm too busy geeking out to complain about it.

    The Blue Flower--I read this while Diane was working on planning the season--this is a very interesting, risky new musical Diane has taken on, which has the potential to really be something special.

    R. Buckminster--Unknown quantity.

    Ajax--A Greek text. Diane's doing a classic. I heartily approve. (I honestly believe that looking back to classics is likely to do more to expand the boundaries of theatre than new playwriting.)

    Prometheus Bound--Serj Tenken (sp?) of System of a Down providing songs for a translation of a Greek play? A very intriguing collaboration.

    Death and the Powers--...I'm not inclined to trust Randy Weiner's work. But we'll see; it is certainly different.

    Overall, I think Diane is striking a very respectable balance; I only hope the trend continues.

  2. Oh Man. So much to say. But...
    1. I think we should remember that Shakespeare stole all of his stories and most of his characters. He took things people were familiar with and revamped them in an exciting way. Yes we should do the text. (ASP still does, and plenty of other theatres in town still do. One is never short a production of Midsummer Night's Dream if one really wants to see and hear its text). ART is taking stories we're familiar with and revamping them in a way that's exciting to the community. That's awesome. (Fuck. I wrote this before I read your P.P.S., I swear)

    2. A great local playwright has said "Theatre shouldn't expect the audience to bow to it, it should bow to the audience." I think the first phrase is what A.R.T. had been doing, now it's trying to do the 2nd phrase. I think most of Boston theatre (over-generalizing a bit, but...) has mostly been waiting for the audience to bow to it. Thank god somebody has turned it around.

    3. I too wish they had kept the Rep company, but realistically they weren't used that much anyway. They got maybe 2 roles a season. Last year, Karen McD had about 5 roles in other major theatres in town and they were all outstanding. That was a gift to Boston. In the past year, between Donkey Show and Sleep No More, the A.R.T. hired more boston actors than they had in the previous several years.

    I don't know why people feel threatened by the notion of a theatre (god forbid) being so exciting to a community that audience attendance actually generates income. Back in his day, Shakespeare was a pop artist, who made money writing plays that people fought to come see.

    I don't love everything A.R.T. does either, but wouldn't it be cool if more theatres had people scrambling to get in?

  3. I will respond to these comments during my next entry later this week. Great stuff guys, thanks! All very helpful.


  4. What concerns me is the duplicitous nature with which the ART is pandering to the community regarding commercial entertainment and Art. When a leader kills off a community of potential collaborators justifiably for budgetary concerns can we hope to have any ongoing conversation of merit regarding the future of our craft?


    read more here about some of the behind close doors deals. much of what is being expressed by the leadership is idealized banter appealing to artists looking to break out of the mold and into new forms.

    i agree that we should be pushing the bounds of what this art and craft can be yet me must maintain and recognize our duty as artists to consider our offering to the audience. Because whether we are 'bowing' to them or they to us what needs to be considered is the exchange. In terms of the form they are installing as the answer to what theatre can be in the future the vessel is empty and void of any truly challenging ideas. there is room for more inside of the structure of the donkey show to express, whether it be Shakespeare or not, more than a thesis that extends no further than ' gee weren't the 70's fun? anyone want to take their shirt off for another bump of blow?'

    [tangentally - the lack of respect shown by the management in refusing to pay royalties for songs used during the performance is a disgusting representation of the value placed on other artists work by an institution seeking to turn its own profit]

    to be fair something that is yet to be seen is what Paulus will do with ART when she is working through the current 10'-11' season. because of the shows that were mounted last year at the ART only 'Paradise Lost' (an abysmal representation of the 'old style' of theatre at the Loeb was basically an artistic director publicly flogging the loyal patrons of her theatre by showing them just how staunch and unfeeling avant garde theatre can be). i admit i do not have a clear understanding of her artistic leadership as the only show she directed last year, which she had not previously staged in NYC, was Johnny Baseball. Sleep No More, and Gatz had been on the docket long before she had a voice in creating the season. Best of Both Worlds and Donkey Show had been developed previously and were basically re-stagings of previous productions.

    i would ask if you consider theme park entertainment theatre? can't we have changed forms with substance? i want to be a part of the avant garde but only when it is defined as the advanced guard that is moving forward with the skill of a soldier to reconnoitre with intelligence the landscape and proceed as guardians of what should always be considered sacred. whether comedy or tragedy, entertainment or agitprop, the theatre is a tool for a community to hold the mirror up to themselves and evaluate what they see.

    PS As an artistic community shouldn't we be more concerned that our two main figure heads ( Dubuis and Paulus ) are more interested in developing, living, and collaborating with our neighbors in NYC? When will we have an artistic director who throws the weight of the budget around to add to debates and conversations that are happening in our community? Rise up fringe you are on the outskirts no more there are cracks in the pavement and there we can plant the seeds for a revolution that will crack the foundations of any 'institution'.

  5. So many cracks, so little pavement!

  6. Anon--I don't think it's fair to call Paradise Diane flogging ART's old patronage. While she necessarily takes some blame for programming it, I don't think there's any way that that's what she envisioned when she programmed it. Fish is a director who has been on ART's radar for a while now (among other things, for a production of Oklahoma he quietly staged at a college that a much-admired mentor of mine often raves about); he has done Odets before, and in that production directed a rather straighter version; and the play itself, in terms of its themes alongside the present economic situation, struck me as a brilliant choice by Diane when I first read it. I think this was a legitimately well-intentioned attempt to keep the old tradition of classic text/bold directors alive, flawed as the final result may have been.

  7. @J-Rex
    I just wanted to comment on the idea that the ART has hired a lot of local actors with The Donkey Show and Sleep No More. It is also very important to ask how much those performers are/were paid. I'm guessing bot as much as actors used to be paid to be in plays at the Loeb.

    The rest of the discussion, to me seems to miss the point entirely. This isn't about traditional vs Avant Garde, or avant garde vs populist/commercial (the ART never really was avant garde anyway and still isn't)

    I think that at the heart of it Paulus appears to be an artist who is interested in making/programming work that speaks to now in the languages available now. The lines between "theatre" and "performance" are blurred as are the lines between high and low etc etc. This is the world we live in and I suspect she is attempting to speak to, of and in this world.

    I'm not a fan of the Donkey Show, I thought it was cute but a bit of a snoozefest and frankly, at 10 years old, Paulus could do better, and I'm really disinterested in Cabaret, so I won't go see it. But so much of what has been programmed I'm intrigued by and will attempt to see.