At the beginning of day two — and the beginning of act two — of the In the Crossroads conference, critic and former ART artistic director Robert Brustein looked around the comfortable conference room at Arena Stage and offered a monologue about his position:
[There] are certain ideals that were constructed for the nonprofit theater, which I have not heard a word about in the last two days. We all deviate from the ideals — ideals are meant to deviate from. But you have to know what they are in order to deviate from them. And what I’m not hearing is the fact that there was a time when we were different theaters, we did different things. We didn’t join together to do the same things to please the largest number, to bring in the greatest amount of money, and the greatest subscribers. We did, as a nonprofit theater, most of us did these things because nobody else would do them! We did Robert Wilson, we did Andrei Serban … Because Broadway wasn’t going to do them! And they needed a voice! They needed an outlet. They needed a stage. And they’re not going to get that stage if we are thinking about filling our large buildings — and that’s one of the problems I have.
They’re beautiful buildings, I adore them. They are handsome, architectural contributions to our culture. At the same time they produce certain problems. … You have to fill it. You have to pay for it. … The smaller buildings, the little ones, you know, the fifty-seat, sixty-seat houses, were the things that we were leading. We were doing much more adventurous work. We weren’t worrying about finding partners from the commercial theater. And certainly the commercial theater was not thinking about finding partners with us. It was only when these certain things began to succeed, that we were doing, that we got these looks, and we got these alliances.
Uh, and I, personally — not to beat my own drum (but of course I’m doing that) — tried all my life, forty-six years of running these theaters, to not have these relationships with commercial theater. We spoke about one yesterday. I didn’t know that was a relationship. I swear to God. It was my friend Rocco Landesman, a former student and former friend.
It was that last line that got the laugh. Brustein had meant to say “former enemy,” and whether this was a Freudian slip or a more benign mere slip of the tongue is for Brustein’s therapist to say. But one wonders which camp Diane Paulus, who currently runs the American Repertory Theater that Brustein founded in 1980, would fall into. On the ART schedule for this season are two revivals — Pippin, a musical; and The Glass Menagerie, the classic Tennessee Williams play — at least one of which has an eye firmly on a Broadway transfer, as had last season’s Porgy and Bess.
To be fair, there is a new play currently running at ART, Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge, which is playing at the ART’s “second stage” Oberon, a club space which seats (as far as I am able to tell) 100 people. This points to an interesting development in the life of the new American play over the past ten years, the creation of second stages for the presentation of new plays. A response to the perceived lack of production opportunities for new American plays, a few of these new production spaces have opened up, including LCT3 and the Arena’s Kogod Cradle. Neither has a capacity of more than 200; the larger stages of these resident theatres are still given over primarily to play revivals (and therefore known quantities with a certain audience appeal) and musicals (both new and revived). Which is all well and good, unless you’re a playwright who thinks in terms of more ambitious theatrical palettes and larger audiences.
I suppose we can argue whether, as not-for-profit organizations, ART should be in the business of producing revivals of Pippin or the Center Theatre Group revivals of Funny Girl — and indeed, at the two-day conference, there was a great deal of discussion about this. It could be argued that the amusement and entertainment of the greatest number of community members possible constitutes a community service of some kind, even if it’s a community service that commercial producers can provide just as well. But given the breeding and health of the new American straight play — which was one of the major themes of the conference — it seems that, in this particular theatrical community, the American straight play is in danger of becoming a second-class citizen.
The picture may not be as bleak as Brustein paints it. We still have frequent visits from both Wilson and (more rarely) Serban to New York. Ivo van Hove and Elevator Repair Service (neither of whom seems likely to visit Broadway stages soon, though who knows?) have regular New York homes at the New York Theatre Workshop and the Public Theater. But van Hove is a director, Elevator Repair Service a company. And as excellent and innovative as these may be, they are not playwrights. Dramatists who write for a more coterie audience will be less attractive to commercial producers, as they always have been, because the commercial rewards are more limited. As the partnership between commercial producers and non-profit theaters develops, it will be interesting to see whether this perceived commercial appeal will limit the kinds of plays that are produced, the kinds of commercial enhancement money that can be attracted, even on these new smaller stages. And — as it happens — productions of either new or revived straight American plays, and many musicals, almost never arrive on Broadway without having been developed or first presented by a non-profit resident theatre.
But what have the playwrights to say about all this? More on Thursday when this mini-series continues.