In a recent LA Times article, Charles McNulty tackles the crises in Not For Profit theater in California. His refrain is one we have heard before, a tired and tedious diatribe on how "business" is destroying theater, and producing work that is facile. By facile, McNulty means work that is popular with audiences, but not "sophisticated or bold" enough to live up to what he, as a public intellectual, believes to be theater's true mission. One sentence particularly struck me, after discussing Louis G Spisto's "egregious" tenure as head of the Old Globe in San Diego, the author quotes an official at that venerable institution who " praised Spisto for increasing the annual budget from $12 million to $20 million and expanding the audience as well as the donor base." Huh? As a theater producer, albeit on a much smaller scale, I would be thrilled to double my budget and expand my audience base (my company takes no charitable contributions). I would go so far as to say that is pretty much most of my job. So given these fairly objective successes, what is the main fault that McNulty finds with Spisto's administration? Apparently "in terms of its contribution to the contemporary repertory, the Old Globe has become second tier"
A few things on this. First of all, I haven't the slightest idea what McNulty means by "the contemporary repertory". At a time when plays must be turned into movies to have any broad cultural significance, it is absurd to speak as if there is some list of plays that everyone in the country should, or should have the chance to see. But what is more absurd, and borders on insulting, is the idea that as theater producers and artists, our primary concern should be to create work that Mr. McNulty and his buddies at Sardi's think rise to the level of his capricious canon. Our job is not to squeeze mention of our work into cocktail parties at the Yale club, it is to create theater for our audience. Mr McNulty seems to stipulate that the "good" theater he supports will draw less audience than the "bad" theater people actually want to see. This being the case, he is telling us that getting people into shows and building new audience is less important than providing him the oppurtunity to pronounce someone the darling of the season.
The article quotes a few theater professionals who also bemoan the loss of top down funding that led to such admirable theater in the past:
Madeline Puzo, dean of the USC School of Theatre and a former creative producer at Center Theatre Group and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, points the finger at changes in funding.
"Up to the mid- to late '90s there was a national conversation about theater, a really rigorous conversation about excellence in artistry and also about management priorities that was taking place at the federal government and major foundation level," she said. "Since then, the not-for-profits have had to fall back on community support, both in terms of box office and also individual giving, which forces theaters into a more conservative stance. Boards represent that, though I don't know that they're necessarily driving it."
And there it is, the federal government and people at foundations with fancy degrees should really be the ones deciding what theater is best for people, not audiences, I mean what gives audiences the right to decide what is good.
Robert Brustein, veteran drama critic and founding director of the Yale Repertory and American Repertory Theaters, held out the hope that "nothing ever stays the same in this country."
"If the NEA and private foundations can increase their subsidies, there may come a time when theaters will recover their adventurousness," Brustein elaborated via email. "But fame as much as money is the spur that drives contemporary theater artists off their true path. And until we start respecting those playwrights, directors, actors, and designers who have chosen the relative obscurity and lower income of the nonprofit world in exchange for artistic freedom and institutional satisfaction, Red State self-interest will triumph over Blue State collectiveness, leaving a once great movement in the same sterile populist void that created it in the first place."
Sterile, populist void. That was what I meant by bordering on insulting. As for "blue state collectiveness", if that means the government and major institutions deciding what theater is produced for the good of the people, that is a collectivity I think we can all do without.