By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo by Fred Vicarel|
The problem was -- and still is -- that when the company would announce its intention to stage, say, King Learor The Three Sisters, you could pretty well anticipate that the Bard's lament would come out resembling the Royal Shakespeare Company's production with Sir Laurence O., and that Mr. Chekhov's play would be funny and realistic and ever-so-slightly anxious. And that the respective period costumes would be not only magnificent to look at, but also perfectly color-coordinated, with each other and with the set.
You can count on a production at A Noise Within the same way you can count on a Merchant Ivory film -- for enveloping atmosphere, fastidious detail and toxic reverence. A company this good need not be so predictable, so fearful of taking a classic and hurling it into the sky, just to see what hidden trinkets might tumble out in the process. These are skillful productions, mind you: Were there even a trace of incompetence on this stage, the argument wouldn't be worth raising.
Still, there's this nagging remorse, spurred recently by three interrelated occurrences: 1) the appearance of an article last month by Richard Morrison in the Timesof London, 2) my visit to Glendale's Hoover High School earlier this year -- specifically to Chuck Brogdon's English class, of which the majority of students had seen at least one ANW production, and 3) my having just viewed ANW's truly excellent rendition of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, revived and only slightly modified from the company's 1996 production.
Referring in his article to the island he dubs "The United Kingdom of Great Bingoland," Morrison addresses the collective panic among theaters, museums and classical orchestras now that millions of pounds in British Lottery moneys are actually being allocated to the arts. For the money is there, but the patrons, in particular the youngpatrons, are not.
This has set off a desperate campaign of outreach programs, liaisons between theaters and schools with all manner of vouchers, and a general push to have arts programming become as "accessible" as possible. The British, it seems, are awakening to the rude reality that they may indeed have lost an entire generation of arts patrons, and that their now financially well-endowed theaters and symphony houses may amount to little more than mausoleums with money.
Morrison places the blame for all this on the British school system: "The arts will never find those 'new audiences' . . . while the changes in the mandatory primary school curriculum relegate music, dance, drama and art to invisibility in favor of yet more slogging on spelling and arithmetic." In findings verified by a survey for the Royal Society of Arts, Morrison concludes, "Not surprisingly, demand among teachers for in-service training in the arts has dropped by 85 percent. Many of these courses have consequently been dropped in the past year . . . What sort of education is that? . . . If you want to make fine wine, you need fine grapes. And if you want to create a cultured nation, you first create cultured children."
All of which brings back the visit to Hoover High, where the parallels are obvious and painful. Mr. Brogdon talks to his students with a mix of cajoling and snapping -- whatever will ensnare his wards' often scattered attention. He is, himself, an intoxicating blend of acerbic skepticism and quixotic determination, who has pretty much set up his own program for getting high schoolers into local theaters -- of which A Noise Within tops his list. He organizes the outings himself, often fronting the money for the kids' tickets, with almost no administrative or financial support from the school.
ANW's outreach director, Emily Heebner, told me about the sense of triumph they felt when a former student of Mr. Brogdon actually took out an ANW season subscription a few years later. Still, in the hour of class time Brogdon gave me to interview his students -- seniors whom he described as "typical" rather than advanced -- the impression was disconcerting. Though they acknowledged enjoying ANW's productions, almost none said they would return on their own steam. For reasons of both expense and aesthetics, they'd rather go to a movie. (The exceptions here were the students who had performed, or were about to perform, in the school play.) Their favorite productions at ANW were Chekhov's The Seagulland Sam Shepard's Buried Child-- because, a girl explained, "the costumes were closest to our own clothes."