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
This is not cause for despair, though it may sound vaguely apocalyptic. History shows us that the tip of the spear that gored tyrannies of the past was laced with the arts — particularly the arts that were officially buried. (At least we haven't approached that point.) The Russian poet, songwriter and actor Vladimir Visotsky, with a voice like Tom Waits and a cult following — despite being banned by the government — was instrumental in discrediting and bringing down the Soviet Union. He died while playing Hamlet. Thousands followed his casket to the grave — to the profound annoyance of the Soviets.
Playwright Vaclav Havel's Velvet Revolution in communist Czechoslovakia follows a similar pattern. The power-challenging, world-influencing plays of Athol Fugard in apartheid-era South Africa emerged from one of the most despotic regimes of its time. Molière was in and out of favor in the French court, thanks to a church that had little patience for his satires. The cardinal whom he ridiculed in Tartuffe, and who censored him, is long forgotten, while Molière has theaters, and the French equivalent of the Tony Awards, named after him.
The arts in general, and theater in particular, have historically pried open the caskets of hypocrisy and dead yet despotic ideas, and tossed their contents back into the sea. The lack of support for the arts is a cause for distress, and fury, and dogged and wily resistance, because the underlying reason for the arts and for the theater will never be irrelevant or too expensive to realize in some form. Because fighting for the arts is fighting for our humanity, and fighting for our humanity is fighting for our lives. I can't think of a more trenchant reason to be producing theater in the 21st century.
The city of Berlin spends more on the arts than the entire federal government of the United States. It's now been documented — here I refer to the study called Outrageous Fortune, by Todd London, Ben Pesner and Zannie Giraud Voss, published by the Theater Development Fund — that the network of midsize regional theaters across our nation has become too paralyzed by fear and the imperatives of institutional survival to move the art form forward, thereby consigning those theaters to a kind of creeping irrelevance. The evidence for that lies in the aging demographics of their patrons, in a now-staggering system established 60 years ago to provide a viable alternative to the commercial fare of Broadway.
In the absence of arts funding and the intransigence of our regional theaters, the responsibility to keep the theater at the forefront of ideas and passions that are percolating in the United States now falls back squarely on the shoulders of our independent producers, and once again, I can think of no better reason to be producing theater in this country, in these times.
So, if there's even a flicker of belief that our theater does actually matter, the next question is how to keep it relevant, and inviting, financially and aesthetically, to new generations. This most important of challenges comes down to a juggling act between the comfort of the familiar and its ability to seduce audiences and pay back investors; and the discomfort of the unfamiliar, with its sense of discovery and its appeal to the seething, rebellious young who have no money, but who may be the investors of tomorrow, and their willingness to embrace anything that their parents' generation doesn't know about. This isn't rocket science. It's the historical shape of how ideas and art forms move forward.
It's easier to embrace the familiar, but it's also more shortsighted. This obsession with the familiar — familiar plays and playwrights, even new playwrights familiar to those who occupy our play-development fortresses — is too often mistaken for prudence. Prudence is too often mistaken for a good thing in the theater, when in actuality, vision and courage are the qualities that have always propelled the arts forward — as well as the sciences and industry, for that matter. Prudence, without courage, leads to the plight so many of our theaters now find themselves in, as they wonder where their young audiences have gone, and why they can't pay their bills.
It's a very good producer who plucks a hit, like, say, Avenue Q or Urinetown, from a fringe festival and starts building investment and cachet around that project to see if it can survive off-Broadway, on Broadway or, with the help of the Internet, on tours around the country. There's a sort of salvation for the art form in that kind of thinking.
Or in the kind of thinking by Center Theatre Group's Michael Ritchie, who took an unknown play by an unknown writer, Doug Steinberg's Nighthawks, based on the Edward Hopper painting. Ritchie's literary manager brought it to him, he read it and put it on at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. It was a decision based almost entirely on impulse and personal conviction, and whether or not the play was commercially or even critically successful is irrelevant to the blood-and-guts motive of putting it on, of letting conviction drive the engine, and letting marketing concerns sit in the back.