Thursday, May 14, 2009

Another Good Sign from the Obama Administration....

The nomination of Broadway producer Rocco Landesman to head the National Endowment for the Arts...

Why? Because Landesman published a controversial article in the New York Times in 2000 that shows he doesn't shrink from controversy and sticks to his guns. Broadway: Devil or Angel for Nonprofit Theater?; A Vital Movement Has Lost Its Way, reveals an awareness of conflicts between for-profit and non-profit arts organizations--and concludes with a call for vigorous in which I hope to take part should he be confirmed:
As for the so-called nonprofit theaters, many of the best and most successful ones, like Lincoln Center Theater, Roundabout Theater Company, Manhattan Theater Club, Joseph Papp Public Theater, and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, produce frequently on Broadway. They are often better at commercial producing than some of us veteran Broadway producers.

But what happened to what used to be called the resident theater movement? What had been a cause seems now to be mostly a marketing campaign. The subsidies that once enabled nonprofit theaters to take artistic risks are now increasingly apportioned according to box office and critical success (not to mention the advancement of multiculturalism).

AT one time, theatrical institutions established their identities according to the ways they chose to serve and advance the art. Playwrights Horizons and the Second Stage Theater are dedicated to the playwright; Steppenwolf in Chicago and the Atlantic Theater Company are identified with particular acting styles; the Goodman in Chicago and the Guthrie in Minneapolis are director-centric, and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., is dedicated to the repertory ideal.

These and other institutions continue to do compelling work, but increasingly the template of success comes from the commercial arena, which is, in the end, not dedicated to the art so much as to the audience. The uber-model for this trend is ''the American Airlines Roundabout Theater,'' whose artistic director, Todd Haimes, saved a bankrupt institution by adapting contemporary, market-savvy, the-audience-is-king techniques of modern corporations. Pleasing the customers, giving them what they want in the form they expect, works for Coca-Cola -- and it works for subsidized theaters, too. Provide a familiar product (a well-known play with a well-known star) in a congenial setting (singles nights, comfortable seating), add a powerful corporate sponsor, and you will have a subscription that is the envy of every theater in America. It would, I suppose, be hyperbolic to say that Todd Haimes has had a more pernicious influence on English-speaking theater than anyone since Oliver Cromwell (and it wouldn't be nice, either, since Mr. Haimes is a personable and honorable man), but it can be reasonably argued that the forces of the marketplace through the years have been just as effective a censor as government edicts.

CHEKHOV wrote that, ''We must strive with all our powers to see to it that the stage passes out of the hands of the grocers.'' Because he wrote this in 1895 he could not have known that the threat would come not from a supermarket chain but from the automobile and airline companies that are now branding our marquees and ''enhancing'' revenues. Is it wrong to succeed? That question, unthinkable now, was a subject of much discussion at Princeton in 1974.

It is disappointing enough that those of us in the commercial theater have long ago abdicated any purchase on sustained artistic enterprise. The idiosyncratic giants of an earlier day have given way, by and large, to syndicates of producers and corporations. Big Broadway successes are more often the product of well-crafted nostalgia brilliantly marketed than of bold and intrepid producing (''Chicago'' and our own ''Smokey Joe's Cafe'' are recent examples). The road presenters poll their audiences' response to various titles and stars before deciding on their seasons. The stakes (read costs) have simply become too high to assume undue risks. There is still a quotient of wonderfully reckless independent producers, but those careers usually don't last long.

And now, in the nonprofit theater, too, the forces of risk control are at work. The managing directors, with their good board relationships, audience development campaigns and marketing strategies, are asserting their clout as the pressures to ''succeed'' increase.

In my hometown, where the artistic director of the St. Louis Rep was challenging audiences and generally causing trouble, the board simply hired their managing director to replace him. In most institutional theaters today the model of, say, the Public Theater, where the artistic director and producer (Joseph Papp, George C. Wolfe) is lord of the manor, is giving way to at least equal partnerships between the artistic and managerial sides.

The planners of ACT II have been advised by consultants that the conference should be ''managed'' with certain objectives and results in mind so that we can have some accomplishments to show for our efforts. No doubt we'll talk about how the commercial producer relates to the nonprofit theater in which he is developing his musical. We'll share insights about labor relations, and we'll talk about a nationwide, 10-cent-per-ticket assessment to finance a national marketing campaign (the beef and milk industry ads were great!).

My fervent hope, however, is that sometime during the conference, lines will be drawn, voices will be raised, someone's integrity will be challenged, and we will remember, if only briefly, that we are different from one another, with opposing, maybe irreconcilable views of what theater should be; that we are essentially unmanageable and that whatever pieties about our common purpose we endorse, there is still a hell of an argument to be had. So far, that session has not been scheduled.
After the pablum and corporate PR of Bush-NEA head Dana Gioia, under whose guidance the arts vanished from national consciousness, arguments of the type suggested by Rocco Landesman (with quotations from Chekhov, no less) are to be welcomed...and so is President Obama's selection of Rocco Landesman to head the National Endowment for the Arts.