An article in the LA Times ran earlier this month chiding Southern Californian regional theatres for allowing their theatrical motivations to slip from innovative to lucrative in recent years. Written by theatre critic Charles McNulty, the article blames the drift of values on the replacement of longtime artistic directors with cultural vision with business-minded leaders looking to improve the bottom line. He specifically refers to the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, the La Jolla Playhouse and the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, and peripherally mentions other national LORT houses.
There are a few points that I disagree with in the premise of Mr. McNulty’s article. The first is his assertion that “The business of theater has become just that — a business.” I am surprised that it comes as a point of contention that theatre has ever not been a business. Since the departure from the morality plays of the Middle Ages, where the sole purpose of a production was to gain souls, not coins, performance has nearly always resolved to turn a profit. (Or at least, break even.) For some projects, such as the much hyped Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, there is a clear motivation for a profit. Multimillion dollar productions with many financial backers are looking for returns on their investments. An average ticket currently costs around $150. At the other end of the spectrum, The Spidey Project is a small budget musical parody following the same title character. A weekend show can set you back as much as $20. Both productions have production costs that are ideally recouped, and one way to measure the success of a show is the financial marker. I think that Mr. McNulty’s implication that theatre need not– and should not– be at all a business is naive and idealized, and neglects the fact that theatre is created by people who all deserve payment for their time, energy and skills. The scale of the production and the artistic motivation of the company does not mitigate this fact.
I also take issue with Mr. McNulty’s examples of what qualifies as daring, new artistic experiences. He scolds the Globe for “a menu of ditzy musicals that rarely fulfilled their “Broadway-bound” hype (“The First Wives Club,” “Robin and the 7 Hoods”).” And yet he stands up for their choice of Dividing the Estate which he describes as “good work.” I’m confused by this: Estate is a nearly direct-from-Broadway transplant, with the director, majority of the design team and cast coming from either the New York run, or another high-level regional theatre. How does this show (which I personally found to be sub-standard in both performance and production value by the Globe’s usual marks) qualify to Mr. McNulty as an example of the sort of production regional theatres should be doing? What about this copy-and-paste production was “bold” or “substantive”?
I appreciate that Mr. McNulty is writing from the angle of a theatre critic, and not a production manager, artistic director, or anyone that must be concerned with a theatres bottom line or a concerned board of directors. And he seems as interested in the behind-the-door “cliffhangers” of theatre management as he does the produced seasons. However, I think he is neglecting to consider some of the blatant realities of managing a theatre the size of the Globe, the Playhouse or the Geffen: that it would be as irresponsible to the company and community to produce seasons of unreachable, unpopular works as it would be to present only “marketplace trends.” I believe a balance can be achieved, and walking that popularity tightrope is a constant challenge. The new management of these large regional theatres may require a few seasons to find their proper balance, but I don’t think that they should be condemned for trying new formulas in an effort to draw in new patrons, and continue to appeal to their current fan base.