Nov 10, 2009

Shirley Unleashed

From his new position at the LA Stage Blog--resuming, one hopes, the essential coverage he once did for the LA Times' Stage Beat--Don Shirley takes on his old employer's New York-besotted theater coverage (full disclosure: It's a tendency from which I've occasionally personally benefited since I moved east). He has a particularly juicy target: film critic Kenneth Turan, who's taken to hawking his long overdue new Joe Papp bio, Free for All, with the arguable encomium that Papp "made theater in America both accessible and essential.” Without taking anything away from Papp's tremendous achievements, what we have here is a very common conflation of "theater in America" with "New York theater." (Another classic case here.)

Turan misunderstands what “made theater in America both accessible and essential” during Papp’s lifetime. That task was performed not in New York, where theater was already quite “accessible and essential,” thank you very much. It happened in Los Angeles and elsewhere outside New York.

Those were the decades when professional, non-profit companies appeared throughout America. Although these companies are often labeled “regional,” which carries a whiff of condescension, they deserve most of the credit for making American theater ”accessible and essential.”

It should be obvious that this decentralization of American theater was more responsible for increased “accessibility” of the art form than the actions of any single New York-based producer.

Tell it, Don.

UPDATE: 99 Seats chimes in with (mostly) praise of Papp's efforts and legacy, and some important qualifiers to the above. I do think that just as it's possible to overstate the extent to which New York theater is synonymous with American theater, it's quite possible to go too far in the other direction. Of course New York is a theater capital, and what happens here has huge, even disproportionate influence throughout the U.S. and the world. That's a self-evident, and self-perpetuating, fact of life, and it's been true for at least a century. What did change in the 1960s--and I forget who put it to me this way exactly but it stuck with me because it makes a lot of sense--is that while American theater was once centrifugal, with New York power essentially rippling outward to the rest of the nation, American theater is now more centripetal, with theatrical power more evenly distributed throughout the country but still rotating around the validating stamp of New York's theater biz. Papp was at the center of that business just as the rules were changing, and it's inarguable that just as he knocked down barriers within the city proper, he knocked them down between the city and the nation at large, and while he deserves credit for the theater he made here that poured out into the world, he obviously can't take credit for the vital theater that poured inward over those broken-down walls.

All that said, I welcome Don's post, because while it's theoretically just as possible to overstate the importance of the regional theater movement vis a vis New York theater as it is to do the reverse, in reality that almost never happens, even--perhaps especially--in the hometown papers of said regions.

1 comment:

99 said...

Hey, Rob. Good points and thanks for the update. And I totally see the point of why would the LA Times care about an oral history of Joe Papp. I just had to get my boy's back.

Leave Joe Papp alone!