Feb 18, 2012

The Full McNulty

I don't agree with every particular in Charles McNulty's big, bold, fed-up editorial on the artistic leadership void at SoCal's major resident theaters, centrally the Old Globe and Center Theater Group (for one thing, giving Robert Brustein the last word, with a weird swipe at "Red-state self-interest," is unfortunate). But it's the best, most forceful articulation of a theme McNulty's touched before (and his predecessor tackled from a slightly different angle), and more importantly, it eloquently and urgently organizes a lament I've been hearing almost since I started covering theater in the early 1990s: that nonprofit resident theaters have lost their way, that their work doesn't reflect their communities/the zeitgeist/anything other than commercial motives, that they're too focused on New York, both as a validating destination and as a programming guide, etc. A related argument, about the increasing commercialization of nonprofits, particularly in New York, has surfaced on blogs, most notably Parabasis. But as far as I've read, McNulty is virtually alone in the American press in sounding this alarm this way, and for that he deserves huge props.

Indeed, McNulty doesn't just talk in generalities, he names names. And apart from the sheer professional and critical stones that takes, what's striking about it, given the way I've rapped him in the past for focusing too much on larger theaters (and yes, theaters outside of SoCal), is that it proves he doesn't focus on the larger theaters because he's in love with their work but because he's passionate about the non-profit mission they should be serving, and that he cares enough to give them this tough-love reminder of that.

When I reflect on my own experience of this problem, I have to confess that it's never fired me up, except on a personal level (seeing one artistic leader go and disliking his successor, let's say). I guess it's because my expectations of large nonprofit theaters have never been that they do particularly risk-taking or groundbreaking work; though I'd love to see them do it more, I also understand that they have to keep their doors open in a hostile funding environment. You could probably say my relative indifference on this matter is a sign of how much I've internalized the everything-for-profit ethos of the last 30 years (and really, the resident theater movement we're talking about is only about 50 years old, so how long were the halcyon years, really, if indeed there were halcyon?).

But I think something else is at work, too: My focus and energy has simply been elsewhere for most of my theatergoing and journalistic career. It's been on smaller theaters, tiny incubators of talent, idealistic self-producers, scrappy ensembles; and in the cases I've been excited in a similar way about work at larger resident theaters, it's been the exception more than the rule, as when CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre put on Michael Sargent's The Projectionist in its lobby. I don't mean to say I've never seen great work at the Taper, South Coast, La Jolla, the Old Globe, and the NY nonprofits, but I simply never understood it to be aimed at me, my tastes, or my income level. (The bright-line exception to this has been the idyllic but far-from-sleepy Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where even the hack work is touched by a special light; it has as much to do with the intense audience-artist rapport as with the high standard of work there.)

Lest I sound like I'm down on the very resident theater movement for whom I work, I should add that the tensions elucidated in McNulty's column have been on aired and explored at the TCG conferences I've attended, and that among the most encouraging things I saw at the one in L.A. last year is the presence of kindred spirits: artists from that under-sung theater town and from other beleaguered-in-different-ways American cities bonding over common problems of development (audiences, new work, and fundraising), creative risk vs. sustainability, and common dreams of challenging themselves and their audiences to face the present. When I take my focus off the ever-frustrating Big Kahunas, from Roundabout to the Taper, and think of the work being done by troupes in the broad mid-range—places like Woolly Mammoth, the Public, Playwrights Horizons, or in L.A., places like the small-but-hardy Boston Court—I'm more encouraged by the picture that forms of risks being taken and audiences being served—audiences, I might add, that include me.


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