Friday, March 20, 2009

Celebrating American Theatre's 25th Anniversary

So I just got an email from TCG inviting me to "Gather 'round American Theatre's celebrity piano bar," with performances by the following line-up:

Laura Osnes Johnson, currently Nelly Forbush in South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theatre, winner of the role of "Sandy" on the televised Grease: You're the One that I Want! competition and Sandy in the 2007 Broadway run of Grease.

Michael John LaChiusa, Tony Award-nominated American musical theatre composer, lyricist, and librettist best known for complex, musically challenging shows such as Hello Again, Marie Christine, The Wild Party, and See What I Wanna See.

Marc Kudisch, seen this spring in the Joe Mantello-directed Dolly Parton musical 9 to 5 w/ Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block & Megan Hilty as Franklin Hart, Jr.

Mary Testa, two-time Tony Award nominee, for performances in revivals of Leonard Bernstein's On the Town and 42nd Street.

Excuse me? Could somebody explain to me what in the world is in this organization's head? Has the regional theatre and the Broadway stage become so interchangeable that these are the people we ask to entertain us are the winners of the Grease: You're The One That I Want TV show? Every time I open American Theatre I am more and more baffled.


Donna said...

I was curious, so I read the Wikipedia entries on the folks you mentioned. Miss Johnson is from Minnesota, Mr. Kudish grew up in a small town in Florida, Mr. LaChuisa is from Hackensack, NJ. They all recognized their own passion and talent and went for it. And they did it.

I find that inspiring.

Scott Walters said...

Well, sure, that is inspiring. However, as I have often written on this blog, the overwhelming focus on the NY-based theatre scene is having a deleterious effect on the very concept of the regional theatre. Since TCG was created as an organization to promote that movement, one might have thought that it performers as well as its advisory board might have been comprised of regional artists rather than celebrities.

Kyle Bostian said...

Laura's "success" in the Grease competition effectively ended what had started as a promising career in the Twin Cities market. Her situation raises another issue that may be worth discussing: She left college after her freshman year to accept a professional job. (I taught her at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point.) Do the kinds of concerns we hear voiced about athletes going pro straight out of high school or without finishing their university degrees apply here? I suspect most people would say no. And maybe they'd be right. She's most likely not risking a career-ending injury every time she takes the stage. But it's another example of our cultural tendency to value commercial reward over personal (and community) development.

Bitter Lemons said...

Enjoy the work you're doing here professor. Please come by our site sometime. Would love to have you join the fray.

In the meantime I'm adding you to our blogroll and if you feel so inspired would love to be added here.

Relentlessly yours,
Colin Mitchell

Scott Walters said...

Kyle -- I am very suspicious of that kind of ambition, and that kind of early and sudden success. Many people will see Laura as lucky, but I think without a rounded education people like Laura will be unable to be more than cogs, and her continued success will rely less on her own abilities than on her luck in getting cast in things that suit her. I don't think the success is good for her in the long run, and it certainly isn't good for the Twin Cities or Stevens Point.

Christopher said...

Your indignation at being invited to be entertained by talented performers seems a little curmudgeonly.

You express clearly that you would prefer to be entertained by "regional artists rather than celebrities", but you want people to put the regional stage on equal footing with the New York stage.

Your phrase "regional artists rather than celebrities" implies that you see all Tony nominees as hugely successful and in another category than successful artists in other towns. The people mentioned are not famous people outside of our niche, yet you call them celebrity simply because of the town the work in. By separating them from their fellow artists who work in other towns, and by elevating them above those other artists with your language, you are directly contributing to the schism that you are purportedly trying to mend. You directly imply that "celebrity" and "regional artists" are exclusive terms, and I think that belies an attitude that is contrary to what you claim to believe.

What is your real discontent with the NY theatre scene? You seem to say that you are opposed to the idea of any centralization in the theatre world. This is fine, but you must realize that the artists are not to blame for that centralization, mostly they have are controlled and frustrated by it as much as you are. There are many talented, driven theare artists in NY who could help your movement, but not if you make it your business to tell the rest of the theatre world that they aren't worth watching and don't deserve their success.

What you really want, if I understand you correctly, is for all theatre to be 'regional', and for NY to be treated like any other region of the country. As a NY artist, I completely support this movement. However, if that is what you want, then you must concede to treat successful NY artists with the same respect you would treat artists who have had success in any other region.

Scott Walters said...

Christopher -- My indignation isn't about talent, it is about an organization whose mission is to promote the regional theatre relying on NYC Broadway celebrities (their term, not mine) at their celebration. Their bios emphasize their Broadway careers.

You seem to have a clear idea of the nature of my "discontent" with the NY scene. But your advice to treat NYC actors like regional theatre actors seems premature to me. I am not telling the rest of the world not to watch what they do, just not to watch what they do INSTEAD of watching what regional actors do, and that's our current situation. If you read back through my most recent posts, you will see my beef with a centralized theatre scene that valorizes NYC over anything else.

My particular complaint regarding TCG is that TCG was created and receives funding for a very specific mission, and by seeing NYC as just another region, and particularly Broadway as... I don't know what...a bunch of commercial regional theatres?... they are not fulfilling their mission.

I don't give a damn who is to blame. For the record, I have never "blamed" NYC actors for anything. But I DO blame ANYBODY who continues to reinforce the NYC myth, and I STRONGLY condemn TCG for doing so. Of all organization, TCG ought to be able to make that distinction.

I am constantly amazed as how thin-skinned NYC artists are. I speak for those who are tired of NYC artists getting so much attention.

99 said...

If I may...I think there's a bit of an apples-to-oranges issue here. I'd say that Scott's very valid issue is that TCG is supposed to be supporting the regional theatre scene and is presenting an evening with NYC stars. That's one issue. However, I think the larger issue is that this isn't just "some performance" for the enjoyment of regular people. It's a benefit performance, for a New York-based charity. The minimum ticket price is $150 (if you're under 35). That's a bigger problem. Could TCG raise the same amount of money by hosting similar events, in conjunction with their partner theatres, in local communities around the country? Probably. Hell, that's not a bad idea. But they're choosing to go the traditional route and have a big swanky event with big, swanky people who will expect Broadway stars to serenade them and their big wallets. I don't think that this event is any indication of what the staff of TCG think of as "good" entertainment or even particularly part of their mission. But it is a way to raise buckets of money in one fell swoop. That they feel they have to raise buckets of money in one fell swoop is another issue...

Christopher said...

Well, I guess I've just never seen the TCG mission in the same light that you have. They claim it is "To strengthen, nurture and promote the professional not-for-profit American theatre."

In all of their literature, "not-for-profit" is the closest they come to addressing what you call "regional" theatre.

Another quote from them:
"TCG believes that our diversity as a field is our greatest strength. We celebrate differences in aesthetics, culture, organizational structure and geography. Indeed, we believe that every theatre makes a contribution to the greater field as a whole, that every performance expands the artistic vocabulary for us all, and that we all benefit from one another's presence."

Every theatre, Every performance. We all benefit.

I just don't see any way that inviting Broadway performers to support that message is contradictory. In fact, I think getting commercially successful artists involved in not-for-profit theatre is an important step in the mission.

The event is in NYC, so naturally they have invited artists from the 'region'. You blame them for reinforcing the NYC myth, but I think that if they were to invite 'regional' artists to be flown in because they were unwilling to include NYC artists as part of the theatre community, that would be a very strong statement that there is a fundamental difference between the artists from the city and artist from outside the city, which seems to be the very myth you are trying to dispel.

I don't know how many thick-skinned actors you know, but if you expect NY artists to be less sensitive than others then you really don't understand the situation. We are artists, after all.

Most of the theatre people I know in NY came here because of the centralization, not to support it. If I want to get involved in supporting regional theater, NY is the only place to start. Since I am an actor, the most direct reason is that they do most of the casting here, and the organizations like TCG are headquartered here.

I care about theatre very much. I did not move my entire life to NY because I was trying to sell out and because I am artistically vapid. The people I've met here are incredibly hard working and talented, and I think you would better serve your cause by enlisting their support than by treating them as the enemy, as the symbol of your frustration, or by assuming that they don't support you; which is what I get from some of your posts.

I appreciate your blog and I love to consider the broader ideas behind the current state of theatre in our society. When you use a flippant attitude and are dismissive of the artists because you are trying to make a point about the organization who hired them, I think you shut down communication more than you encourage it.

Scott Walters said...

99 -- Look at the underlying assumptions in your post. Essentially, you are parroting the NYC-based myth: that NYC is better than regional. By saying that "they're choosing to go the traditional route and have a big swanky event with big, swanky people who will expect Broadway stars to serenade them and their big wallets" what you aren't saying but is the underlying assumption is that those big, swanky people won't be entertained by regional actors. The NYC Myth is so prevalent, so dominant, that we don't even see it when it is in our underlying assumptions. Let's make this clear through analogy. Let's say that the American Lutheran Church was going to have a fundraiser where different pastors were going to preach, but they only invited Baptist preachers because "everybody knows" that baptist preachers are "better" than Lutheran preachers. Don't you think that might be a problem? It's not even as if these celebrity actors are well-known names with long backgrounds also in the regional theatres -- they're Broadway musical actors, one of which got cast because of a TV show.

Christopher: Here is the history: "As regional theatres throughout America began to proliferate in the 1950s and '60s, W. McNeil Lowry, director of the Ford Foundation's Program in Humanities and Arts, noted a lack of communication and cooperation that seemed to impede the movement's growth. Lowry convened a group of theatre professionals and educators to discuss the possibility of a central office that could be run by representatives from the field. In 1961, the Ford Foundation set aside $244,000 over a four-year period to meet this goal, and Theatre Communications Group was established. It was originally headquartered in Pittsburgh, under the administrative and financial supervision of the Carnegie Institute of Technology, and Pat Brown, the founding artistic director of Magnolia Theatre in Long Beach, CA served as director."

The website says the mission of TCG is: Over the last 45 years, TCG’s constituency has grown from a tiny network of groundbreaking theatresacross the country, as well as over 17,000 individuals nationwide."

But when it comes to fundraising, apparently that constituency is irrelevant. What is needed are Broadway musical actors.

The MC's for this event are also NYC-based artists of "The Universes."

The Honorary Committee:
Anne Bogart
Eric Bogosian
Nilo Cruz
Olympia Dukakis
Oskar Eustis
Richard Foreman
David Henry Hwang
Tony Kushner
Michael John LaChiusa
Ming Cho Lee
Suzan-Lori Parks
Marion Seldes
Lindy Zesch

Gosh, those people look pretty NY-oriented, too.

Now just what message is that sending, do you think?

You don't have to apologize for the centralization, but you don't have to defend it either. It is possible to acknowledge the problem, rather than explain it away with a shrug of "that's just the way it is." The question is: is that the way it should be?

I have no opinion about the quality of the artists -- shoot, I think Tony Kushner is a god -- the point is not to dismiss artists, but to point to a larger issue. Just like African-American artists in the past and present have pointed to the dearth of African-Americans, as have women and Asian-Americans. I am speaking for the Regional-American artists, who are apparently considered to be disabled as far as TCG is concerned.

Call it flippant if you want, but the issue is the issue.

Scott Walters said...

By the way, I am aware that many of the Honorary Committee Members have their plays done in regional theatres, but it looks to me as if their worthiness for honorary inclusion is their NYC credentials -- I don't see any that are solely regional theatre people, for instance. (It's sort of interesting, isn't it, that most of the Honorary Committee is comprised of playwrights and directors with only a smattering of actors [I count two -- a, I right?]).

Christopher said...

What is frustrating me about your argument is that you aren't willing to let NYC be a region. Where does NY fit in the 'regional theater' structure you are trying to promote?

This is an event in New York, celebrating an institution that is headquartered in New York, and most of the people donating are probably New Yorkers. Why wouldn't they invite New York artists to perform?

I know the TCG was originally headquartered in Pittsburgh and that they came to be because regional theaters needed some organization. To me, that isn't the same as saying that their mission today is to promote regional theater and fight the deleterious effects of centralized theater.

Even if that is their mission, I don't believe that the right way to achieve that is by promoting artists from outside of NY to New Yorkers. I think regional theater is important specifically because it is local. If the same organization hosted an event in Chicago and invited NY stars, then I would be agreeing with you.

99 said...

Scott, really. No one is saying that the people performing on Broadway are necessarily and in and of themselves "better" than regional actors or stars or whatever. No one! And, in fact, as noted earlier in this thread, many of these performers aren't "from" New York, or started in other regions. What they do have in common is a lot of exposure, a bunch of Broadway credits and the kind of bling that rich people like rubbing elbows with. I know a metric ton of great, awesome, talented Off-Broadway performers (some New York natives even, who have stayed in their hometown to work, natch) who couldn't get invited to perform at this event. It's just as much an assumption to think that ALL New York actors are at equal levels and doing the same thing. Like Christopher says above, New York is just as much of a region as anywhere else. New York isn't overrepresented there: Broadway is. Because it's a benefit. And usually, rich people aren't really looking for pure entertainment; they're looking to rub elbows with a "star." And I know you're not dense, so I know you get that. It just doesn't fit in with your attack.

Scott Walters said...

Christopher -- I would agree with you if they were doing other events in other places -- then it makes perfect sense. But that isn't the case -- this is THE event. THE 25th anniversary celebration. Of an organization formed to represent the NON-PROFIT regional theatre. A movement that was formed with a strong commitment to decentralization. And the celebration is in New York. With New York performers and a New York advisory board.

By the way, they are promoting this event to their entire membership -- remember, I'm getting emails, and I'm not in NY. Apparently, they want the regions to claim this celebration as their own.

If you are saying that the mission of TCG has changed, I would ask this: SHOULD it have changed, and if it DID change, who is now responsible for supporting regional theatres, and why is TCG still getting funding to do something you are suggesting it no longer does? I would suggest that TCG would not admit that their mission has changed.

99 said...

It's a benefit, Scott! It's not a "party" or even a "celebration." It's a fundraiser. Yes, you can go. If you pony up 250 bucks. And it's a benefit for American Theatre, not for TCG proper. Yes, I know the magazine is supposed to serve the entire country. But it's also based in New York, and that's a not insignificant audience for them.

I'm all for an honest discussion of who TCG is serving, of other ways for them to raise money, about whether their mission has crept away from its founding principals. But let's make it an honest discussion.

Scott Walters said...

99 -- I'm not certain how this conversation isn't honest. To me, you seem to be splitting hairs. Enlighten me how one set of activities, say fundraising, is divorced from a mission.

And please, these people are not celebrities in any real sense of the word, but just current Broadway performers. Let's be honest about that, if we're going to be honest.

99 said...

The needs of a fundraiser, at least how they're done in theatre circles, aren't the same as a production or a program. They're designed to raise funds, primarily from wealthy people. So they pick people who would appeal to them. That's their audience. And that's the intended audience of this event. It's not being treated as part of TCG's (or American Theatre's) mission. It's in furtherance of that mission, to wit, raising money for that mission.

For this kind of event, even in New York, these are pretty big draws, though it's also obvious that the biggest draw, the first name on the invite is the one who's been on a nationally televised show and, presumably, has a lot of fans, since they voted for her. They're not just run-of-the-mill Broadway performers (or writers, since Michael John LaChuisa is more known as a writer than a performer).

But that also shows the, let's say, inconsistency of this argument: if they're not celebrities bussed in from out of town, then they're local, regional artists, from the same place that the magazine is based in.

Again, let's talk about how TCG and AT should be doing a year of these events, all around the country. Let's talk about how AT's offices should be more centrally located or move. But to keep talking about this one event as some sort of indictment of what TCG is doing is complaining about the paintjob on a burning house. Or something similarly trivial.

Scott Walters said...

99 -- I have been talking about that on this blog for a long time. I'm happy to talk about that. I'd love to talk about that.

That said, I also don't think the fact that something is a fundraiser means it should be divorced from your mission or your values -- that you get a free pass just because it is about raising money. I find that kind of compartmentalization hypocritical, but unfortunately pretty routine in our society where hardly anybody commits to values strongly. It could have been an opportunity to promote the actual mission of the TCG (if it IS still the mission), rather than just another celebrity elbow-rub.

But if you want to talk about the other, I'm game. I think the headquarters of TCG ought to be in a truly regional place. In addition, I think that AT ought to commit, just for an issue or two, to having an entire issue that didn't mention New York, Chicago, or LA ONCE -- that focused solely on the non-NYLACHI regional theatre.

99 said...

I know that's what you talk about and that's what we all dig about you, your blog and this whole conversation. And I'm very much down with the ideas you have. It's not about a free pass for anyone. There is room for some context, though. Let's talk about that when TCG/AT want to raise money, they focus solely on NY. But let's not turn it into NY vs The World when that gets pointed out.