Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Broadway and the British Subsidized Theatres

As my readers know, I am not crazy about the theatre's reliance on subsidy, but London Guardian critic Michael Billington makes a persuasive argument for it when reviewing the success of War Horse and Jerusalem in this year's Tony Awards. (h/t You've Cott Mail) While I generally agree with Billington, the paragraph that stands out (with my own emphasis added) is this:
What is striking is that both War Horse and Jerusalem were products of the long gestation periods that only subsidised theatre can provide. The South African Handspring Puppet Company (who won their own separate Tony for "outstanding artistry") spent up to a year working with War Horse's directors, Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris, to achieve the right physical structure for the show. Out of that came the idea of horses constructed from skeletal bamboo frames, plywood and bicycle brake-cable. But the most radical idea was to make the horse's operators entirely visible so that, in the words of one critic, "the actors are the inner lives of the beasts". Likewise, Jerusalem was no overnight sensation but the result of intense revision of an original script once Rylance had committed himself to the role of "Rooster" Byron.

The problem with American subsidized theatre, at least as I understand it, is that we don't use the subsidy to create long gestation periods. Rather, the same get-'em-up-take-'em-down approach that we learn in a foreshortened form in our apprenticeships with summer stock continues to be the case.

I am not totally convinced that taking oodles of time is necessary -- the theatre historian in me looks to Shakespeare's two-to-three plays a year pace as something we might want to ponder. But if we are going to insist on subsidy, well, maybe the process ought to reflect it.

Or are we going to turn America into the road for British theatre?


joshcon80 said...

I actually just returned from a trip to London, during which time I met with a lot of the big theaters. I don't have any strong opinions about subsidies per se, but I will say this: there is a wealth of opportunities afforded to Brit playwrights that we cannot even imagine here, largely due to subsidies.

I wrote about it a little here:


Andrew Utter said...

I lived in Berlin for a few years in the nineties, and while I am sure it is not the same now, I can say this about my impressions of subsidized theater there: it creates a superabundance of offerings, which is exciting, but it's also true that the structures through which they are handed out have a way of becoming ossified, so it seemed to me that a kind of stagnation set in. But surely there would be a way to have it both ways, have the government give out resources but keep things competitive.