Friday, March 20, 2009

Theatre in a time of recession

A couple weeks ago, Isaac Butler at Parabasis wrote about regional theatres and how their choices don't exactly inspire him. The example he picked was Trinity Repertory Company's 2009-2010 season, which struck a nerve with me, since I'd just written about it.

And Trinity Rep's choice of The Odd Couple seemed to disappoint him the most.

"There is perhaps no safer play to do than The Odd Couple. It's so safe - having been immortalized in a pretty good movie, and having no angles into the material other than the obvious one - that there's actually no reason to produce it (unless you want to use it as a star vehicle, as the recent Broadway version did, a dubious reason to do a play if you ask me)."

Now, Butler sympathizes with artistic directors, he understands the challenges they face and he's not trying to single out Trinity Rep. I think he just wishes that theatres could be more adventurous instead of turning to what he calls "the rock solids." It's a well-thought-out piece and it engendered some discussion, including from me.

I guess I'm more excited about Trinity Rep's season than Butler or any of the other people who left comments. While some of these plays may seem like old hat, they're new to me, and probably to most of the audience. One thing I think we have to keep in mind is, a lot of theatergoing is local. People go to the theatre where they live.

To me, it's all about striking a balance. Sure, The Odd Couple is a known quantity, just like Cabaret, which opens the season in the fall. But I've never seen either of them on stage and I'll admit I'm looking forward to both of them. Other plays, by Steven Dietz, Sarah Ruhl and Pam Gien, will be new to me - and probably to most of my fellow theatergoers.

I don't think there's anything wrong with including plays or musicals that you think will fill seats, especially in difficult economic times. I've seen shows at Trinity Rep, like Our Town a few years ago, that I guess you could place in the not-very-daring category. But it was my first time seeing this classic American play and I thought it was very compelling.

And it's not like the theatre hasn't tackled difficult topics or hasn't tried to be relevant. In 2006, Trinity Rep commissioned a play called Boots on the Ground, which used oral histories to tell the story of the impact of the Iraq war on Rhode Island.

In announcing the upcoming season, artistic director Curt Columbus said, “We wanted a season that people would have fun with – giving us all a second chance, a second wind, with music and laughter."

You know, I have to agree. Not everything has to have a message, not everything has to be edgy. Sometimes it's okay to simply sit back and be entertained.

Hopefully, there'll be occasions over the next season when I'll be at the theatre and feel choked up or moved in some way. But by spring 2010, I may really just need to laugh. And Felix and Oscar may be just the ticket.


Dale said...

Theatres need to survive and reach the most people they can to remain viable so I understand the need to produce some known entities alongside newer or lesser known works.

I always bemoan the fact that the opera company I get season tickets for produces La Boheme every few years but those productions draw so many more people in to what can be a longer relationship with the company so, I get it.

Cabaret was brilliant with Neil Patrick Harris both times I saw it in NYC and it made me want to see a local company's production of it when it popped up. It was like a different show with different personalities and interpretation and no less enjoyable.

Esther said...

Oh, I'm so jealous! I love Neil Patrick Harris. I've only seen the movie of Cabaret, so I'm looking forward to it.

It's funny that you mention La Boheme, because after seeing Madama Butterfly at the Met, I was thinking that's the one I'd like to see next!

And yeah, I definitely agree that you need a mix of crowd-pleasing, familiar works and new stuff. It's not an easy task to put a season together and I don't begrudge a theater or an opera company from including a couple of sure bets. Hopefully, the people who see those will come back for something a little different.