The Theater Mirror - "Not Much Has Changed in Boston"

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From: ghorton@tiac.net (ghorton)
Subject: from the files

This is a letter I wrote to the editor of the Globe, circa 1991.

Not much has changed.

TO THE GLOBE:

The Globe theatre critic has published a year-end summing up with a clear and painful message-- not much was worth seeing in Boston this past year. Only 3 of the 10-best list were local, and of those only the Huntington's TARTUFFE even had a Boston- based director. The terms the critic uses -- "beguiling" "rouser" "yelp" "spin" "wicked pleasure" "slapstruck...vaudeville" imply that these shows were valuable mainly because they induced laugh- ter or excitement or nostalgia. In earlier reviews Mr. Kelly has recommended productions because they are "slick". What does it mean that these descriptions, which the reviewer employs for praise, would be in most serious contexts terms of opprobrium? Kelly declines to theorize. He can find no "definable thread", no "political stance". He cannot tell us what unifies these "bests" --- because he refuses to ask of art the questions basic to art. What is goodness? truth? beauty? How are they connected? What nourishes the human spirit? How can we -- especially the "we" that is most widely inclusive, that integrates ages and sexes and backgrounds -- learn to live together, in the commun- ion of empathy that the arts of live performance give us a momen- tary assurance is possible?

Surely it is no coincidence that all the productions judged "best" were put on by main-line venues with comfortable seats, and cost upwards of $20.00 a ticket. For the past two decades the assumption behind the Globe's theatre coverage has been that only the commercially viable is worthy of notice and evaluation. This principle so obviously flies in the face of everything that is known about how art is made, and about how the community assimilates and grows from artistic exploration, that occasional- ly the paper itself calls it into question. With "Why is Boston theater so pallid?" (Oct.20) and an earlier article musing on the demise of the Boston Baked Theatre, John Koch began a long-over- due soul search. Of course, there are many factors contributing to the sorry state of local theatre, most of them shared by the country as a whole: recession, "privatization", an audience lulled to passivity by television -- but a crucial one, and one that could change for the better overnight, is the editorial policy of the Globe.

Twentieth Century Fund's study, THE CRITIC, POWER, AND THE PERFORMING ARTS (J. Booth, Columbia U. Press. 1991) attributes the lively and influential Chicago theatre scene directly to the efforts of the local critics, especially Richard Christiansen and Glenna Syse, who "have worked to nurture, to enlarge, to make it known, taken their role beyond, 'This play is worth seeing.' They are friends of many. They go out of their way to make them- selves available,...will come to readings of plays, meet for breakfast, really keep abreast of developments." (40) They see their role as greater in scope than that of being a guide to the jaded consumer's diversions. Advocates and educators, they try to persuade people to give their attention, their talent and re- sources, to that which enriches the community.

I would like to bring the enclosed article, printed in the August Village Voice, to your attention. The position of the Globe in Boston is even more dominant, culturally, than that of the Times in New York City. The Herald reaches T.V. watchers and sports fans, and the Phoenix is read by college students, and by many of the performers who make up the casts and crews of the local off-off-Broadway scene. But so far as the educated public is concerned, the people who read books and go to classical concerts and museums, and who might be expected to make up the audience for serious theatre, what the Globe covers is all the news there is. And how is this power used? On matter such as the bankruptcy of the Nickerson, the Globe's major theatre story of the year. I think I counted eleven separate articles. Why? To what purpose? Such a venture's failure has some commercial sig- nificance, of course, but it is much the same as the closing of a shoe store. People in that area now have to go further afield to buy the product, and the workers employed there are out of jobs. Either this closing should have been noted on the Business page, or the Globe should explain how it impoverishes the community artistically. Of what exciting new play or innovative director's vision have we been deprived? Perhaps we have lost forever the opportunity to see one of the area's excellent actors in one of the great classic roles. Perhaps. There are actors in Boston whom I have seen give performances as fine as anything in NYC or London: but those performances took place in makeshift spaces, and were often dimmed by poor direction or incompetent supporting players. Which of our "residents", the ones Mr. Kelly calls on us to praise, would dare to mount a production for Jim Bodge, or Richard McElvain or Frances West or Melinda Lopez? No theatre artist here has had the exemplary career of a Karl Dan Sorensen or a Laura Young, and there is no voice to urge our jobbing-in so-called "regionals" to do their duty and make it possible to have home-grown artists rather than migrant workers.

Not all cities are as barren as Boston. From Washington, Source Theatre sent out a flyer on the city's fourth annual New Play Festival -- featuring performances by amateur, Equity, and experimental troupes of fifty scripts by D.C. area writers. Providence is not just the site of the fine revivals Mr. Kelly put on his "best" list. Newgate theatre announced a premiere season that includes, in addition to Jacques Brel and Mrozek's TANGO, three full productions and five staged readings of new work developed through the programs of the Rhode Island Play- wrights' Theatre, a group that is similar in organization and purpose to Playwrights' Platform here, but one that enjoys the support and encouragement of Trinity Rep and of the local univer- sities. When I went to Providence two years ago for R.I.P's staged reading of my play CHOICES, I discovered Gerri Lebrandi in the cast. Performing with Trinity Rep, she was at last able to lend her talents to the development of new scripts, an interest that she was never really able to indulge when acting in Boston. It may be that by now, Boston is not merely a provincial town looking to New York for culture, but theatrically a suburb of Providence! Why are there no such exciting, ambitious programs here? In the twenty years that I have been living and writing in this area, I have seen a dozen attempts to establish them. All have withered under the contempt fostered by the press, and particularly by the region's leading newspaper.

It's not simply that Show Biz is taking up space that ought to be devoted to more serious matters, but that people reading the Globe are encouraged to believe that Show Biz is Art. As the number and importance of commercial productions of contemporary work grows less, so does the Globe's coverage. In the past year, how many column inches have been devoted to theater? Of those, how many were reports of scheduled national tours, box office take, advance sales, cancellations, puff pieces and interviews with familiar faces whose salaries and sex lives are assumed to be of interest? NAMES and FACES. Other sources -- PEOPLE, ENTER- TAINMENT TONIGHT--convey this sort of information more efficient- ly to its target audience. Even reports on the Broadway theatre are redundant: my impression is that most of the Boston area people who regularly attend shows also read the New York Times.
It is probably true that there are only a few people who care deeply about the arts, and are willing to devote the time to absorb a thoughtful article or review with a local focus. But those few include the community's decision-makers who influence what is produced and supported, and the many artists who have work and rehearsal schedules that limit their ability to get out and see what their peers are doing. They depend on the press to keep them informed. At the moment, these people are being led to believe that nothing worth mentioning is happening.
Theatre is not quite dead in the Boston area. When there are no more grants, and dwindling box office has limited productions to damp basements with folding chairs filled by relatives and unemployed actors, there will still be interesting and innovative and occasionally even excellent work done. Theatre artists are holy fools, and will persist in practicing their ancient calling whether or not they receive attention and encouragement. But for the sake of this depressed community, the Globe ought to take notice, discover whatever is being done that is worthwhile, and bring the news to the people. This may sound silly, grandiose, utopian: but the case has been made and the example set, and on the same pages where the drama is served so poorly. To see how it ought to be done, look at any review or feature by the Globe's own music critic Richard Dyer.

Dyer's year-end summary is a cornucopia of musical riches, praising a wide range of performers, composers, conductors, and producers; traditional and avant-garde, lavish and shoestring, world renowned and obscure. He measures accomplishment on a scale that takes into account what needs are being addressed, and with what means: "Nothing this season was more impressive in terms of intelligent use of limited resources to produce strong artistic statement than Lowell House Opera's production of Leonard Bern- stein's A QUIET PLACE". In an aside, he chides the Early Music fans for narrowness of interest: "..choreographer Kay Lawrence prepared a ravishing program of Mozart dance music, and no one came", and chides the community at large: "Now let us find some rational reason why Caldwell didn't work at home this season, why the Boston Opera theater stopped producing, and why the Opera Lab is on a year's sabbatical while the mediocre keeps marching on." In past weeks, Dyer has gone into an urban elementary school to report on Handel and Haydn's presentation for the children, and to a student performance of a difficult "failure", the KNOT GARDEN. In search of fresh talent he has found it worth his while to visit lecture halls and church basements, cabarets and street corners. He has carried out his mission by reporting not just how well these performances were done, but how important it is that they be done, and that we build institutions that main- tain our cultural heritage and pass it on enriched by the talents of our generation. Dyer tells us plainly that our souls, and our posterity, are at stake. What he says about music surely applies to drama, too: it "is not an escape from life, but a call to leading life in a fuller, deeper, more committed way; (it) makes moral demands." About Dyer it can be said, as he so beautifully says about Emmanuel Music's conductor Craig Smith, "He is good in himself, and the cause of good in others, and the effects of his work resonate far away from his actual activities." What Boston theater needs, what the Globe should seek out and provide, is another Richard Dyer. Give theater such a critic for a decade, and see Boston bloom-- the Athens of America!

What would this paragon do? Demand texts with content and relevance. Question the civic standing of the ART, a publically- supported company that announces that the season's resident artists will consist of nine white men, two women and one Black. Attend the hole-in-the-wall mountings of the work of emerging talents, and point out that the disparity in resources between the two-to-five character cheap set contemporary scripts and the lavish large-cast productions of classics by our leading non- profit sends a cruel message: forgo ambition, because the most ambitious repertory company in the country has none to spare for living writers.

In Koch's "pallid" article he names some Americans whose plays have been seen on regional stages and asks why they have not appeared here. Well, one reason may be that Kevin Kelly has pronounced Mac Wellman "stupid" -- although anyone who has read Wellman's essays or heard him speak knows that his work is guided by an almost frightening intelligence of a distinctly theoretical bent. There may be something wrong with a play by Wellman, but it won't be a fault that IQ or education could cure. Elizabeth Eglof? Paula Vogel? The now defunct --and unmourned by the Globe-- Women In Theatre Festival brought Eglof's THE SWAN and Vogel's BABY MAKES SEVEN and DESDEMONA to Boston, in well- rehearsed and acted staged readings. Eglof's WOLFMAN was also presented here, by New Voices. If these writers are promising, as Mr. Koch believes, why then couldn't the Globe have used those occasions to explain to the public why our companies should produce them? When the Huntington put on Matt Witten's Clauder prize winner THE DEAL, it did so in a tiny black box rather than on the main stage, and the theater's administration had so little confidence in the press' ability to see merit in the work of a local unknown that critics were barred. Witten learned from that experience -- like most of our ambitious young people, he has moved to greener pastures. Isn't it, at last, time to ask how our native ground could be made less barren?

Obviously, this is not the commentary of a disinterested observer. I am a writer, and the goal of my life has been to create one script that is worthy of entering the body of dramatic literature. But I am also a citizen of this city, and of this democracy, and I believe that theater has a unique contribution to make to the spiritual education of a free people. Shouldn't it be the goal of the Boston Globe to make that contribution possible?

G.L.Horton -- Newton, MA, USA
ghorton@tiac.net
www.tiac.net/users/ghorton



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