Commentary: Regional theaters need to stay "local"

Carey Perloff, Artistic Director of American Conservatory Theater, Huffington Post, 8/2/11

Because the media tends to value work primarily if it is connected to New York or London, the term "local" has always been a derogatory one in the regional theater. When Bill Ball founded his acclaimed company in 1968, he deliberately called it "AMERICAN Conservatory Theater" rather than "SAN FRANCISCO Conservatory Theater", because his goal was to create a significant artistic alternative to the Broadway commercial theater. A.C.T. succeeded precisely because the work was intensely "local", performed by a remarkable company of actors who lived in the Bay Area. What's happened in the interim is interesting. Regional theater has all but abandoned its alternative stance and now actively pursues commercial success and a presence in New York. It has become standard operating procedure to accept significant "enhancement money" from commercial producers and try out Broadway-bound material. Is this what an artistic pioneer like Bill Ball had in mind? Contrary to all expectations, we decided to produce [the new musical] Tales of the City completely on our own. We wanted to be in control of how the story got told. It worried me that this most beloved of local stories would end up getting watered down in the attempt to make it palatable for a Broadway audience. I was fascinated by how puzzled our theatrical colleagues were by this choice to "stay local" with Tales. Over and over again in the press, the production was primarily viewed as a stepping-stone to New York. Despite the fact it grossed $4.3 million (far surpassing any other show in A.C.T. history), in the eyes of many the success of the production will not be measured by the impact it had upon its own community but by whether it has commercial traction in the future. Perhaps this is why audiences are less engaged with theater around the country than we would like them to be. Perhaps if we trusted our own standards of excellence and our own individual artistry enough, we would resist the media pull to evaluate our work through the fickle lens of commercial success. Perhaps in an era in which anyone can find their content of choice at the click of a mouse, the best way to get people to experience the collective joy of a live theatrical experience is to make them feel that what they are seeing is NOT easily replicable but has been created especially for their own communities by distinguished artists who are part of their world.


A play with local resonance at many regional theaters

The New York Times, 8/3/11

Every city has a Clybourne Park. At least that's what regional theaters across the country are betting on as they introduce their audiences to Bruce Norris's play Clybourne Park, a dissection of race, gentrification and real estate. After a recent performance at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in D.C., about 30 patrons stayed for a talk-back with Danny Harris, who said the play was a reminder of the "changing dynamics" of Washington neighborhoods like Petworth. Although a note in the script says the play takes place "in the near northwest of central Chicago," Mr. Norris never uses the word Chicago in the text. That universality, of how racial tension and neighborhood gentrification can exacerbate each other, may be why it appeals to regional theaters. The play will be produced as part of the 2011-12 season in several American cities, including Seattle, Denver, Providence, and L.A. The play may have the most resonance in Chicago, where Steppenwolf will present it in the fall. The name Clybourn (minus the "e") has deep roots in the city. Not far from the Steppenwolf is a play lot named Clybourn Park. North Clybourn Avenue cuts diagonally through several North Side neighborhoods. Archibald Clybourn was one of the earliest settlers in the area. "Local" will be the buzzword for other regional productions of Clybourne Park. Carey Perloff of ACT in San Francisco, which produced the West Coast premiere of Clybourne Park in January, said post-show discussions revolved around issues that have been roiling the city for decades, like the appropriation of Japanese-Americans' homes during World War II and the displacement of working-class Irish residents as gay men and lesbians moved into the Castro during the late '60s. Back at Woolly Mammoth, Harris said he hoped that as Clybourne Park makes its way around the country, theaters will use it as a way to introduce residents to issues and places "that have faces and narratives" about how a neighborhood is made and preserved.  "Understanding a community is not about what gentrification is or isn't," he said. "But rather, it's to say: 'This is what I see. What do you see?' "


Commentary: Local symphonies should be of and about their community

Excerpted from the article "Change, Sustainability and First Principles"

by Robert Levine in the Summer 2011 issue of Symphony magazine

Be responsive and responsible to your community. Understand your community role and be the guarantee of a musical ecology. If your community is not an audience-development petri dish, rebalance your portfolio. If rehearsals and concerts were equities, and education and community engagement activities bonds, most orchestras are at 95 percent or higher equities. A balance of 60-40 sounds a lot better to me. As an example, why were two-thirds of the tickets for the Toledo Symphony Orchestra's Spring for Music appearance this May at Carnegie Hall [in New York] bought by people from Toledo? Perhaps it's that of 438 musical events the TSO produced last year, only 18 were classical subscription concerts "in the hall." And its musicians are deeply embedded throughout the organization. Now there is a profound connection between and orchestra and its community.


Related: Future of classical music tied to getting closer to community?

Greg Sandow, ArtsJournal blog, 8/3/11

I'm delighted -- amazed, thrilled, just over the moon -- about next season's programs at the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the first season under the orchestra's new conductor, Alan Pierson.

Talk about the future of classical music! Pierson is shaping the orchestra's season almost entirely around Brooklyn composers and Brooklyn communities:

In this debut "reboot" season, the Brooklyn Phil features the work of generations of great Brooklyn musicians, from Aaron Copland and Lena Horne to Mos Def and Sufjan Stevens. The orchestra will also connect with its own past, through Beethoven's Eroica Symphony -- the first work the Brooklyn Philharmonic ever performed, in 1857. In each of three neighborhoods, one Beethoven movement is presented in a context that speaks to the local community.

I've never seen anything like this. They're not just bringing orchestral repertoire to Brooklyn. They're bringing music that's about Brooklyn, including things that Brooklynites already know. Which means that they're doing very little standard repertoire. Some people will of course deplore that. But let them deplore. Fact is that the Brooklyn Philharmonic has been a troubled institution, and hasn't made any kind of programming work, financially, for many, many years.So why not try something new? And aren't orchestras all over the US trying to remake themselves, by getting closer to their communities? So here's a dramatic example of how to do it. Larger orchestras, of course, have subscription seasons, featuring standard rep, that still work for them financially (though if you project the numbers into the future, the trend doesn't look good). So they wouldn't abandon that, and transform all their programming, Brooklyn Philharmonic-style. But if they want to approach their wider community, they ought to take a look at what's happening in Brooklyn next year.

Please consider the environment before printing out this email.  Thanks.
YOU'VE COTT MAIL is a free service for professionals in the arts.  Emails are sent most weekdays. 
If you are not already on the distribution list and would like to sign up, please click here:

Join Our Mailing List      Follow me on Twitter     
Click here to view an archive of recent past editions of "You've Cott Mail."