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February 16, 2006

Stage Matters

A Life in the Theater


In my sixth column (with hardly a negative word in the previous five) and after glowing notices of four shows, last week I wrote what I frankly dreaded: a negative review.

I wasn't bothered by the prospect of letters to the editor (though I recall none for the "positive" pieces). I had my say here, and others have theirs in the letters section. The dialogue is part of the point.

But I know how hard people work to create theater. I've been involved in it since my third grade class put on the first play I wrote. In fourth grade I had my first and only rep company, when I wrote scripts for my Cub Scout den, and we blew away the other dens and their knot-tying demonstrations for the Pack prize every month. I wrote, acted and directed in college, and I've seen my scripts produced occasionally since. I've been a dramaturge and otherwise involved as a participant or close observer of professional, college and community productions. I love the process. So I wasn't looking forward to the inevitable hurt feelings.

Besides, Charlie can say anything he wants about films in his column, but Steve Martin doesn't live here.

I also know that producers, directors and actors on the North Coast, as elsewhere, themselves make qualitative judgments, which can be quite harsh. They just don't often make them in public, and sign their names. Judgments are part of the process. Dealing with them is part of the job.

Some may feel that community theater should essentially be immune from criticism, but those theaters still charge admission and ask for contributions. Evaluation is a reasonable element, as it is for the artistic growth of the theaters themselves. Producers know that they are competing for audience with other entertainment, including available versions of the plays they're producing, just as theater artists learn from excellent productions, and are inspired by them.

As for my credentials, I offer this additional information: Like a lot of small town working class or lower-middle class kids, I didn't see live theater as a child, but I've since seen hundreds of plays in at least 15 different cities and towns, from the back of New York restaurants to Broadway, and from the Guthrie in Minneapolis to summer barn theater in central Pennsylvania, and at the Changing Scene in Denver, which was down an alley past a dumpster and an old washing machine.

That's in addition to plays at all North Coast venues in the past nine years. Although I've written on theater for three newspapers and several national magazines, most of the time nobody was paying me to go. These gigs did provide the opportunity to talk at length with Jason Robards Jr., August Wilson and many younger theater professionals.

But that doesn't mean I'm the expert, or I can't be wrong. Responses are individual. What I say doesn't prevent anyone from going to a show, nor should it deter anyone from feeling justified in enjoying it. But if I'm not honest, what's the point?

Other things being equal, I'd rather not write about something I don't like. That's not always possible, and in last week's case I felt strongly about the play itself. I've seen Shakespeare's plays at every level and every sort of venue they're performed, up to and including Kevin Kline as Hamlet, and Glenda Jackson as Lady Macbeth. I don't expect New York or regional theater gloss at a community theater. I am also dismayed by seeing a production there I'd expect to see in a high school, where the purpose is quite different.

I don't believe, as some do, that community theaters aren't capable of doing decent Shakespeare. But these plays probably require more time, attention and directed energies than other productions, and the best actors and directors in the community. The community deserves this. Great plays are great opportunities.

In my columns here so far, I've deliberately highlighted the particular pleasures of live performance, and of the process of creating it. My subtext has been that in addition to movies, music and other forms of art and entertainment, stage matters.

My hope is to encourage a thriving theater community. But healthy theater requires self-criticism and self-analysis, and ever-greater aspiration. My contribution is to add information and context, and describe my responses. All I'm finally doing is adding to the discussion, while providing something I hope is worth reading. I feel a responsibility to the community and to the participants, but also to my editors, readers and to the plays themselves, and the life and future of the theater. I try to balance those responsibilities.

Correction to a factual error in last week's column: The performance of As You Like It I attended last Friday was not its official opening night, which for this play was Thursday (whereas for the last NCRT production, the Thursday production I saw was apparently a preview, and Friday the official opening.) My response was so strong that it was unlikely to be changed by a more enthusiastic audience of families and friends, or another hour or two of misery. I might also point out that since I wrote about the production as a whole, I mentioned no names.


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