From the Editor’s Perch…

Monolithic Local Theater Continued…

LEVEL ORANGE

If you’ve ever had a job, you can understand how water runs uphill.  The boss points it out, and the workers all nod and marvel.

This is a bit how I felt after reading in this past week’s Puget Sound Business Journal:  “The Seattle area has a long history of supporting new theatrical works, often with great success on Broadway and elsewhere.  Now the drive that built that legacy is gaining momentum with new programs and investment in cultivating art at its earliest stages.”  (I shake my head and marvel.)

“It’s part of a strategy that brings money back to local theaters that own the rights to the new works,” continues Valerie Bauman, staff writer.  “For example, 5th Avenue’s “Hairspray” has generated more than $1 million in royalties since it was picked up on Broadway.”  (I shake my head this time, with greater understanding…)

I have to say that it’s all part of a strategy that’s beginning to take on a form, here in Seattle, as the local News continues to fluff it up.

In my first piece here in The Editor’s Perch on “Our Monolithic Theater”, I pointed out that regional theaters here and elsewhere have no record of ever producing a mailed play script – unless that playwright first had a relationship with the theater.  It was also shown that our local theaters refused to pick up local shows which were clear hits, responding that they had never found one which was right for their theater.

Now, it’s becoming plainer what makes a play ‘right for their theater’.  It’s pretty simple, really: THEY own the rights.  (And they get the million dollars.)

In return, as was covered in our last piece, the playwright gets to talk to other playwrights, access to their copy machine, and also a reading… if monies can be found, and patience is acquired.  All these things, I repeat, which could be accomplished (and probably has been accomplished) by the playwright him/herself within a few days around here – even if they were living out of a box on the street.

The New Works Program at the 5th Avenue Theater, however,  is promising a little more: “The program also provides an opportunity for artists to get feedback and exposure at the earliest phase of creating a script, a song or a performance.  Along the way, they’re paid for their work.  (This is a pleasant sounding way of saying, along the way you are selling your rights to the work for peanuts, so that we get the royalty money and write the plays destiny.)”

 

This is the Brave New World to be of our Regional Theater.  And it gripes me.

I try to get my son to eat more naturally made bread, but he likes white bread.  I point out to him that bread with all sorts of whole wheat and grains still has much of the natural nutrition you should seek in a meal.  But he points out to me the laundry list of nutritional additions, almost as long as his forearm, listed on the side of the white bread plastic sack – while my list is ever so small.

Institutions are like my son.  They prefer white bread.  It’s soft; it goes down easy; it hits that golden mean and it’s got all of its benefits listed right there on the side for all to see.  It has ‘proof’ that’s it’s nutritional sound and will build your body in “12 different ways.”  All ‘natural’  bread has is that it’s natural.  Its list of ingredients is very short.

Not long ago I saw a matinee production of the “Pullman Porter Blues” by Cheryl L. West produced by the Seattle Rep.  The set was good; the acting was good; the direction was good; and the writing was good.  But the story was boiler plate liberal.  The regional theaters have been refining this formula for as long as I have been alive.  The play was 4 years in development.  And I imagine in 4 years a regional theater could really leach out all the natural nutrition a fresh script provides and replace it with politically pure proven supplements.  You may have experienced the audience this sort of racial testimony play attracts: a lot of White people who nod and say, “aaahhh!”, as they notice each of the ingredients the playwright has posted on the side of the package.  And then there is a smattering of well-dressed somber Black people.  And God knows what they are thinking.

Playwright Thomas Bradshaw / Photo by Sara Krulwich NY Times

Contrast this with the plays of another Black playwright, Tyler Perry, whose plays went from small church productions to major venues which attracted Black people by the droves.  His plays weren’t right for the regional theaters.  Or more recently contrast this with the plays of Black playwright Thomas Bradshaw, whose “Job” now runs at the Flea Theater –  a private theater run by the husband of the actress Sigourney Weaver – through November 3rd in New York City.  His material “is best described as life with all the ghastly extremes – incest, rape, racially motivated murder – added back in and depicted in a deadpan style that has prompted both big laughs and angry walkouts,” says the New York Times.  I’m doubting this play had 4 years of development.  It sounds like it was popped right out of the oven… or rather it grew beyond all bounds in the writing and shoved its way out on its own.

Being a writer, all I really want is to have my say, and I’ve had it.   I can’t say I’ve attracted either the audience or critical approval to fill a larger venue, even if one of our regional theaters were to approach me.   I’ll practice my craft elsewhere, thank you.  As long as people love to perform there will be live theater.  So look around, I may be there.  All we need is “two boards and a trestle.”

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