Friday, June 01, 2007

I Heart Jason Grote

Jason Grote's post about the Obies and then his subsequent post is straightforward and self-explanatory and just about 100% correct. Personally, I'm not even sure Jason needed to publicly apologize to Gail Parenteau (full disclosure: she is a friend as well as a colleague from the world of publicity, and back in my pre-Back Stage days I did some freelance PR work for her), but heck, what's a little snuggling up to fellow spirits when the demons of the corporate fiefdom are belching fire and brimstone at the American theatre?

The bottom line is this -- and here I depart from Jason a bit: the Obies have been increasingly becoming more disconnected from its roots (some would simply say "more of a joke") for some time. I say this because the Obies recognizes the existence, the growth, the blossoming, the emergence, of Off-Off-Broadway far less than it used to, and not all of its committee members are as well connected to the location of any of the real experimentation going on as they ought to be. (You will note that I said "not all.") Let me add that this is NOT to speak ill of SoHo Rep or any other institutional (meaning more monied than most) Off-Broadway group that wins an Obie. I wouldn't do that, just as I wouldn't speak ill of any theatre company or artist that any honor-giving body might choose to salute, since honoring anything about the theatre nowadays seems to be rather a rare event.

And yes, I know, you can cite examples of this and that company as representative of the cutting-edge -- and oooh! wow! doesn't that mitigate your argument, Leonard? No, fellow soldiers, it does NOT mitigate my argument -- I would argue that the Obies have been more out of touch with the core, the soul, the lifeforce of Off-Broadway, which used to be Off-Off-Broadway before the economics of the industry got tricked up, since Ross Wetzsteon died, with the exception of a few years here and there. Yeah, that's right, I said it...yeah, knock that battery off my shoulder.

Ross, who was the Voice's theatre editor for something like 30 years, was one of the first people ever to hire me to write reviews (17 years ago) and he understood that while the Obies are, by name, Off-Broadway-centric, they are, by heart and very much by practicality, Off-Off-Broadway-centric as well. Just like the terminally silly Drama Desk Awards ("we nominate Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway, but only Broadway or Off-Broadway ever win anything, nyah nyah nyah"), the Obies have concluded -- as Jason Grote basically notes -- that its very survival is a matter of getting hyper-corporatized and hyper-sponsorized, which usually means hyper-sterilized, which usually means lowest-common-denominatorized, which usually means turning into crap. Maybe things will change now that Brian Parks is in the driver's seat at the Voice; he knows the aesthetic quite well and he knows the criticisms of the Obies as well, I'm sure.

I think what I miss most is what I found when I started going to the Obies long ago: an incipient anarchy, a vibe of the unstoppable and unleashed. Even if the ceremony was of colossal length, at least it was interesting. At least there was something to sink your teeth into and to argue about over a drink afterward.

No, I did not go to the Obies this year; more and more I can't bear to see how bland the whole thing is becoming. (I mean, Cynthia Nixon on a Teleprompter? What could be next? Ashlee Simpson forgetting how to lip-synch? Lindsay Lohan giving herself a citation?)

So, if the corporate raiders have such a seething, putrifying, boiling hatred of New York theatre (I don't know this; I'm just taking my cue from Jason and others), let them go boil their brains and kill the Obies. Frankly, that's why I chair the IT Awards instead. This is our third year and we're damn proud of what we're doing. And the Obie were never going to ask me to be on the committee anyway, and now I've probably sealed it.

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1 comment:

Jason Grote said...

Why thanks, Leonard!

Yeah, I agree with much of what you say, though a lot of what we think of as "institutions" are in fact only a little more institutionalized than a bunch of recent college grads putting up an Equity showcase. I was amazed to discover how humble Soho Rep's actual material circumstances were, as opposed to their artistic reputation. It is to their credit that they've kept things small and have gone out of their way to treat people well, under 3 consecutive artistic directors, and the Exec Director Alexandra Conley is pretty amazing at stretching a dollar, but really, it's all reputation and no money. Sarah Benson's mandate is to fundraise and produce more frequently, and rent the space less so, but I know for a fact that she is dedicated to holding on to the pillars of the theater's reputation - treating people well and artistic adventurousness. Even the Public is broke these days, rumor has it through an accounting error, which is one of the reasons why they're partnering with smaller companies, which is a trend I like.

I've been at the center of the debate about small alternative theaters and institutions for a few years, and like most binary debates, I think it's a false choice. I've had great experiences at massive institutions and have felt totally violated and exploited in collaborations where the piece was essentially being produced by the director and myself. There is still a bit of a stigma in a few literary offices of major theaters around the US - there are playwrights I know who get stuck in the "small theatre" ghetto, which is unfair - but as the years proceed, I tihnk we'll see far more blurring of those lines.

But yeah, it's a Hobson's Choice that isn't limited to the Obies or theater in general - just look at Unions, the Democratic Party, the dustup at Pacifica Radio a few years back - it's either, get big by selling out your core values or stay small and get steamrolled. Of course, this isn't necessarily a real choice - again, I hold up Soho Rep as a shining example - but it does make for an awkward tension.