Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Should Some Theaters Die?

I took a look at Chloe Veltman's post Tragic Magic the other day, which talks about how a group of San Francisco stage folk gathered, as they've been doing semi-regularly, to discuss issues of the day, and how the elephant in the room (to use her phrase) wasn't just the fact that the Magic Theatre was nearly knocked off the map a few months ago due to recession-related fiscal pressure, but how...

With the exception of a few dissenting voices, nearly everyone in the room had said that they hadn't seen anything at the flagship new play theatre in around a decade that they thought was any good. Yet despite the negative attitudes surrounding the theatre's artistic output, most Salonites believed that the disappearance of the Magic -- if it were to go under for good as threatened a couple of months ago -- would be extremely detrimental to the local ecosystem in terms of such things as lost jobs and even fewer mid-sized houses.

So this raises a question: Must all theaters -- should all theaters -- be saved? I've seen one production at the Magic (I've only been to San Francisco twice), so I can't judge the artistic merit of the organization's output, plus that's a totally subjective assessment anyway. The point is, if you have a theater that is indeed crucial to the "local ecosystem" in terms of jobs but is not crucial in terms of artistic quality, is it more moral, is it more ethical, to save the theater and hope for better artistic work in the future, or is it better to accept the possibility that theaters do die, that they indeed have lifespans, and that it's a natural part of the ecosystem for some organizations to wither while others bloom?

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Anonymous said...

Agreed 100%.
Let the market dictate what fails and what succeeds. It separates the wheat from the chaff.

Lou Harry said...

Interesting questions.

Here in Indianapolis, we've recently lost two theaters (kind of).

The Beckman Theatre didn't do much producing and so hasn't been mourned much as far as I can tell. There are a number of still-on-their-feet companies here like that--ones without a full season that seem to pop up every once in a while with a show. Their inconsistant production schedules make it difficult to even keep track of which ones are active concerns. As such, it is unlikely that their disappearances would be noted by many.

Should the Beckman have been saved? It would be tough to make that case. But these incubating theaters, collectively, are important to the theatrical energy here and they are where the biggest surprises can take place. As a class, they are very important to the present and future of the city.

The American Cabaret Theatre still exists, but has downsized in a big way. Now it will be focused on cabaret performances rather than the full productions and revues it has been known for. In essence, the theater company is gone. ACT is the kind of theater that might provoke the sort of discussion you mentioned. Few in the arts community, I think, would say that outstanding work was done there (besides it serving as a showcase for vocal talent). In this case, it was a theater that catered to a very mainstream audience and certainly knew how to please.

Should ACT have been saved? I don't know. I'm more curious about where its audience will migrate to. The newer Actors Theatre of Indiana could pull some, since it also offers revues and wide-appeal musical productions. But there's a chance that it will just go away, which would be frustrating and sad.

My hope, too, is that donors who supported these companies continue to support other arts groups. Will that happen? That, to me, is the key question.

Anonymous said...

You raise a very good question that the arts community has difficulty answering in a clear-eyed way. The same issue applies to many other art forms, such as orchestras, dance companies, etc.

Ultimately, once an artistic company ceases to demonstrate that it continues to be relevant to a community by attracting a decent base of ticket buyers and contributors, then it needs to shut down so that something else has a better chance of growing up to replace it.

Unfortunately there is a strong sense of "entitlement" that underlies an expectation that a company should live on in perpetuity.