"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 24 July 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
All the Summer's A Stage


Actors, like insects, thrive in the summer. Whether you prefer having your blood sucked out of bare flesh at the county fair or your enjoyment of the American musical sucked from your soul by a summer stock production of I Do, I Do, one thing is clear: The warmer it gets, the greater the effort put forth by that Dom Dimaggio of the public arts, live theater. The medium blooms like a seasonal flower: Established theaters begin new seasons by drawing fresh talent from a pool of angry actors suffering the sting of rejection from TV pilot season. University and community theaters begin summer programs deemed experimental for their lack of Neil Simon plays, thespians congregate to neck furtively backstage between improvisational exercises, and summer festivals celebrate both new writing talents who spent most of high school practicing their autographs and an Elizabethan poet dead almost 400 years who never settled on a single spelling. If bug zappers gave off the sound of a standing ovation, back yards across America would be knee deep in corpses.

Theater has always taken sly advantage of the cultural moment, a helpful skill when bigger and badder media saunter up to the American entertainment bar. Every time some partly employed culture critic browbeats film and television for their stultifying effects on the already undertaxed American mind, theater's sheen of respectability and elitist patronage seems a little bit brighter. As other industries attempt a similar beatdown of on-line media, theater has cleverly stressed its status as live entertainment: the cyber-opposite. The '90s on the American stage was a decade of quasi-theatrical you-can't-do-that-at-home performance, from circus sideshows in alternative venues to dance-infused showcases featuring props like brooms, trashcan lids, and the Irish. Theater's recent fascination with celebrity skin confirms the makeover: You can see Nicole Kidman and Kathleen Turner nude on film, but only theater can put you in the same room as a naked movie star — or, in the case of fringe groups in various urban centers, a naked guy from your yoga class.


But cleverness can only take you so far. The key to a clear mind is a healthy body. Theater's greatest strength is local, regional stage having become so firmly embedded into the American mainstream there's no chance of its ever fading. A local theater company recruits like a nation expecting war, although the amazingly low threshold of participation actually calls to mind a nation with its capital under siege. Companies of every size depend on volunteers, whether they play the role of interns or artistic directors. In return for free use of time and talent, even the smallest theater offers access to the ego origami, free-floating sexuality and vague dreams of self-actualization that characterize professional green rooms. A veneer of sophistication and distance allows theater people to laugh at the pathetic characters in Waiting for Guffman while living equally furtive lives. Don't let them fool you. Like Christianity and sports, theater has even managed a foolproof way to recruit among the young. The high school drama department's role as an Island of Misfit Toys for socially isolated youth has led to more adult children living at home than the last three mini-recessions combined.

Theater resembles an actor in that it's usually sort of broke. While individual, short-term involvement is relatively easy, corporate and long-term participation proves a stone bitch. Film and print publicly measure profit and loss in terms of abstracted career consequences and unblinking institutional shoulder-shrugging: someone gets fired, someone has a bad year. Theater, on the other hand, measures profit like your aunt does after a garage sale: how much spent, how much made. Robert Hofler can term Dame Edna: The Royal Tour a success based on a "one and a half times return on investment." If films and television are a roulette wheel, then theater investors are skilled blackjack players, working in grim-faced fashion for more modest rewards.

No gambler could match the complicated income sources of the average urban theater company. Theaters of every size use a baffling array of funding mechanisms, each minutely suited to the task at hand. Community theaters sell memberships and individual tickets and hold out for state money and local gifts; small fringe companies hold benefits, hit their working members up for contributions and name fundraising boards; larger companies have subscribers, patrons and full-time seekers of endowments. The loss of a single line of funding, from a wealthy patron's passing to a political sea change, can send even an esteemed regional theater into a financial tailspin.


The corresponding benefit is an austere institutional discipline imposed upon the art. The July 6 Back Stage West describes how an agreement between the homeless L.A. Company A Noise Within and an empty California State theater facility ended in prop abuse and the same show's being produced in different parts of the same building. A decade-long crisis in funding has threatened to kill minority theaters as they develop past the point where a single patron can afford to produce their shows. Theatrical institutions age like everyone else, and living on rice cakes and Ramen noodles leaves a lot to be desired ten and twenty years in. But while improving cash flow brings a better class of car, you may remain as dependent on the next paycheck as when you built your own bed frame. People start theater companies by dreaming about the million-to-one shot that they and their best college buddies are the next Steppenwolf, move on to hoping that one of them might break out, and end up sorting through competing serial killer scripts in an attempt to pay back rent — a hard thing to do when most of the founders now live in the suburbs. And as Steppenwolf learned, hoped-for success may lead down a new and difficult path lined with critics who snipe about losing one's edge.

Stage-active celebrities like John Cusack, David Schwimmer, and Philip Seymour Hoffman are a boon to their theater companies for the obvious reasons: They generate money and publicity. Playwrights, on the other hand, are developed over years and years of trial and error. Playwrights and composers work their way through any number of small, regional, and then national productions — sometimes on a single show. Moreover, successful dramatists can keep the stage as long as they want: Mid-century American playwrights like Albee and Miller enjoy recent opportunities and the sort of financial backing that could make any number of brand-new careers. Becoming a first-tier American playwright is like joining the cast of 60 Minutes: Someone probably has to die first, and most people end up doing something else. What theater lacks in overnight success stories it makes up in consistent artistic careers: Over time, minor works from established talents are more satisfying than a series of one-hit wonders.


Theater owes its advantageous position to picking its spots, exploiting its audience and making slow, purposeful strides, even if every step is second-guessed for its cost. The constant turnover of hopeful actors and the slow-simmering talents of writers-to-be has little to do with the celebrity casting of New York Stage. Various film studios are interested in buying a London stage so they can have dibs on the next Sam Mendes or Julie Taymor, and this in turn has little to do with the tens of volunteer hours spent for every dollar raised to cover this year's National New Plays Festival. The thousands touched by a well-staged version of a Disney movie and the hundreds engaged briefly in various half-empty Chicago theaters both speak to drama's dogged durability. In the lifetime of an art form, you never know which summer romance will last.

courtesy of 40th Street Black
picturesTerry Colon

40th Street Black