"The theater is dying,
The theater is dying,
The theater is practically dead!"
So sing the "men in black" in the never Re-produced Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Me And Juliet". It's part of "an intermission ballet" and the men in black, colluding off to one side, are of course the critics; the crowd of ordinary playgoers however get the final words of vigorous hope.
I'm with them.
I know that in the era of Twitter and The Cloud and NetFlicks the hope that people will Go Out to see plays is, in most people's minds, in serious doubt. In My mind, though, the resounding health of The Factory and Boston Playwrights' Theatre, of The Cambridge YMCA Family Theatre and The Paramount and The BCA, of The Theatre Marathon and The Warm-up Laps, of StageSource and The Alliance (S.T.A.B.) makes me believe that live theater --- entertainments that breathe the same air as their audiences --- is on the brink of a renaissance.
And I'm doing what little I can to make that birth a healthy one.
I think the gloom- and nay-sayers think theater in Boston is dying because they do the numbers --- two numbers in particular, both of them getting bigger every year. The first is the price of a ticket in any of the mass-appeal Broadway in Boston houses (and in the same houses down in The Apple); the second is the ages of the audiences at those houses. Those "big barns" have to attract large numbers of customers every performance in order to break even, so they look like the only game in town; however, younger people are priced out of the running, so the fact that people who still love theater and have the money to indulge that love are approaching The Dying Age closer every year.
When I got to Boston (1957) Broadway was still in Golden Age mode. Every one of the three downtown houses had plays for two-week runs all the time, and --- much more important --- I Could Afford Tickets. And I mean on entry-level wages as a dishwasher or a bookseller. And for me, even back then, it wasn't one show or one company even that I went to; it wasn't TCB or The Charles, or Miller or Williams or Rodgers & Hammerstein that I loved --- I Loved THEATER, All Of It. And I wasn't alone.
When it was demonstrated that profits could be made by tying up one of those three big-barns with a Single Show that ran for months, the producers lost the courage to fail --- and only shows that this huge audience were Familiar With got a shot at it. They bet on the sure-things, lengthened runs, inflated prices --- and they made money by pissing away the most intelligent, enthusiastic, and Young theater-audience in America.
They did no audience-development to convince low-income kids that theater was interesting.
In the late '50s-'60s big-name shows that could fill a big house went into the Colonial and the Shubert. Shows that were either too Good or too Bad to fill either one went into Ye Wilbur Theatre. The mahayana and the hinayana theatrical audiences were well served, and theater flourished. When an "only blocknbusters need apply" long-run policy became the norm, it was smarter business to leave a big house like the Colonial dark than to take a chance on anything new.
And though TCB and The Charles failed when Federal subsidies for the arts dried up, the A.R.T. moved up from New Haven and The Huntington opened, so there was local activity on a pretty much upscale level to take up some slack.
I think it's a crime to turn Ye Wilbur THEATRE into a grind-house for stand-up gigs. I think what producers should have done was book in lots of short-run shows at Ye Wilbur, and reserve The Entire Balcony for anyone with a college i.d. and charge them all five bucks a head. That at least could have primed the pump and nurtured the feeling in them that Live Theater, as such, was worth their attention.
Nurturing that feeling, that respect and enjoyment of Theater, ANY Theater, is the name of the game right now.
And the way to do that? CO-OPERATE!
An ancient joke goes "The people in Chinatown exist by taking in Each Other's washing." At The Factory, a large percentage of the audience for any show consists of people who work in Other Companies. ("What is the sound of one hand washing?" is my Zen koan.) And the number of new companies increases every year, while more and more of them Stay In Business. No one is making any money, but obviously there are other rewards. And the people like me who love Theater feel like clams at high tide!
The major symbol for theatrical cooperation here is The Alliance. The Small Theatre Alliance of Boston tells each other what people are doing, and they talk to one another about what their difficulties and their triumphs are --- as well as encourageing people to explore cooperative ventures to tackle universal problems. They Do theater because they Love theater, and that makes them feel less in competition and more willing to cooperate.
The next step is to convince the non-creating audiences that All Theater is worth a try.
When The Mirror was just getting started, a friend of mine worked a miracle. He was working with producers that had booked a production of "The Mousetrap" into Ye Wilbur in what they hoped would be a long run that stretched over the Christmas/New Years holidays, when most of Boston's college crowd went home to other places. He convinced them to give free tickets on one night (a slushy-snowy Thursday, I think it was) if they said the magic words "The Theater Mirror" at the box-office. On the night more than the number the producers expected took advantage of it, and in euphoria I christened them "We Few, We Happy Few!" --- and we never had an opportunity to do anything like that again.
People who love theater, All theater, are indeed a happy few, and deserve care and nurture. I'm working on a scheme to try to find out who those people are and expand their horizons. More on that anon. (Yes, "There is an art to the building of suspense!" Stay tuned.....)
Last week-end I ran again into a young actor/director doing a very good new play in the suburbs. They want to bring it into The Factory, as well as to tour it. I think it has legs.
But he explained that after educating himself and doing some fringe-work here, he decided to make his mark in California --- only to find the theatrical "community" out there frosty, forbidding, and nowhere near as supportive and cooperative as the one here in Beantown. He came back home, and is doing magnificent work. More importantly, he's not at all the only one who has come Back to Boston after trying other places. I think we have something going here...
And again, a couple weeks back, at a shmooze-session after a reading, I met someone else. We had "met" before, but only because she's a frequent-usher, so we had never talked till then. She is a delightful lady, perhaps a little closer to my age than college age, but nonetheless a pretty woman with a mind who knows what she likes, and since it costs nothing to volunteer she's willing to take chances. I told her to send me notes about what shows she sees, and I've found her an articulate, insightful, and accurate describer of the theater scene --- in other words, she Is that lover of theater we hope to find and encourage.
They are, each, one of The Few.
Let's all go out and try to find a few more.......
( a k a larry stark)