Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "Boston's Daisy-CuttersMaking a Living in Theater..."

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


Sunday, 10 November, 2001:
"Boston's Daisy-Cutters"

Daisy-Cutters are bombs --- well, explosive devices that first spew into the air and then ignite fuel, devastating the surrounding area. "They're useful against caves," the expert said, "because they suck all the oxygen out of the air, and that's an ugly way to die."
In Boston's theater world there are a number of Daisy-Cutters that suck all the money out of the economy.

The most graphic Daisy-Cutter explosion here was "Mama Mia!" which failed to fill every seat at every performance at full face-value, and only carted Ten Million, Two Hundred Thousand Dollars out of Boston and down to The Apple. (Not a penny of that money stayed in Boston; the producers rented The Colonial Theatre's four walls, and the SFX landlords paid the staff of people who live here just the same amount per week they would have had the show been as "popular" as Kelcy Grammer's "Macbeth".) The only benefits to Boston's economy that show bestowed were increased revenues for the parking-lots, restaurants and bars in the Boston Theatre District. And there was no beneficent fall-out for other local companies in increased theater-awareness, since most of those high-priced seats were purchased by people who had never seen a play before in their lives, and had no incentive whatever to make a habit of the experience.

The SFX's old name "Broadway in Boston" means a lot. The shows that play The Colonial and Ye Wilbur aren't part of the Boston Theater World, they're merely temporary visitors for a few weeks or months, just as SFX stubbornly and aloofly sets itself apart from anything local. The company is nothing but the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner sucking shekels southward.

The Wang Theatre (and its wholly-owned subsidiary The Shubert) are no better, despite a history of political and legal string-pulling, despite Historic Landmark status which means the plants are free (and maybe even tax-free), despite Not-For-Profit corporate status and a lot of lip-service to community service (and of course the seasons of The Boston Ballet which were hard-wired i nto their original contract with the city), they run the identical four-wall rentals SFX does, and every penny get shipped south.

After years of competing head-to-head for blockbuster shows with the decidedly FOR-Profit Broadway-in-Boston, the Wang was actually embarrassed into opening their little-house-across-from-their-big-house to Boston's opera groups, but that's just a fig-leaf on their Shameless Commerce Division. Theater at The Wang means Big Apple visitors and Big Apple profits. Period.

A while ago, The Wang even rubbed salt in Boston's wounds by booking two shows ("Annie" in The Wang, "Godspell" in The Shubert) that featured non-Equity casts, often of kids only hours out of college. The ticket-prices, though, were as stratospheric as always. The only notice the company takes of Bostonians is through the bars of the ticket-windows.

But there are companies that live and work in this area that function in the economic Daisy-Cutter mode not by taking their ticket-revenues out of the city, but by sucking up the major share of local corporate aid. And, artistically at least, they too are at great pains to turn their backs on the city they live in. They're not "really" Boston companies --- they're Boston's major players in the National Theater Scene and each believes it's the only game in town.

You can tell the economic health (and clout) of such companies by how many pages it takes to list all the names of their benefactors, and one of the longest is in the programs of The Huntington Theatre Company --- the city's healthiest. But they are proud of their reputation not as a local company but as one of an exclusive group of American Regional Theatres, trading shows with other regionals in Texas or Seattle, and rehearsing their own productions out in Williamstown.

But just how "regional" are they? Wasn't their "Hedda Gabler" just the Boston try-out run for a show destined from the start for a Broadway run? Weren't they proud that it's director mounted here the exact same production of "The Dead" he had on Broadway, as though it were a touring-company? And, since their spectacular splash here with "Dead End" just how many Boston actors have been cast by "Boston's leading professional theatre, in residence at Boston University"? Remember: the production following "Dead End" was a one-man play starring someone re-creating his Broadway performance in ... where was it? Ah yes: Ye Wilbur Theatre. It seems that in order to do anything good in Boston you have to reach Out of Boston, right?

The other economic Daisy-Cutter, and maybe the biggest, isn't in Boston of course, it's across the river. But The American Repertory Theatre lives "in" Cambridge about the same way the Kennedys live "in" Hyannis. Their theatrical experiments are so scientifically pure they avoid any contamination from the indigeni. Again, they hold open calls every year, but how many residents of Boston end up on their roster of regulars? Their talents fly in from Europe or Hollywood to do spectacular things noticed by The Times --- London's, or New York's --- but there might as well be barbed-wire between them and any other Boston theatrical activities. They're too busy, too important to mix.

Except when looking for funding, of course.

The real difficulty is that unlike other story-telling media, theater is labor-intensive, and people have to eat, which means costs can't really be cut when money get scarce, and tickets (for anything by "Mama Mia!") can't get astronomical without pricing audiences out of existence. Broadway gets around it by increasing both ad-budgets and ticket-prices while cutting quality down to a least common denominator. Smaller companies get around it by making actors subsidize shows working for nothing or close to. Bigger companies look for Federal and state grants and offer advertising to businesses in return for "underwriting" that the corporations dole out from their p/r budgets.

Boston --- both the city and its businesses --- is a notorious niggard when it comes to the Arts and to theater specifically. When, for instance, did you last open a program to see a tastefully modest announcement that "costs for this production were paid in part from a generous donation from the Raytheon Corporation? (I'll wait...... ) The building housing The Lyric Stage of Boston is reflected by the walls of what I think of as the most beautiful piece of sculpture in this city, The John Hancock Tower right across the street, and yet their programs proclaimed that "Sunday in The Park with George" was made possible through the generosity of ..... The Prudential Group? Go figger!

The funding pie --- or should I say here in Boston the few funding cupcakes started shrinking almost as they'd started to appear, because of our current recession. And that means an even growing economic distance separates the theatrical men from the boys in this area. So I fully understand the four fat cats here holding on to their own, even though I think a little far-sighted statesmanship would go a long way toward spreading audiences around to more than one jealous company at a time, and reawakening theatrical awareness in people under fifty years of age.

Before SFX bought them out, Broadway-in-Boston tacked on a one-dollar-a-ticket fee to pay for cleaning and restoration of The Colonial (pound-for-pound the most beautiful theatre in America) and Ye Wilbur Theatre. If they had added another nickel to every ticket sold for "Mama Mia!" and donated that fund to the BCA, The Threshold Theatre and The Actors' Workshop, I swear I'd clean every tile in their lovely lobby floor with a toothbrush in loving gratitude. I'd love to hear Cy Spaulding offer to house next April's Boston Theater Marathon at his Shubert Theatre rent-free. (Hell, it's only One Day A Year!) And wouldn't it be nice if both the new Artistic Directors at the Huntington and the A.R.T. could start every show next season by mimicking Spiro Veloudos' lovely curtain-speech:

"On behalf of the many Boston actors,
artists, designers and technicians working in this theater,
I welcome you to tonight's performance!"

and then go on to list a roster of a dozen Boston-based industries who banded together to keep live theater healthy and vigorous in the city where they live and work.

Yeah, I may not get there in my lifetime either, but I too have a dream......


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide