Saturday, September 20, 2008

What should an academic theatre be? Part III

The Huntington at high tide: She Loves Me.

The fall theatre season has opened with one stumble after another - none more spectacular, however, than the Huntington's How Shakespeare Won the West. Explaining that particular disaster could take a while - so the time seems ripe to continue the series I began this summer on the proper role of the academic theatre - with a look, of course, at Boston's avatar of the "traditional" stage.

But first, a recap. The series was sparked by my realization that the American Repertory Theatre's incoming Artistic Director had virtually no classical theatre on her résumé, and that this had gone almost unmentioned in the press - even though it was rather odd, to say the least, for an academic institution to be led by a person whose major experience lay in re-styling Shakespeare and Mozart into pop (her greatest success was actually this summer's hot-ticket production of Hair in New York). Hub Review fans (and enemies) probably remember the following skeptical consideration of the M.O. of the ART, in which I pondered the curious circumstances of its founding (Harvard scooped it up wholesale from Yale, with little thought to its mission, but no doubt maximum awareness of its prestige, given Harvard's lack of a genuine theatre school).

I also tried to encapsulate the theatre's goal - which I've never heard any other local critic attempt to do - which I roughly described as a kind of reformist intervention in the theatre, along a modernist (then post-modernist) axis, with a repetitive emphasis on our awareness of performance as performance. "Revolution" was what the ART had in mind - a revolution that was supposed to be sourced not in the text but in its production, which, following a formula derived from Brecht and Artaud, would simultaneously keep sentimental identification with the theatrical effects at bay, while at the same time unleashing some kind of illuminating, quasi-sexual ecstasy in the viewer. That detachment and ecstasy were mutually exclusive didn't seem to bother anybody, because of course the theories animating the performances were never given coherent shape (and were made even fuzzier by post-colonial and post-racial political pressures, a loose promotion of all things Asian, and a heavy dose of surrealist bombast).

My sense of the ART's trajectory is more fully developed in that earlier post; what I want to consider here is how the Huntington Theatre evolved as its doppelgänger. It appeared on the scene only a year or two after the ART, under the direction of Peter Altman, and attached to a sponsor, Boston University, which actually had a School of the Arts. The challenge was rather obvious (although as usual, the press spoke not a word about it), but wasn't confined to academic one-upsmanship; there was also an intellectual component to the rivalry. The ART could easily be seen as a gaggle of academic dilettantes fucking with the classics along trendy theoretical lines, with little actual support from its university or the community; the Huntington, however, could draw from, and rely on, its university's commitment to the development of professional theatre. The implicit goal of the Huntington was not to revolutionize the theatre, but to preserve "the best" of it, in a setting that would be run by teaching professionals, not critics and theorists.

At first there seemed little contest, however, who had the upper hand onstage; I can barely remember any details from the productions of the Huntington's opening seasons (aside from their sets), while the ART scored several successes in a row (which it proceeded to milk for decades to come). Altman's vision did, indeed, seem to mean producing handsome, but unimaginative productions of plays which always honored the text, but seemed trapped in our received assumptions of what said text meant and how it operated (Time and the Conways? Design for Living? Did I even see those?). The spectacular sets (one of the best, at left) became a kind of metaphor for the theatre itself - tastefully impressive, but enclosed and over-determined (while the ART went "exploring" in the open air of the cavernous Loeb stage).

But a funny thing happened on the way to obsolescence. The Huntington began to tap into a real-world politics that eluded the ART in its ivory tower, with productions of Wendy Wasserstein and a long-term commitment to August Wilson. That genuine (if light) political content should be found in tired old naturalistic modes rather than post-surrealist extravaganzas seemed to discombulate the ART and its founder (Brustein eventually got into a ludicrous dust-up with Wilson, but that's another story). At the same time, the Reagan administration yanked much of the funding for the "radical" theatrical circle jerk, and the ART found itself pressed by monetary concerns into what Brustein sniffed was a "safer" path. Fewer white girls were smearing themselves with chocolate on its stage, and more conventional productions, with actual plots and characters, became more frequent.

And there, of course, the Huntington began to slowly gain an edge. The ART had already suffered such indignities as having Samuel Beckett himself try to shut down its ditzy update of Endgame; but stripped of their head-scratcher trappings, more and more of its productions began to look slightly vulgar or even incompetent, and it simply didn't have the actors to cover the range of roles in a classical piece (tellingly, there have often been great individual performances at the Huntington, while there have been very few at the ART). Meanwhile the Huntington's handsomeness began to betray an inner intellectual structure (particularly in the work of Sharon Ott and Jacques Cartier), and the theatre also began to mount spry productions of musicals (a genre which the deeply morbid ART couldn't even comprehend) via director Larry Carpenter, and could even boast the occasional classical triumph (Games of Love and Chance, directed by Stephen Wadsworth).

But it was a changing of the administrative guard, and the arrival of Nicholas Martin as Artistic Director in 2001, that suddenly turned the situation upside-down. Martin was a conventional theatrical spirit, but an undeniably brilliant director - and he arrived with an artistic associate to handle many of the administrative duties previously managed by Mr. Altman. Suddenly it seemed that perhaps the Huntington's "lack of vision" hadn't really been about any kind of intellectual gap in traditional theatre, but had simply been due to the administrative propensities of its management. Martin, both a New Yorker and a networker, began to call in his connections, and soon the Huntington was working uptown the same way the ART had worked downtown - and was hosting crackling productions (most by Martin) like Hedda Gabler, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, The Rivals, Love's Labour's Lost, and Present Laughter.

At the same time Martin's Huntington began to engage with its home city in a way that the ART had never done (and indeed had never thought to do). He began to hire local actors, and the company's participation in the expansion of the Boston Center for the Arts was probably instrumental in the opening of two new theatres there - a huge boon to both the South End, which became the "new Theatre District," and the city's smaller theatre companies. (What it did for the Huntington itself - which hasn't really been able to figure out what to do with its gorgeous new theatre, the Wimberley - is less clear.) The company also began to invest directly in playwrights by sponsoring fellowships and producing staged readings - and even took the landmark step of producing a locally-developed play on its new Wimberley Stage (Melinda Lopez's Sonia Flew - above left - which has gone on to several other regional productions).

But there were still a few flies in the ointment of all this success. Note that the roster of stand-out productions above includes not a single new play - and indeed, despite the fact that Martin had re-oriented his theatre from the classic and toward the contemporary, the Huntington seemed unable to strike artistic gold there. It was hard not to feel this might be partly due to Martin's own networking - just as the ART had been stifled by its own boho clique, so the "development mill" that the Huntington had become a part of was simply ignoring great new work done by already-established playwrights. Somehow the Huntington passed on challenging new pieces by Albee, Kushner, and Churchill, even though these might have been ideal for its smaller space, and instead concentrated on plays by lesser writers either with hometown connections, or connections in New York (or on TV). Being an avatar of "professional" rather than "theoretical" theatre had its advantages, true, but it turned out to have its disadvantages, too, at least as far as the supposed "academic" component of its mission was concerned: indeed, at the Huntington, the ambitions of the academy seemed to have shrunk to those of the Public Theatre (or HBO). Ironically, the Huntington had now made its case for "traditional," classical theatre, many times over - indeed, only one of the ART's recent productions, Britannicus, could match the Huntington's best. But its idea of "new" theatre, and its programming of its new spaces (which it began to fill with turns from minor celebrity acts rather than actual new plays) was consistently disappointing - and indeed, Boston's smaller companies quickly began to take up the slack.

Now, of course, Martin has moved on, and Peter DuBois (left), late of the Public Theatre, has taken his place. But one senses the general problem of the theatre's mission may actually only have been exacerbated - at least based on How Shakespeare Won the West, a derivative pastiche pasted together by theatrical insider Richard Nelson, and a promised season heavy on playwrights with connections either locally (Richard Goodwin) or in New York (David Grimm, José Rivera). True, there's one major play by a living playwright in the Huntington's line-up - Tom Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll - but this, too, was already tested in New York, and it has a built-in middlebrow hook in its sentimental take on pop music. One wonders if a hostility to the centrality of the theatrical text may in a way have taken root at the Huntington as well as at the ART - that both theatres have essentially abandoned the traditional commitment to plays in favor of a producer-mediated mode that the academy, one muses, should be the first to resist. It's also a little weird, frankly, that both should have begun leaning on rock music to attract audiences; are the traditionalists and the revolutionaries ending up in roughly the same pop-culture spot? More on that and other concerns in the final installment (I promise) of this series, in which I try to draw some lessons on what suits an academic theatre best from the strange, eventful histories of these two local examples.

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