Theater Commentary: “Trumpismo avant la lettre” and the Elliot Norton Awards

Hypnotized by celebrity and the monied class, our stage critics have become a gaggle of cheerleaders, feckless enough to call Diane Paulus a “visionary.”


By Bill Marx

Congratulations to this year’s Elliot Norton Awards winners. You can see the list here.

Generally, a commendation of the Norton Awards Recipients is enough, but I am compelled to comment on the unfortunate, even downright embarrassing, choice of Diane Paulus, Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater, as the winner of this year’s Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence.

If it wasn’t for a sadistic twist, I would just roll my eyes at the craven foolishness of my fellow critics. I have been deeply skeptical of Paulus and her ‘bigly’ approach to theater over the years, admiring her commitment to Broadway entrepreneurship but questioning her fidelity to innovative and/or quality theater. In fact, she is one of the leaders in a pernicious movement, well documented in Todd London’s book Outrageous Fortune, that believes America’s major regional theaters, once dedicated to artistic independence, should serve as launching pads for Broadway/Las Vegas blockbusters. (In the case of the ART’s production of Finding Neverland, Hollywood poured its loot and advice directly into the theater’s pipeline.) Instead of producing theater productions that oppose the status quo, Paulus goes with the cash flow (For example, there’s 2009 tits-and-ass extravaganza The Donkey Show. It is still running, and reaping large “not-for-profit” revenues.) Yet that is not enough: she wants to square the circle and be viewed as a trailblazing artist who produces cutting edge theater. Here is what I wrote about her 2014 production of Witness Uganda:

Since Paulus has been renewed in the position of ART Artistic Director for five more years, I suggest that it is time for the company to rebrand. The claim that it “is expanding the boundaries of theater” no longer holds water. It should be amended to something like “expanding the boundaries of commercial theater.” There is nothing wrong with creating theater packages that win the hearts of New York’s tourist audiences. But the Tony Awards (which are bankrolled by big money producers) are like the Oscars — they are not about rewarding artistic risk or merit but dedicated to generating a profitable public image. By definition, Broadway theater does not set out to challenge or provoke audiences — it means to entertain and divert. Nothing wrong with that when it is done intelligently — but it is not about pushing boundaries, it is about ringing cash registers. May the ART win a boatload of Tony Awards in the future. But that is not the same as extending the art of the theater. The current motto should be revised because it is a lie.

In the age of Trump, a lie becomes the truth, if it is repeated often enough. Why rebrand when the Boston Theater Critics Association is there to hawk an alternative reality? Hypnotized by New York celebrity and the monied class, our city’s mainstream media has turned into a gaggle of cheerleaders, feckless enough to call Paulus a “visionary.” This award is simply more proof that entertaining glitz and escapism wins over substance; why should stages produce risky fare when the critics’ idea of the avant-garde is Broadway hits? Sustained Excellence? Really? Closer to the truth is one wag’s comment that Paulus won the honor because she saved the Boston Theater Critic Association members the hassle of going to New York to see Broadway productions.

[Note: Isn’t it about time someone (I don’t have the time) create a Boston version of the Obies? Let the Boston Theater Critics Association back-scratch the well-heeled and spit out honors to the usual cadre of high rollers. Wouldn’t it be healthier to encourage the artists of the future by establishing awards that focus on what is happening on Boston’s ‘marginal’ stages? That is often where the most interesting things are happening.]

Anyway, why lambaste this miscarriage of critical taste? Because on January 18, a Boston Globe article reported that the US Department of Education had ambushed the ART’s Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, fingering and flunking the program as financially abusive for its students, saddling them with education debt it would take them years to retire given their earning potential after the program. Here is the gist:

Harvard University’s ART Institute, a graduate program in theater, has suspended admissions after the US Department of Education gave the program a “failing” grade for burdening its graduates with unmanageable levels of student debt.

In an announcement last week, the Education Department listed Harvard’s ART Institute among hundreds of college and university programs across the country that did not meet federal regulations governing the amount of debt students can accrue when measured against their expected earnings.

Ninety-eight percent of the programs that got a failing grade were at for-profit institutions. Harvard’s ART Institute was among the relatively few nonprofit programs to be cited. The designation could jeopardize the two-year Harvard program’s eligibility to receive federal financial aid.

So far, local media’s discussion of this revealing DOE action has been well nigh nonexistent. Why? The BostonGlobe/NPR arts junta is dedicated to recycling happy news that supports the arts community, especially the fat cats. Critiquing what’s happening, asking why all is not as peachy keen as advertised, is sidelined or ignored. But surely someone should note the obvious: the DOE’s mortifying takedown of the ART and Harvard University happened on Paulus’s watch. And she received Norton kudos after it was reported!

There are ironic resonances with Trump University. No doubt the Institute students received a better education (though I wonder — how much were the ART instructors making?). But Paulus, like Trump, is the program’s entrepreneurial figurehead, the mistress of Business Models and Cash Revenues, Publicity and Fanfare, Media Buzz, the purveyor of tantalizing promises of wealth and success, the winner of Tony Awards and generator of Boffo Box Office, a rainmaker member of the theatrical 1%. The current and recent students in the ART Institute program are the losers. These young people – many of them full of talent and enthusiasm – have been lured by the brand name “Harvard” (and by Paulus’s Broadway aura) into the expenditure of unconscionable sums. And there is no help for them on the horizon. In the Globe article, former ART Artistic Director Robert Brustein advised that some of Paulus’s Broadway earnings might go to the ART Institute. The annual glitzy ART Gala (held on February 27 this year) isn’t coming to the rescue. At least there was nothing in its PR release proclaiming the event’s record-breaking success that suggested any of the mazuma donated by culture-loving partygoers (who were no doubt served cake) would go to assist the cash-strapped ART Institute students.

When I asked the ART about the future of the Institute, this is what I received via e-mail from Anna Fitzloff, Director of Marketing and Communications:

There was no response to the Globe article as we had nothing to add to the original statement. This is the original statement:

Due to uncertainty surrounding the availability of federal aid for prospective students, the American Repertory Theater announced on January 6, 2017, that it will not enroll an A.R.T. Institute class of 2019. This temporary pause on the two-year master’s program does not affect the students currently enrolled in the acting, dramaturgy, and voice programs. Rather, it enables the A.R.T. to evaluate the program and undertake vital strategic planning to address, among other things, student funding mechanisms.

That idea of rethinking ‘funding mechanisms’ raises an important issue that isn’t receiving the attention it should. This is not just about the sad absurdity of Paulus living large on the Great White Way while ART Institute students fend off  debtors’ prison. A number of books, commented on by The Arts Fuse, such as Michael J. Kaiser’s Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America and Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, persuasively argue that technological change, along with its radical re-structuring of the American economy, is decimating the business of culture and throttling artists, particularly those just starting out. Jonathan Taplin’s excellent new volume Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy explores the ways that the mind-boggling concentration of power in the hands of internet monopolies is widening the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, especially those in the arts. The major players (stars, etc) benefit from centralized control of eyeballs. The big names are raking in bigger bucks than before, while those lower down on the food chain — artists and groups who decades ago were able to make a middle class living through their efforts — are getting less and less.

Universities are encouraging this growing inequity by hobbling young creative types. A dean of a major school of the arts at a local university told me that more and more of its students were turning to selling real estate after graduation — they had to, in order to pay off their huge debts. So the problem is not just at Harvard University; Paulus is not alone when it comes to collecting mountains of cash that it will be near impossible for students in the arts to repay, particularly at a time the bottom is falling out of the ‘creative economy.’ (There are scary studies on the shrinking earning power of millennials: “The generation is better educated – with 72% of 23- to 29-year-olds having earned some college credit – but more likely to work in menial jobs even with a higher education.”) But should Paulus receive a major theater award after she and the ART have been caught by the Feds indulging in Trump-ian exploitation? Alas, the members of the Boston Theater Critics Association, blinded by the ‘bigly’ light of stardom, status, and branding, think so.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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