Stage Commentary: Making Boston Theater Magical Again?

Diverting the resources of Boston’s regional theaters into the Broadway casino undercuts the ideals that launched the regional theater movement.

By Bill Marx

Lately, political coverage in the media has been undergoing a Golden Age: reporters are asking tough questions and angering the usual suspects. But arts coverage in the Boston Globe as well as elsewhere in the city’s mainstream media is stuck in the Tin Age. The goal appears to be to keep everyone in the local arts economy happy, hyping up opportunities for where consumers should spend their leisure time dollars and massaging the cultural elite, who, like the rest of the 1%, are making out just fine.

Don Aucoin’s July 14th Boston Globe piece “A Comeback Role for Boston Theaters?” is the latest example of how our critics back off from asking uncomfortable questions. The story’s thrust is clear. Might the good times roll again for Boston’s downtown theater district? A return of the city to its once hallowed status as a pre-Broadway tryout town may be in the offing! There is cause for excitement, at least among the moneyed-classes: “a major new player, the UK-based Ambassador Theatre Group, and Emerson College are pouring millions of dollars into making the Emerson Colonial Theatre a venue for pre-Broadway tryouts, starting with Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” But cool your jets, high roller theater investors, “the traditional path from brainstorm, to assembling a creative team and cast, to out-of-town production, to Broadway that Moulin Rouge! represents isn’t the only one.”

The alternative turns out to be paved by the area’s regional theaters, Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater, Emerson College’s ArtsEmerson and, no doubt because it will want to compete for attention via the Great White Way, the Huntington Theatre Company, which has forged connections with Northeastern University. Aucoin goes into the ways regional theaters offer invaluable economic/ marketing assistance to the manufacture of pre-Broadway product. A producer tells him that “‘regional theater became a mainstay as a way to spread the [financial] risk of producing Broadway shows’ as well as a reliable source of audiences  ‘that could give you a flavor of what worked and what needed to be tweaked.’ ” Some of the city’s stage producers, anxious to get in on the action, suggest that the state’s tax policy might be changed to mitigate risk for them.

(Financial Strategy Note: Giving interested parties an opportunity to complain about tax policy may have motivated the article.  Aucoin’s piece looks to be the first salvo in what might be a coming campaign (encouraged by the Boston Globe) arguing that tax subsidies should be given to MA theaters cranking out commercial product. Another revenue stream for the ART, Diane Paulus, and other wealthy risk takers.)

Aucoin mentions ArtsEmerson’s recent presentation of the Broadway bound musical Born for This. The model (pay attention, ArtsEmerson and HTC) for putting together commercial fare at a regional theater is artistic director Diane Paulus and the ART.  Bold drama went out the window when she took over the theater — this entrepreneur is mainly interested in cultivating product tailored for Broadway. “Here’s the truth: Boston is a tryout town and has been all along’’ asserts veteran Broadway producer Tom Viertel (quoted in the Boston Globe article). “It’s just that instead of trying out at the Colonial they’re trying out at the ART.’’

For a number of years, I have argued that the ART misleadingly markets itself as ‘expanding the boundaries of theater.’ Publicists for the company and others have demurred, but I am right — only Boston’s theater critics are deluded enough to believe that nurturing Broadway product makes Paulus some sort of visionary, rather than a hitmaker. She understands the considerable power of branding: regional theaters selling Broadway’s commercial goods must slather on a face-saving patina of social significance and/or experimental gloss (‘expanding the boundaries’). If you market conventional shows as being risky — and can get critics, academics, and audience members to repeat the mantra, ad infinitum — you have a win-win scenario. Headed for Broadway, edgy, and socially significant? That is one helluva profitable investment.

So, what’s wrong with that? Capitalism in all of its materialistic glory. Aucoin doesn’t raise questions about a downside, perhaps because he fears where the response will lead. Major regional theaters, such as the ART, ArtsEmerson, and the Huntington Theatre Company, were initially established to produce a non-commercial response to the safe fare of Broadway. Hasn’t something gone awry when major educational institutions and the regional theaters they support pour “millions of dollars” into helping to create and then market pre-Broadway musical fodder? Isn’t this a betrayal of the theaters’ mission, their responsibility to advance the art of the theater? If not, why not?

Answers will differ but, for me, diverting the resources of regional theaters into the Broadway casino undercuts the ideals that launched the regional theater movement. It leads to more homogenization, more escapism masquerading as adventurous theater. And that aesthetic bait-and-switch makes genuinely challenging productions harder to produce: why should a regional theater take the risk of kicking up dust when it can look as if it is and make a mint doing it?

ArtsEmerson 2018/19 Season Brochure. Photo: Bill Marx

Why are stage companies, charged with developing rather than throttling serious American theater, turning their backs on their duty? The answer is complex. For one thing, the Ivory Tower is no longer a default refuge for the non-consumer oriented theater artist. Educational institutions around the country are becoming increasingly corporate: when it comes to the arts, our major universities want more bang for their bucks. Deep pocket donors like being part of the New York action. And, in today’s high stakes academia, STEM is elbowing the humanities aside because the sciences and technology generate truckloads of grant money. For universities who are hungry for some sort of arts payback,  Broadway connections offer popular cachet, as well as the promise of greenbacks and hanging out with celebrities.

I assume many will disagree with me. For now, instead of going into this artistic crisis in detail, let’s look at what happens when regional theaters start selling their products corporation-style, hawking theater as a product that ‘profits’ ticket buyers. (By their branding ye shall know them.) Let’s examine the sales motto on the front of ArtsEmerson’s 2018/2019 season brochure: “Imagine a THRIVING World/Fueled by EMPATHY/Ignited by ART.”

On the one hand, this is gobbledygook concocted by a (surely overpaid) publicity firm. The notion is that, by way of the imagination, empathy will fuel something that art will then fire up. The goal of the slogan is to suggest that theater (at ArtsEmerson) makes something good happen — it contributes to a “THRIVING World.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, thrive means “to grow vigorously,” “to gain in wealth or possessions.” The implication is that theater, which doles out an explosive combo of art and empathy, will invigorate theatergoers — make them healthy, wealthy, and wise, as Benjamin Franklin would say. Improve yourself, improve the world. The arts are useful: not because they confront us with truth or beauty or provoke and inspire. They will make us more prosperous. The insinuation — the feel-good bottom line — is that ArtsEmerson ticket buyers will see a return on their investment.

Instead of accepting words such as such as ‘imagine,’ ‘art’ and ’empathy,’ which have become emptied of meaning through repeated use in advertising, companies should expand our culture’s understanding of theater’s value as a means of dissent. Here’s a salient sentence from R.G. Collingwood’s Principles of Art: “Art is the community’s medicine for the worse disease of the mind, the corruption of consciousness.” We are beset with blights of the mind, particularly the financialization of everything. Our regional theater companies should combat the insinuation of finance — a contagion supercharged by social media and technology — into every nook and cranny of our consciousness. Theater should fight against consumerism, not suggest that art is yet another transaction.

The mention of Facebook and its comrades is a reminder that a dark reality lies outside of the rah-rah theater coverage of the Boston Globe and local NPR outlets. Critics tell us this is a high time for American musicals, glory days that blazed hot during the Obama years and show no sign of slowing down during the Trump era. Why? Why aren’t straight plays part of the Broadway tryout lineup? They used to be. Is this omission a coincidence? Or does it reveal something about the ‘trickle down’ set-up of American theater? According to former theater critic Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times, our President is following a pre-fascist agenda. Inequality is growing; Climate Change is moving along, perhaps even accelerating. But over the past decade or so the fortunate few among us — tourists with income to spare — have been rewarded with a wealth of Broadway song-and-dance extravaganzas. Isn’t that feel-good phenomenon worth looking at critically? By somebody?

Instead, Aucoin shakes a pom-pom at Broadway tryouts as “theater magic.” Money? Surely you jest. Who could think about lucre (and changing tax policy) when, as Christopher Welling, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 11, would have it, “you have 2,000 people watching it for the first time, they’re thrilled and excited, because it’s all new. And because it’s live, that moment never happens again.” At this point, any sentence that contains the words Broadway and magic should be ashamed of itself.

A glimpse of the crowd at Aurora, one of the venues at this year’s FringePVD in Providence, Rhode Island. Looks like they are thriving ….

I would like to end with a Modest Proposal, one that I hope the Boston Globe, NPR, and other mainstream outlets foghorn at the well-heeled. On July 30 through August 5, in Providence, Rhode Island, a Fringe Festival (for its fifth year) will take place, featuring work from over a dozen small, funky theater companies. Who knows how much of this stuff is good or a waste of time? But it is a valuable sign of a ‘thriving’ theater scene, and there is nothing like this happening in Boston. How about the fat cats take a teeny-tiny fraction of the mega-millions they are pouring into Broadway tryouts and help bankroll a fringe festival in the city? Now that would really be making magic.

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.

1 Comment

  1. Joan Lancourt on July 30, 2018 at 7:12 pm


    Glad to see your response to Aucoin’s glee at Boston once again becoming a B’way ‘try-out’ city. In an ideal world, there would be room for both: being a ‘B’way ‘try-out’ city, AND being a city with great regional/local theater. But we’re far from an ideal world (no matter what yardstick we use). Unfortunately, as you and others point out, when we have our not-for-profit regional theaters (e.g. ART) becoming a test lab for B’way, it feels like nothing short of theft: theft of the meagre resources given to regional theaters by their donors, and theft of our tax dollars in the sense that regional theaters, as 501(c)3’s, are accorded special status as not-for-profit (i.e. non-commercial) theaters. In other words, they are tax exempt, with boards of trustees charged with holding their theaters in trust for their communities.

    Unlike the ‘biggies’, (ART, the Huntington, and ArtsEmerson), our small and mid-sized local theaters live their lives on the edge, almost always scrambling to make ends meet. Salaries and benefits, even for Equity members, give new meaning to the phrase ‘it’s a labor of love’, and to see how theaters like ART vacuum up the dollars available from donors and foundations with the lure of B’way glitter is heartbreaking, especially since the whole purpose of the regional theater movement was to make theater of relevance to their regional and local communities.

    Focusing on B’way commercial theater has other pernicious results as well: it trains audiences to want the glitz and dazzle, rather like the empty calories of sugared drinks make you want more sugar – which leads to obesity, diabetes and host of other maladies. I have nothing against entertainment, and going out to have a pleasant evening, but the excited emphasis on B’way puts our local theaters, as one of the last face-to-face venues for engaging people in a dialogue about our society, our democracy, our families, and our inequality, in the same category as ‘eat your spinach’. The regional theater movement broke away from the commercial theater 70 or so years ago in large measure so it could challenge audiences, explore dissent, artistic and otherwise, and not have to play it safe. They wanted to make sure that the theater arts did not become just another ‘consumer product’.

    Which brings me to my one caveat in terms of your comments about ArtsEmerson’s Born for This, a show about BeBe Winans. While I have no doubt all involved will be thrilled if it becomes a B’way success, Born for This is part of a much larger vision David Dower and his team have for their theater. Since his arrival in Boston, David et. al. has been committed to engaging with the communities of color in Boston in a way few other theaters have (Company One being one of the few exceptions). Most other theaters say they welcome audiences of color in their theaters, and to their credit, they are doing the ‘Black’ play, and the ‘Asian’ play, and multiracial casting has become pretty much a norm. What they don’t yet seem to realize is that they are essentially inviting people of color to yet again come into what are still ‘white as the norm’ spaces. David, however, has taken theater out into the communities of color in multiple ways. Reviving a tradition started by Elma Lewis, many of their productions hold Welcome Events in the community – at the Strand, or Roxbury Community College – to introduce casts of color from all over the world to the local communities, AND these events also showcase up-and-coming community talent. ArtsEmerson has sponsored a series of play reading clubs starting with the Dudley Public Library in Roxbury, now in its 4th year, and currently expanded to other libraries; it is also touring Daniel Beaty’s Mr. Joy in communities of color for the second year; they received a grant for Daniel Beaty to use theater as a means to help youth of color to ‘rewrite their personal narratives’; they are constantly in touch with community leaders to listen; and their staff, from top to bottom is more reflective of Boston’s demographics than most of our other theaters.

    I don’t mean to suggest that ArtsEmerson is the ‘be all and end all’. I’m sure there are many ways they could do better. But I can’t help but see Born for This in the larger context of what they are doing to move theater out of its white, Western canon space and make it more available, accessible, hospitable and relevant to the broader Boston demographic. B’way might be the icing on the cake for Born for This, but it was absolutely clear from the reaction of the African American audience in Boston that BeBe’s story was, pure and simple, ‘their cake’. The very air between audience and performers was crackling with echos of ‘call and response’.

    Anyway, Bill, please keep up your critiques. I always learn from them, and they always deepen my appreciation of what theater has to offer.

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