Theater Commentary: The Artist Takes the Fall

Increasingly, artistic directors are expected to be super-successful fundraisers, an unstable hybrid of peddler and visionary that throttles artistic independence.


By Bill Marx

The failure to renew the contract of Robert Woodruff as artistic director of one of America’s major regional theaters, the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University, is symptomatic of a new and disturbing trend that does not bode well for the creative future of the ART and other theater companies around the country.

Increasingly, artistic directors are expected to be super-successful fundraisers, an unstable hybrid of peddler and visionary that throttles artistic independence.

Ironically, Woodruff’s lackluster schmoozing abilities were tacitly acknowledged when he was hired five years ago. He was supposed to keep the ART on the cutting edge of theatrical art, while the other members of the ART’s management troika, executive director Robert Orchard and artistic associate Gideon Lester, would keep the coffers full. Yet with the ART budget in semi-crisis and growth in audience attendance disappointing, the artist becomes the fall guy, rather than either Orchard or Lester, who also bore responsibility for the decisions that brought the ART to this sad point.

According to a report in the “Boston Globe,” the eight-member ART/Harvard University board of directors, six of whom voted unanimously to let Woodruff go (Orchard and Woodruff did not vote), were not only unhappy with the numbers, but with his artistic leadership. Fair enough, though the implication, since Woodruff, Orchard, and Lester won’t comment publicly about the dismissal, is that the director was a loose cannon, steamrolling over his fellow managers. Does it surprise anyone that Woodruff — hired because he was an artistic rebel — needed to be reminded to hew to the bottom line? David Edwards, an ART advisory board member, reasonably asserts in the “Globe” that Orchard rather than Woodruff should have been the one to be let go.

The artist is the scapegoat in the end, and that is troubling. The truth is that creative genius is not often married to salesmanship. Most of the greatest stage directors of the past, try as they might, couldn’t pry open the wallets of the upper crust with a crowbar. But fundraising ability — rather than artistry — is beginning to overshadow all other skills when it comes to choosing an artistic director. Oskar Eustis wasn’t hired to head the Public Theatre in New York because he was a superb director. He is wondrously adept at charming money out of rich donors. Chances are that whoever replaces Woodruff at the ART (Lester is temporarily assuming the role) will be less of a risk-taker and more of a bean counter.

As a critic I had my reservations about Woodruff. His shock for shock’s sake aesthetic could devolve into middle-aged camp. Still, his production of Edward Bond’s “Olly’s Prison” was one of the finest productions I saw during my two decades of reviewing. In a bland article on what Woodruff’s departure means, “Globe” critic Louise Kennedy juggles bromides before proclaiming that companies should pick “artistic directors with vision and passion, and tell them to put on plays they just can’t live without.” Hasn’t Kennedy been paying attention? That’s just what Woodruff did and he’s lost his job. Today, an artistic director won’t survive unless his puts on plays the funding juggernaut can’t live without.

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