Boston Foundation To Small Theaters — Drop Dead Please!

by Bill Marx

A recent report from the Boston Foundation helpfully advises that if a small arts group’s vision “either dissipated or lost its resonance with its audience or supporters” the troupe should either die quietly or merge with other struggling companies, apparently so they can vanish in bulk more efficiently. But what about larger arts groups? Should they survive even after their connections to their audiences and the culture have dried up?

Ian MacKinnon of Artezani, post Kool-Aid (credit: Christian Holland)

I attended the ad hoc Small Arts Group Die-Off at the Outpost in Cambridge last Sunday, where Artezani Theater and other artists and companies guzzled the Kool-Aid suggested by the Boston Foundation. Some of the expiring artists languished longer than Camille in this veil of tears — yakking rather than coughing their way to oblivion. Big Red & Shiny and Ian Thal were also there. Some sharp satiric points were scored. Commenting on an article in the Boston Globe about the “Die-Off,” Artezani’s Ian MacKinnon cracked that it took the group’s demise for it to finally get a mention in the broadsheet. The piece’s headline — “Small arts groups are dying to be heard” — was sardonically apt.

But isn’t there something fishy about the Boston Foundation’s concern for the life or death of the city’s small artistic groups? Such troupes always flicker in and out of existence. It is not as if they ever received much grant money; frustrated tales of the impossibility of picking the correct socially responsible words for the BF applications are legion in the theater community. The bigger theaters have the staffs, focus group results, and political connections necessary to rake in whatever cash BF makes available to theaters. Small stages have always existed on the margins — presenting superb and sub-par work — without much support from the region’s fat cats or mainstream media.

Bill Marx

As the Boston Foundation report admits, theaters large and small are finding it difficult to hang onto their audience and supporters in today’s competitive entertainment world. To be consistent, the BF should demand that theaters of all sizes innovate (translation — improve their marketing techniques), merge (the corporate word de jure), or sharpen the ceremonial sword. In truth, the Boston Foundation is not wringing its hands about the future of small theaters — it fears what the economic slow down and/or recession will mean to the larger theaters that haven’t generated loyalty and/or excitement among the growing number of people who would rather sit home in front of their comfy home entertainment system than pay for increasingly expensive theater seats.

The irony is that BF and the governmental powers-that-be are handing out their biggest bucks to artistic institutions that specialize in cranking out bad or uninspired stage productions. For those who are discouraged by all the safe and conservative fare on our stages, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Yours truly chatting with some of the other attendees at the Die-Off (credit: Christian Holland)

Just this week the financial mainstay of the struggling Citi Performing Arts Center, Citigroup, announced losses approaching $10 billion for the fourth quarter of 2007, with further job cuts on top of the 4,200 already declared now expected. It is estimated in some quarters that the firm will cut more than 20,000 jobs out of an employment force estimated to range from 300,000 to 375,000. The bank asserted that the downturn was a consequence of the US sub-prime crisis. It is fair to wonder, given the economic crunch, that there may be a pull back in Citigroup’s commitment to its performing arts center in Boston.

This weekend, the MCC announced that — since the attorney general’s report cleared the Citi Center of any taint of financial sin raised by the $1.2 million bonus handed over to its president and chief operating officer Josiah Spaulding Jr. — it will release a $60,400 grant that had been withheld. Another $600,000, held up by the state’s Cultural Facilities Fund because of the ruckus generated by Spaulding’s bonus, will be decided soon.

Meanwhile, BF recently handed over its largest theater grant ever, $225,000, to the Citi Center, though the theater won’t receive the money unless it merges with two other groups. How committed are audiences and supporters to the Citi Center and its plans to turn itself into a virtual performing arts center? That allegiance may be weaker than what professional marketeers, government agencies, and funders hope. And let’s see how much quality theater we get for the money, which could have gone to much more deserving companies.

In response to the economic squeeze, publicists, theater artists, and critics are morphing into hapless creatures dedicated to spin, some insisting that Boston theater is “blooming.” I have heard proclamations of this “perpetual renaissance” for the last three decades – it is an unreal springtime that never ends, that never gives way for the realities of winter or fall. The same happy talk will be trotted out a decade from now. The truth is the same as when theater began — the majority of stage productions are mediocre. Excellence is the exception not the rule in theater, the visual arts, film, television, etc. The problem today is that there are so many more cheaper, and user-friendly, entertainment choices then in the past.

And technology keeps raising formidable new challenges. Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times recently praised an HD transmission of a Metropolitan Opera production of Hansel and Gretel that was shown in over 600 theaters around the world. He reserved his doubts for the end of his review:

Successful as these HD broadcasts are, they raise some questions. Will newcomers to the form who attend these screenings be inspired to go to the opera house and hear the real thing, that is, to hear wondrous operatic voices in a natural acoustic? After experiencing “Hansel and Gretel” so intimately that you could see Ms. Coote’s teeth coated with rich chocolate fudge cake, will seeing the same production from the Family Circle at the Met just make everything seem too flat and far away?

But enticing people into opera is the first step. And there were many transfixed children for this imaginatively executed broadcast of “Hansel and Gretel.”

The kids transfixed by the opera may be like the tots held spellbound by the Harry Potter novels. Recent research suggests that love of J.K. Rowling does not lead young Potter fans to explore the works of other authors. Along those same lines, Americans now read less for pleasure than ever before, and, as shown in a recent piece in the New Yorker on an alarming N.E.A. study, there is proof that lack of literary curiosity translates into less interest in the theater. “Readers,” writes Caleb Crain, “are more likely than non-readers to play sports, exercise, visit art museums, attend theatre, paint, go to music events, take photographs, and volunteer.” The Hollywoodization of Broadway indicates that in the growing battle between screen and stage the former is draining the creative life blood of the latter.

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