Wednesday, January 27, 2010

From There to Here

A few items from elsewhere that have some relevance to North Coast theatre...

In the December American Theatre magazine, there's an article on how race and racial issues are reflected on Broadway, in a number of current or recent plays that reflect racial realities or comment on the subject. A number of plays are discussed, though not including the one seen here recently on PBS, as filmed by Spike Lee: Passing Strange. This was the best new musical, and among the best new plays of any kind, that I've seen in years.

North Coast theatre is notoriously white, as are its audiences, in an overwhelmingly white area. I've seen some of this change but not consistently. Last year's HSU production of Jagun Fly, a play about African Americans by John ADEkoje, a young up and coming black playwright who began writing at HSU, suggested that there are enough black actors around to stage such a play. The audiences were more racially mixed than usual. But all of this didn't seem to cause much excitement locally.

As these things are measured, the North Coast was unusual for its largest "minority" being Native American. The Native relationship to theatre is complicated, but we've had some successes--especially Salmon Is Everything at HSU a few years ago, which had more local tribal members on stage than anything I've seen here, in a work they (and non-Native cast members, etc.) created together. The largest minority today is probably Latino, and very little theatre here has reflected those cultures or that experience.

Also in December's American Theatre was a play by a young Korean American playwright, Lloyd Suh, called American Hwangap. Maybe a little limited in its ambitions, this was a fun play to read, and probably better than a lot of contemporary plays we do see here. But we're unlikely to see this one hereabouts. We probably don't have the actors, for one thing.

Voices from groups previously unheard infuse a lot of the energy in new plays these days. But according to a recent study by the Play Development Fund, new playwrights of any description are having a tough time getting produced, even in non-profit theatres. "Many of the playwrights see the nation’s major nonprofit theater companies as impediments to their work, favoring plays that have few characters to save money on actors’ salaries, for instance, or that have themes appealing to large audiences," according to a New York Times article on the study. “We heard from artistic directors who admitted that they’re all going after the same 10 playwrights to produce their work, which is largely about getting prestige in their field,” said Todd London, the chief author of the study..." The story quotes a few others talking about the "cynicism and mistrust" between playwrights and theatres.

This is not real new news, reflected in discontent over "development hell" and the shrinking and distorting of the O'Neill's new plays program, for example. But it does suggest that the kind of considerations that governed Broadway, and led to Off, and then Off-Off, as well as regional theatres, has spread throughout the theatre world.

Here on the North Coast, there is little or no support for new plays. What little there was a decade ago is mostly gone, except for work by students and folks who have their own theatres. The new model seems to be collaborative development by small theatres in different locations, such as the new musical coming to the Arcata Playhouse in a few weeks. Some new work is going to find a way to be born. Still, I'm sure we're missing voices it might be entertaining and enlightening to hear.

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