Sunday, September 8, 2013

States of Plays: Where North Coast Shows Come From

As we pause after the traditional end of last season and before the start of the next, here’s a retrospective question: where do the plays we see on the North Coast come from?

 For many decades the answer to that would have been easy: New York. After tryouts in select northeastern cities, a show would play Broadway, then go on tour until years later community players would get their chance. Musicals, comedies, dramas—New York generated pretty much everything. But that’s no longer true.

Back in the mid-1980s I interviewed Jason Robards, Jr. backstage at Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre during a revival run of the 1930s classic You Can't Take It With You (soon to be seen at NCRT). He was the second generation of three (so far) to be New York stage actors. His father performed on Broadway in the 1920s.  One of his sons, Jason III, was in this production.

 “When I was starting out just after World War II,” Robards, Jr. said, “my father came to see me and he told me ‘This is terrible! When I was an actor there were 700 road shows out, and two hundred some-odd theatres on Broadway.’ But even when I was starting out we still had 134 theatres in New York, and many road shows and stock jobs and resident theatre jobs.”

 New York City dominated largely through size. Even in 1940 it had a bigger population than the entire state of California, or any other state. But war industries spread out across the country in World War II,  the population boomed and so did suburbia in the 1950s. Robards believed the new highways that sliced through city neighborhoods and led to the suburbs depleted New York City audiences. “Now I think the theatre in New York is going to become like the opera, if it isn’t already becoming that: a small, specialized thing.”

 Robards didn’t reckon with the rise of tourist-oriented blockbusters in a Disneyfied Broadway. That trend continues, as movie companies invest more in huge stage productions. The Off-Broadway and then Off-Off Broadway stages rose in the 60s and 70s, then settled to a sustainable level as “a small, specialized thing.” So now Broadway produces bigger but fewer shows, and non-Broadway houses have become incubators for shows that will live most of their lives in independent regional and community-based theatres across the country.

 So last season on the North Coast for instance, we saw products of traditional Broadway, from one of the earliest musicals (Anything Goes at North Coast Rep) to one of the last of its kind (Victor/Victoria at Ferndale Rep.)  The new blockbuster Broadway was represented by Shrek The Musical (Humboldt Light Opera) while Circle Mirror Transformation (seen at Redwood Curtain) had a modest Off-Broadway run before productions by Seattle Rep and the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and stages in Marin County and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Some shows used to be developed outside New York, but became successful when they transferred to Broadway.  David Mamet's Chicago-born American Buffalo (NCRT) is that example.  The New York run still lends a reassuring patina, but more and more shows developed outside New York don’t even bother with the legitimizing New York showcase. The Fox on the Fairway (seen at NCRT) started in Arlington, Virginia before productions in New Brunswick, New Jersey and Naples, Florida. These shows are typically designed for export. Even prize-winning shows with decent Broadway runs (like the musical Next to Normal at NCRT or the drama Proof at HSU) have the small casts and modest staging to be done almost anywhere.

 Prolific American playwright Steven Dietz is a prime example of this new decentralized situation. His work is seldom performed in New York, but appears so often in regional and community venues that he’s in the top ten of produced playwrights in America. His comedy Becky’s New Car is currently onstage at Redwood Curtain.

Except for local group-generated shows and classics, the North Coast is primarily dependent on this new circuit of shows built for quick and relatively easy replication. Some may have virtues and perspectives a New York-generated show might not. But at worst they approach a stereotypical script that’s clever and a little odd but safe and small, with a slick first act and a slack second (that nevertheless includes a thesis statement.) The script too often shows signs of too many hands that got tired before the end.

 More generally, what are we missing on local stages? Due mostly to the demographics of our performers as well as our audiences, we seldom get shows centered on non-white characters or communities. On the other hand we get plays written about southerners, New Englanders and even New Yorkers, but not about North Coast characters. Fortunately, our live actors are surprisingly adept at bringing out the universal (or the North Coast) in any play.

 We also rarely get political plays in the larger sense, apart from gender politics. But hardly anyone in America does. We don’t have a David Hare (one of several British playwrights who look outward) or even a Robert Sherwood, who wrote three Pulitzer Prize winners in the 1930s and a book about FDR and World War II. Wallace Shawn and Tony Kushner are the closest. We’re unlikely to see a play as complex and provocative as Hare’s A Map of the World, for instance. For whatever reasons it’s not a time for singular playwrights with big voices.

 Our North Coast stage institutions do include variety, often at some risk. We're going to see that in the coming season, as well as examples of the kinds of plays I've described.  But our local stages operate in a particular theatrical environment, in a particular national context of this time.

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