The theatre is dead. Long live the theatre.
If there’s anything constant in the besieged world of the performing arts, it’s that the theatre is always dying and yet always being reborn – usually at the same time. On any given day, data points can be found to support either trajectory. It can be quite perplexing to figure out what is really going on.
On the one hand, Broadway (and Oregon’s homegrown version of Broadway – OSF) is booming. On the other, white bread, flagship regional theatres are teetering. In between, innovative projects and companies that create authentic experiences for the audience and take on real issues are generally doing well. In the current landscape, small is beautiful, and big – unless you really know what you’re doing – can be deadly.
Big works if you’re the National Theatre, Lincoln Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But if you’re big and don’t know how to create work appropriate to the largest of stages – big can be a sentence of doom. The imperative becomes: FILL THE SEATS.
At all levels, theatre artists who know how to create good work are attracting audiences. Meanwhile entrenched bureaucracies more about employing former theatre artists in admin jobs where they yammer on about “developing audiences” and “outreach” (when what the audience wants instead are unforgettable live experiences) are kept alive only by tax subsidies and largesse from 1% donor types. Tickets are often sold for next to nothing at these theatres.
As a close to home example of the syndrome, Portlanders already know about the leviathan, mostly uninteresting Portland Center Stage, which only still exists today because the city (which never met an arts tax it didn’t like) has funneled millions of dollars toward the fortress-like boondoggle in the Pearl over the years. Hey, it’s not like Portland needs the money for schools or roads. Given the sheer quantity of public greenbacks that have been been set aflame down at PCS, maybe the theatre’s tag line should be updated to “telling stories at unexpected cost”. PCS spends a huge amount of money, but by and large Portland gets unexceptional franchised art of the same flavor you could get anywhere. In a Portland of internationally known brands, products and technologies, PCS has failed to put the city on the map in any meaningful way when it comes to theatre.
By contrast, one need only look across the street to the reputation and success of PICA’s annual TBA festival to see what can be done on the world performance stage with vision and leadership. Or a little farther south down I-5 to the lil’ hamlet of Hamlet, where under AD Bill Rauch OSF has become a major launch pad for new plays – and Broadway.
Despite all the problems that bedevil too-big-to-fail (or are they?) institutions like PCS, there is often a strange sense of quiet and complacency. These theatres sail along like all is well and they’re killing it world class style. Social media channels are thick with how “proud” and “honored” everyone involved is about most everything under the sun. But anyone paying attention knows the status quo is fragile. All it would take is a few bad years at the box office and Portlanders could find themselves the proud owners of a $40 million real estate project in a prime location that’s suited to almost nothing other than losing money (but it’s LEED certified!!). The problem is – we get no critical coverage of the story. In a media landscape where former legitimate outlets have been cut to the bone and cheerful arts booster blogs try to survive on advertising, almost no one in the Portland arts ecosystem has any interest in telling it like it is and taking a hard look at the state of things down at PCS. But that doesn’t mean the time bomb is not ticking. Paging Nigel Jaquiss…
Every now and then, cracks spider web across the facade and signs of strain appear. There’s an interesting note in the weekend mail from a little farther north to remind us that even the biggest regional players can hit the skids and lose their way. It turns out that Seattle Rep, like PCS a foundering holdover from the previous generation of big bricks and mortar theatres, is in the red. The giant Jet City operation has been burning up dollars and dipping into its endowment to cover the costs of creating product the audience does not want – or at least does not want enough to turn out and pay for.
Interestingly, 2014 at Seattle Rep contained an instructive demonstration of the divide between the theatre world’s current haves and have nots – when it comes to creating the good stuff. Last December, OSF’s double header sensation ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY by Robert Schenkkan came to Seattle and caused sold out pandemonium at the Rep, in the process becoming that organization’s number 1 and 3 best selling shows of all time. What this success demonstrated is that the audience hungers for the real thing, and they’ll turn out when it’s on offer. OSF, now one of the great theatres of the US and world, knows how to create the real thing.
But unfortunately Seattle Rep on its own (like PCS) mostly does not. The OSF extravaganza came and went, leaving the Rep right back up against the same old challenges. Not long after, Seattleites got to suffer through one of the worst new plays ever seen on stage in Seattle (or anywhere) – THE COMPARABLES by Laura Schellhardt. With some exceptions, Seattle Rep lumbers forward with the usual slate of bland offerings. But there’s very little exciting happening inside the giant green ship at Seattle Center. And meanwhile dollars are going up in smoke.
If you’re getting the sense you’ve already seen this Seattle movie before, you have. Recall the story of Intiman. With no warning and the usual unintelligible jargon you often get when arts folk try to talk cogently about finance, Seattle’s Intiman went poof mid season back in 2011. At the time, it seemed like yet another implosion of a top heavy arts group from central casting. Intiman’s downfall was not surprising. What IS surprising is what Intiman has done since. Intiman is back in a big way. A huge way. But the raw and rowdy new Intiman is an entirely different beast – one much better suited to survival on the high seas of regional theatre than the old model that struggling outfits like Seattle Rep and PCS are still emulating. You should definitely tune in to what Andrew Russell, Intiman’s 32 year old AD is doing. Here’s a summary.
The old guard can ramble on and pretend that all is well. But as we know in the theatre – anything can happen. That’s on stage as well as off. And that includes big established arts groups suddenly vanishing in the night when hapless providers of funding reach their limit and cry uncle. Could PCS go under some day soon? Absolutely. PCS artistic leadership is now a good 10-20 years older than their counterparts at the kinds of dynamic American theatres PCS should be aspiring to become. After 15 years in power, it’s safe to say that current leadership has had plenty of time to show us what they got. And the answer is not much. Meanwhile, for a comparison case on the other end of the spectrum, look what someone like Bill Rauch has been able to achieve at OSF since taking over in 2007. 9.15.2015 UPDATE Lest Portlanders get lulled into thinking what we have is good enough or will have to do, here’s a great reminder of what the real leaders are up to: American Theatre story on OSF and Bill Rauch Boom!
What we really need at PCS is a full house cleaning a la Intiman – a chance to install another fresh-faced Andrew Russell type with ideas and energy at the top. Instead, with few other steps up the career ladder at bigger theatres available to aging PCS staff, it looks like we’re in hunker down mode. We’re just going to have to tough it out until either a crisis shakes things up or retirement finally arrives – whether that’s five or 10 or 15 years out. Another day, another self-congratulatory, perky Crate & Barrel style video about how brilliant art at PCS is made. It’s unfortunate that an institution that should be leading the way (as Portland does in so many other areas) on what the future of the American theatre looks like is instead the artistic equivalent of an Olive Garden focused on keeping people employed. Portland deserves much better.
Lest ye be taken in by smoke and mirrors down at the Armory and deafening silence from a dead local press, make no mistake. Portland’s largest theatre is lost and seriously adrift, and until someone with vision enters stage right and starts to build a brand with a future, it’s going to get worse – much worse – before it gets better.
And if that moment comes when all of a sudden “financial challenges” hit the front page – it will only be a surprise if you haven’t been paying attention to the tragicomedy playing out on stage for all the world to see.
It could (will?) happen here.