Despite debt of around $800K, Seattle Rep is plunging full steam ahead into a big expensive season that, if all goes according to plan, will land the company another $800K deeper in debt. Huh? The thinking seems to be, something will happen in the future to turn the ship around. But what would that be?
The company’s situation seems to be even worse than the debt number indicates, for it has been spending on average 8% of its endowment annually since 2008 to help keep the lights on.
The main problem here that shows little sign of changing – one that all the outreach, marketing, and audience building in the world won’t fix – is that Seattle Rep is not exciting. It’s a rusting institution trapped inside a Kennedy era arts ghetto that needs serious work. Like a lot of regional theatres, the Rep simply carts in the latest slate of prefab offerings every other theatre in America is doing. But there’s precious little new or original. There’s very little local about doing the nine zillionth regional production of DISGRACED. Meanwhile glittering new Seattle is soaring sky – er – cloudwards on all sides around the theatre. If something doesn’t change, the Rep’s relevance and era may be done.
Paradoxically, the big hit Seattle Rep has had in recent years, last year’s imported OSF production of Robert Schenkkan’s double header on LBJ (ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY), was with new work – not the trucked in ham. This clearly ilustrates that Seattle audience members want to experience original and exciting new plays and will line up down the block for them. They’re not afraid of new plays – that’s what they want. Seattleites don’t want to be the last people in the country to see plays that have already been on everywhere else in America. They want to be on the other end of the curve. They want to be the FIRST to see new work made in Seattle that is headed to the rest of the country – for Broadway and beyond. Seattle makes – the world takes. That’s the way it should be.
But while OSF has created a new play machine that is turning out exciting works by top tier writers, left to their own devices the Rep limps along with world premieres by decidedly less skilled playwrights. The audience isn’t dumb. Your average Seattle theatregoer is only going to throw herself on pleasureless grenades like THE COMPARABLES or BO-NITA so many times before she comes to her senses and opts out. Or gets on a plane for New York, London, or Ashland. Life is way too short for bad theatre.
Seattle Rep has the physical plant of a Lincoln Center, a National Theatre or a Steppenwolf. But unfortunately the stuff on the inside doesn’t come close in quality to what the world’s biggest theatres can do. What’s the solution? Take a page from OSF and start creating brand new world class work. Start a new company ensemble a la Steppenwolf, hire some real writers, and start creating new plays that will make Seattleites wait on line in the hopes of maybe getting a standing room ticket (as they did for ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY).
This shouldn’t be that hard to do. Pony up, call Sarah Treem, John Pollono, Craig Wright, Simon Stephens, Johnna Adams, Kenneth Lonergan, and Leslye Headland and say: “People. We need you to help us out here and be part of revitalizing a theatre power in America’s greatest city of the moment. Will you give us a play?”
What playwright – of any stature – wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Of course you have to pay them.
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.
It’s summer and it’s hot. And unless we’ve pitched our raft over the climate change Niagara falls for good, one day it will not be summer and hot. One day it will be winter and raining.
If and when that happens – Seattleites have two big holiday shows featuring flamboyant performers to look forward to in December.
Looking way, way ahead (which you need to do when sold out shows are coming), you’ve got Taylor Mac at On the Boards for three nights only and Jinkx Monsoon and Major Scales back at Seattle Rep for three weeks.
Friday, June 12, 7:30 p.m. – Margarita Stands
by Lisa Halpern, directed by Victor Pappas
Margarita is a successful inventor and kitchen table activist, but something lurks under the surface of her excellent life that threatens her from living fully. Try as she might, she just can’t face her fears and open the door to her desired future.
Saturday, June 13, 4:00 p.m. – City of Presidents
by Brendan Healy, directed by Braden Abraham
For the employees and owners of the Monuments Motel in Rapid City, South Dakota, the off-season has lasted years. Friendships, marriages and bank accounts feel the strain in this dark comedy featuring the motel employees, their guests, and of course the four presidents on Mt. Rushmore.
Saturday, June 13, 7:30 p.m. – Bicycle Noir – a love story on wheels
by Bryan Willis, directed by David Nail
Claims Adjuster Lou Perkins and her Guy Wednesday have a murder to solve and claims to adjust. All clues lead to homme fatale, the Fabulous Harold Ash…who just happens to be the love of Lou’s life. Bryan Willis’ new play is full of film noir flavor with a local twist.
Sunday, June 14, 4:00 p.m. – Roz and Ray*
by Karen Hartman, directed by Rosa Joshi
San Diego, 1980s. Ray is a single dad of two hemophiliac boys. Their doctor, Roz, is saving his sons—until she’s not. Karen Hartman pens a love story about the healers and the healed.
Friday, June 19, 7:30 p.m. – Made of These
by Courtney Meaker, directed by Emily Penick
Even Mo and Nadya can’t escape the seven year itch. With Mo’s birthday approaching, Nadya concocts a magical dreamscape of a party to celebrate, but when dreams and reality collide it just might signal the end of their longtime partnership.
Saturday, June 20, 4:00 p.m. – Wolf in the Winter Palace
by Arlitia Jones, directed by Braden Abraham War and winter are at the door, and the world’s greatest museum stands empty. It’s up to one extraordinary hero to protect its treasures and save humanity.
Saturday, June 20, 7:30 p.m. – Mosquito
by Josh Beerman, directed by Sheila Daniels
Summer in the city and the living isn’t easy. Can Penelope and Owen survive another sleepless night confronted with secrets, half-truths and a restless daughter? Writer Josh Beerman’s dialogue explores the questions we ask ourselves when we have no place to turn.
Sunday, June 21, 4:00 p.m. – The Manor
by Holly Arsenault, directed by Erin Kraft
At Pleasant Springs Manor Nursing Home, Gil Fleischman, the only male resident, stays busy keeping the beds of his female co-residents warm. But questions of consent become tricky with the arrival of new aid, and trickier still when Gil begins to lose his memory.
It doesn’t take all that much to get on Irish Times theatre critic Fintan O’Toole’s shit list. But to rise to the remote and windy top of that list is no small achievement. For O’Toole has been reviewing Irish theatre at home and abroad for decades. And many, many shows meet with – well, start reading him and you’ll see.
The list of pans and slams is long, so you’d think that singling out an all time worst from the list of candidates would be challenging for O’Toole. Apparently not. While some Irish fans may feel slighted that this elite honor goes out of country, no doubt most will be delighted to hear an American is wearing the laurels.
Despite the odds, John Patrick Shanley has brought home gold with his “Irish play” OUTSIDE MULLINGAR, now on at Seattle Rep. In O’Toole’s annual recap of Irish cultural highs and lows for 2014, he named Shanley’s play as including “perhaps the worst single line I’ve heard in the theater.” We won’t spoil the drama. You’ll have to go and find out which line it was. Though it won’t initially be easy to pick out just one.
It’s amazing what a Tony nomination and a famous playwright’s name can do. This nonsensical story, projected onto a culture that is apparently as foreign to Shanley as Timbuktu, is now making the rounds of mediocre American regional theater. And nothing draws an unthinking stateside smile faster than a bad Irish accent on stage. No matter how far from reality the representation of Ireland may be, as long as someone drinks a beer, makes a joke about the rain, and says “shite”, all is well. When this sort of slapstick gets really, really bad it’s pure greenface.
Culture Shock: ‘Outside Mullingar’, and beyond the edge of awfulness
All the hokum that had been happily discarded became, in Martin McDonagh’s hands, a workable proposition again. It didn’t occur to me that an intelligent American dramatist such as John Patrick Shanley might look at those plays and miss all the layers of mockery and irony and manipulation.
Feb 22, 2014
When plays are bad, their badness is usually easy to explain. Occasionally, though, there is a play whose woefulness demands a whole new theory. John Patrick Shanley’s faux-Irish drama Outside Mullingar , currently on Broadway, is mystifyingly awful. The obvious explanation, that Shanley can’t write, doesn’t get us very far. He won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Doubt , and an Oscar for Moonstruck . Neither is especially to my taste, but they are at worst highly competent and professional. They don’t prepare you for the moments in Outside Mullingar when you find yourself shaking your head in abject, surrendered, uncomprehending disbelief.
After much reflection, my theory about Outside Mullingar is what we might call the McDonagh Effect. Martin McDonagh took the ramshackle old Irish naturalistic play, with its odd mix of kitchen comedy and 19th-century melodrama, and made it look both easy and viable. All the old hokum that had been happily discarded became, in his hands, a workable proposition again. If you were Irish, of course, it was also obvious that his was a postmodern version of Irish hokum, utterly self-aware, drenched in irony, deliberately anachronistic and brilliantly deployed to manipulate an audience’s expectations.
It didn’t occur to me, at least, that an intelligent American dramatist might look at those McDonagh plays and miss all the layers of mockery and irony and manipulation. That it would be possible to think, Great, the Abbey play of the 1940s is up for grabs again – and to think this in all innocence, with no hint of malicious intent. The only way I can explain Outside Mullingar is to assume that poor Shanley was misled in this way. Even this doesn’t explain why nobody, especially the Irish people involved in the production, had a quiet word to put him right.
Outside Mullingar is set, well, outside Mullingar. The time is given in the programme as “recently”: we know this because there are references to Irish boxers winning medals at the Olympics. As the old farmer Tony Reilly (played by Peter Maloney) puts it, in a line that is all too typical, “Sure, we’re good with our fists, no surprise there.” But theatrically, it is set in a different time and place: the Abbey, some time between 1930 and 1959.
If you were to do a random cut-up of the rural social comedies that were the staple diet of that period, you would more than likely end up with most of the following elements: a funeral, cups of tea, a dispute about land, a dying parent, a will, a returned Yank, an ageing virgin son and the headstrong woman he is secretly in love with but has never got around to informing of his feelings. If you shuffled those cards a few times, you’d come up with the bones of Outside Mullingar . To complete the job, you’d have to have mistaken McDonagh’s dark surrealism for Oirish quirkiness and added enough of that to tip the whole thing from mere dullness into embarrassment.
In Outside Mullingar , we begin in Tony’s kitchen after the funeral of his nearest neighbour. We quickly establish three things. Tony is thinking of cutting his son, Anthony (played by Brían F O’Byrne), out of his will and leaving the farm to a Yankee nephew. The Reillys have been in dispute with the neighbour about a right of way. (The term “land-grabbing” is, I’m afraid, inevitable.) And the disputed land has passed to the neighbour’s daughter, the fiery Rosemary Muldoon (played by Debra Messing – Grace from Will & Grace ).
I would normally be careful about revealing how it all works out, but in this case it will hardly surprise readers that the resolution will involve two elements: (a) a deathbed scene of more than usually revolting sentimentality in which Tony makes it all right with Anthony; and (b) Anthony and Rosemary finally getting around to wearing the face off each other.
All of this would be weird in itself, especially as the pastiche of midcentury Irish drama is always slightly off-kilter. Shanley’s ear for Irish speech – he has cousins outside Mullingar – is not well enough tuned to avoid having people “go to church” or “pass on”. Messing’s Rosemary tries so hard at an Irish accent that her voice ends up drowning in the Atlantic. It doesn’t help that her mother is played by Dearbhla Molloy, whose precise characterisation makes you wonder where her daughter came from.
But what makes the whole thing almost unfathomably bad is that Shanley has some vague sense that McDonagh’s plays do something more. Hence we have rain falling outside the cottage window as in the Druid production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane and the casting of O’Byrne from that same production. Rosemary has elements of Slippy Helen from The Cripple of Inishmaan , and her resentment of Anthony goes back to a McDonaghesque childish slight. Worst of all, Anthony’s big revelation is an unintended parody of the way McDonagh inserts oddities and nonsequiturs. He explains that he has stayed away from Rosemary all these years because “I think I’m a bee”. This is not a joke or a metaphor: he thinks he’s a bee. I tried to convince myself that I was an ice-cube so I could melt into the ground in embarrassment.
Rebecca Gilman’s LUNA GALE, which received a rave review from the Los Angeles Times’s hard-to-please @charlesmcnulty in December at its world premiere Kirk Douglas Theatre production, is a clear season highlight.
Also of note are DISGRACED by Ayad Akhtar and CONSTELLATIONS by Nick Payne.
Seattle native Kimber Lee’s BROWNSVILLE SONG (B-SIDE FOR TRAY), a somewhat cliched and predictable story about young lives in the ghetto cut short etc. that got a run at Lincoln Center’s LCT3, is also on the list.
When it comes to writing bad plays, there are no barriers to entry. It’s an equal opportunity endeavor, and anyone with a laptop, tablet or smart phone can jump right in. An entire playwriting industrial complex with classes and instructors (many former playwright wannabes themselves) is standing by ready to help.
But where the sailing gets a little stiffer, where the company grows more select, is producing bad plays. When it comes to putting a full version of that idea about a singing tea kettle or flying bath tub or three cutthroat real estate saleswomen in front of a live audience, rarely does a bad play get the nod. In theory.
In theory, there is a gatekeeper function in place at theatres to protect audience members from bad plays. Gatekeepers are the performing arts equivalent of a bomb squad, and they fan out daily in flak jackets and helmets to poke and prod that stack of newly arrived envelopes or PDF’s down at the literary department. Are the contents friend or foe? Artistic directors and the higher ups watch through binoculars, safely outside of blast range, as staff and volunteers undertake this potentially lethal first encounter with a new play. If the experience proves survivable, the script may move up the feeding chain. If something blows up, the play gets filed.
Unfortunately, not all clear and present dangers are detected early enough in the process. Plays get passed around, they get a reading, they gain a certain momentum. They become interesting or desirable to theatres because of subjects they address (whether or not they effectively dramatize said subject) or demographics they tap. In short, obvious problems get missed. And then the next thing you know, holy mother of jaysus, there they are up on stage. And there you are sitting in the audience wondering why why why this play was ever selected for production.
Remarkably bland. Like a bad TV show. We’re in the theatre, but there is not an ounce of theatricality in this story of stock characters from a mythical New York real estate elite. Instead of saying something – anything – that will last, play is as generic and disposable as corporate decor.
Derrick Lee Weeden and G. Valmont Thomas are two of the great actors of our time – or any time. From fourth row, the power Weeden emits is stunning. He towers on stage like a redwood. Strong cast nails deep family context. Stephen Tyrone Williams as Boy Willie gives central performance.
At New Century, it’s THE FLICK from Annie Baker. Though it won a Pulitzer, this show is going to prove much trickier than many prize winners to simply slam into a truck and ship off to every regional theatre in America (a la VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE). Baker’s show is long, sometimes slow and requires the right space. In short, it will defy easy adoption by the mainstream. That’s why some traditional subscribers at Playwrights Horizons revolted. It will take the right company and place to do it. And I’m betting that Seattle’s talented New Century Theatre Company is the crew to pull it off. Added bonus: the show is at their brand new home at 12th Avenue Arts.
At Seattle Rep, it’s the world premiere of THE COMPARABLES by Laura Schellhardt. Schellhardt scored a hit with THE K OF D at the New York fringe a while back, and the new play sounds strong. The Rep is coming off a wildly successful import of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s two LBJ plays by Robert Schenkkan, which set all time box office records – but they have had less luck originating their own premieres from scratch in recent years. Here’s hoping this one will knock it out of the park.
So hit the trail to Seattle in March and catch both in a weekend. Wondering what else is on in Seattle? Here’s a start.