I’ll give it a shot…

Over on Isaac Butler’s blog , which I’m fairly sure he doesn’t know I frequent, he poses the question “If you had the resources to start a theater company at a somewhat-established level (like God came down and gave you an audience and a space and a budget or whatever)… What would you do with that theater? What gaps in our theater would you try to plug? “

So, I’m gonna try to answer this somewhat quickly and from the seat of my pants because, well, it isn’t actually gonna happen and we’re all gonna grow old and destitute desperately clinging to the last vestiges of our dignity while we stand on stage, gray haired and paunchy, shoving frozen hot dogs up our asses and screaming “I LOVE A PARADE” praying to get a single laugh or understanding nod from an otherwise cruel and indifferent audience. So, a quick seat of the pants answer.

It’s hard to argue that there are gaps in the theater of New York right now, simply because of the volume of productions. There are hundreds and hundreds of plays going up in New York in every single year, and it has been this way for years and years. A quick glance at two independent ticket outlets, smarttix, and theatermania show that over 800 shows have tickets available right now in New York City. Even if only 1/4 of these shows turn over every month, that’s 3000 shows a year. If you’ve been here for, say 3 years, which would make you still a fresh faces newcomer, you’ve had nearly 10,000 performances you could have seen. That’s 20,000 hours of theater in 26,000 hours of living.

Now, those are some fucked up numbers. Especially if you try to do them yourselves and you realize the enormous liberties I’ve taken (the average length of theater isn’t two hours, and 3 years is much more than 26,000, but I’m doing the numbers in my head, so give me a break.)

Man, when you consider that the theater going audience is buying tickets to the big shows, keeping them sold out for months and months in houses that seat over 500 people, and the smaller shows are actually giant budget behemoths that get good publicity and review coverage and are playing to houses with more than 300 seats, it’s a miracle that any off-off shows get seen *at all*.

So… what was I talking about?

Oh yeah. I don’t know that there are a lot of holes in the scene. Pretty much anything you want to see is either going up right now or is gonna be tried in the next six months. And I don’t think that my particular peccadilloes are being under-represented, there have been many pieces of theater that I’ve really enjoyed in the last two years. I’m not one of those people who show up to a show ready to hate it.

But there is a particular concept that is over-represented in the city, even though you have to stand WAY back in order to see it. For some reason, far beyond any grasp of logic, there is a majority of people in New York (and yes, I think it is a majority) who see the theater as a stepping stone to something larger. Theater is being produced for the express purpose of finding other work, either in another aspect of the arts (like film or television) or in another theater show.

Some months ago, Jordana and I saw a series of short plays by a woman we sorta know, and I was excited going in because there were good people to support and a pseudo-Carolina connection. Then I saw the titles of the plays, like “The Trouble With Larry” and “Another Christmas Fucking”, and I turned to Jordana and said “Um, so, these are gonna be four sitcom pitches, right?” And sure enough, the stage filled with Patricia Richardson Wannabes pumping out one-liners that would make Neil Simon alternate between groaning and blushing.

You can’t look at the listings without seeing ads for well known, well greased warhorses with choice roles being played by the young producers, even when totally age inappropriate. And it takes a while to dawn on us (and I say ‘us’ because I very well might have done the same thing in my twenties if I hadn’t been living in Los Angeles learning how to drink and drive) that once you’ve strung a line of shows together that do nothing but ostensibly improve your resume and get casting director interest, you’ve lost a big chunk of years of your career that you could have been honing your personal voice. You could have been linking arms with unknown playwrights, you could have been forging bonds with like-minded strangers. You could have been giving to the theatrical community instead of praying for deliverance.

So, if I had all the resources and a built in audience and space for everything I wanted to do? I would start with two or three playwrights I know right now, and give them commissions to live, and make them write. And then, I would start interviewing and reading and workshopping. I wouldn’t want to push any specific aesthetic, except to say to TV and Film writers “stay away from the theater”. Just because it’s less expensive to get a show produced than a pilot doesn’t mean you deserve any one of the 20,000 hours of theater currently going up.

The perfect theater company for me would be a subsidized workshop that had closed door readings and would only present a play once it was done being workshopped, and the play would be the thing. We could have salons afterwards about ways in which the play worked for the audience and ways it didn’t, and those criticisms could go into the next piece, but we wouldn’t have massive re-writing sessions to try and tailor a piece for better consumption.

I don’t know why so many people are here trying to do this. There’s no money. There’s a huge chance for fuckups. Why is Disney here? Why is Warner Brothers doing Lestat? I don’t get it. If a Disney movie made a million dollars in a week, it would be a face flop of monumental proportions, but they’re opening Tarzan here? These guys are businessmen, I’m sure they have a reason, and I’m sure a big part of it is selling Tarzan dolls and mugs, so who am I to question…

If I had the resources, I would build a company that concentrated on individual voices. Not necessarily disenfranchised, not necessarily difficult, but varied and specific. I would want to build an identity based on content, with no consideration whatsoever as to whether or not a piece is commercial. And I would want to do that because, ultimately, it is theater that is created in these circumstances that ends up being wildly commercial.