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Of Time and the Artist

Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center have to find ways to combat the Broadway sensibility.

By the time this issue reaches you, Peter Sellars will have opened his first season at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and, according to all indications, there will be official confirmation of Gregory Mosher’s appointment as artistic director of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at New York’s Lincoln Center. Both institutions will be in the glare of the national limelight, and in both cases the appointments are controversial, creative and courageous. Both centers seem to have made decisions based on the perceived potential of young theatre artists, and consequently risk-taking was involved—no insignificant factor for organizations of this size and visibility.

Given the American predilection for expecting—nay, demanding—instant results, I hope the courage demonstrated in the appointments will be followed by commitment to sustaining organic growth over an extended period of time. Theatre companies are not like sports teams. Leadership cannot be dependent on the win-loss record of one season—or even two. Because audiences have been weaned on a commercial hit-flop sensibility, results often take precedence over process and purpose.

The early failures of Lincoln Center to develop a theatre company were caused not by a lack of courage in the appointment of the artistic-management team but because the artists and managers were expected to run before they had learned to walk. The Beaumont was willed into existence to share a center with other performing arts organizations that had functioned for generations. The theatre was expected to define itself, develop its aesthetic and start producing immediately.

It was an instant shotgun marriage. The other constituents of Lincoln Center simply had to settle into new quarters and start producing. Their structures had been in place for years and, in some cases, for generations. Not too many seasons ago, we had another theatre in New York—the BAM Theater Company—that had an equally rocky beginning and survived only two seasons.

Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center have to find ways to combat the Broadway sensibility. Broadway stopped being the creative cauldron when only mega-hits could find a home there. High pressure merchandising and the need to attract mass audiences ruled out the possibility for new voices to be first heard and then nurtured; the ability for a play to find an audience over a number of weeks became impossible. The mass market became all that mattered—the same trap that television and film producers always face. At a recent meeting I attended, art museum directors were decrying the lack of attention paid to their permanent collections because so much effort is going into “blockbuster” special exhibits—a similar example of the quick-fix solution that can erode the basic purpose of an arts organization.

A theatre company is an institution chat needs to be nurtured and judged over a number of seasons, through a collective arc of work, not simply by what “hit” or “flop” it produced yesterday. There is a growing tendency to treat artists as commodities—as disposable—as most things are treated in our society.

The other constituents of both the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center are capable of presenting major works of their respective repertoires because they have adequate artistic and administrative staffs. Although the theatre components in both the New York and Washington centers are the new kids on the block, their need for time and proper resources to develop their repertoire is no different. I particularly look forward to the day when a theatre’s work is not determined mainly by cast size. (Perhaps the Defense Department will lend Peter Sellars the soldiers for his French and English armies in Shakespeare’s Henry IV?)

We live in the Age of Hype and the veneration of the New. When the New has been overexposed and analyzed into a torpor, we set it aside and start the process with the next “hot” item. Our voracious appetite for the New makes it difficult for any artist to develop slowly and fully. Media attention—and consequently the access to funding—is constantly being focused on the New. It’s hard for an artist to maintain balance when the tendency of the media is simply to ignore the already established because it is no longer “news.”

Not too many years ago, TCG devoted a major portion of one of its national conference agendas to a discussion of where the next generation of artistic directors would come from. The pessimists among us were not sure there would be any. But in Sellars and Mosher, we can see that there is a new generation. They have already demonstrated an ability to shock, outrage and delight audiences.

Will the press, audiences, trustees, patrons—and their theatre colleagues—give these new artistic directors the time they need to adapt to their new roles and develop further?

A generation ago, bold and outrageous ideas gave birth to a national network of over 250 theatres. Let’s not be in any hurry to predict what this new generation will create—or to judge their work too quickly.

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