Back when new Broadway plays and musicals were rushed into print, collected drama criticism also took up prime space on bookstore shelves—until the business changed two decades ago. Major companies like Random House stopped publishing drama, the work of older critics like George Jean Nathan and Stark Young disappeared from the catalogs, and most contemporary critics were relegated to academic or alternative presses, if their work was anthologized at all.
The simultaneous publication last winter of collected theatre writings by both Robert Brustein and Frank Rich helped restore theatre criticism to the prestige of hardcover sales and front-line history. Brustein’s Cultural Calisthenics: Writings on Race, Politics and Theatre (Ivan R. Dee, Chicago), like so many of his earlier books, consists largely of vital material that appeared originally in the New Republic. Leaving aside Brustein’s volumes of literary criticism and autobiography, this new book is his ninth rigorous collection of theatre reviews and related essays—an extraordinary sequence that began with Seasons of Discontent in the early 1960s. With the possible exception of Walter Kerr, no American critic of Brustein’s time has had the persistence and good fortune to see so many articles from a prolific career republished in such controversial volumes that chronicle a theatregoing lifetime.
Frank Rich’s Hot Seat: Theatre Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993 is, astonishingly, the first-ever collection of reviews by the critic who loomed over American theatre for 13-plus seasons. This weighty and generous 1,000-page enterprise has been published by Random House as if the firm had never left the theatre business. It is an essential book, documenting not only the major and minor New York plays of a generation, but the arc of a pre-eminent theatre critic’s influential taste, leadership and commitment.
In Hot Seat’s final pages, we learn that after years of mutual antagonism Brustein recently offered to “bury the hatchet,” and that Rich gladly agreed. Taking advantage of the truce, American Theatre invited both writers to meet in New York to discuss their careers, drama criticism and current issues in the theatre. An edited transcript of their wide-ranging conversation follows.
ROBERT MARX: Bob, when you started writing criticism in the 1960s, you were part of a prominent community—Eric Bentley, Harold Clurman, Kenneth Tynan, Walter Kerr, Richard Gilman, Stanley Kauffmann. It was an amazing group.
ROBERT BRUSTEIN: And Susan Sontag. Everybody wanted to write theatre criticism in those days. Eric Bentley had a profound influence on me when I was a young, evolving intellectual. He was one of the few in our time who took theatre seriously as a genuine art form and not simply entertainment (although it must be that, too, of course). I read his books religiously and scoured the New Republic for his reviews. He was my idol, as it were, and he stimulated me through his work to go into theatre criticism.
When I eventually became drama critic for the New Republic, it was his example that led me to make really stringent demands on the editorial staff there before I took the job. He claimed that he’d been treated very badly by the New Republic—that they dropped a lot of his articles and edited others. So I demanded that every word be published as written, and any changes had to be checked with me. As a result, my editor would call me every week and read to me from Washington my copy over the phone. It was a great time for criticism, for me personally, anyway.
FRANK RICH: Fascinating generational changes. When I was at Harvard as an undergraduate in 1970 and ’71 and working for the Crimson, I wanted to write drama criticism, and people thought it was a joke. I was told, “You’re going to have to talk about movies, because there’s so little interest in the theatre at this moment that you’re not going to get a job writing about your first love.” And indeed it was years before I got a job as a drama critic; it was regarded as an eccentric interest in my generation. When I began my career in New York, the community of critics I admired and learned from were all older than me and they were all film critics, such as Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris and John Simon (who also wrote about theatre, but I met him as a film critic). I was part of the young generation of film critics that was coming along, like Janet Maslin and David Denby. Later, when I became a drama critic, there really was no community like the one Bob describes. To me, that’s a fantasy—Paris in the ’20s, or New York in the ’50s or Hollywood in the ’30s. It just didn’t exist.
BRUSTEIN: I want to add a few more names to the list of people who were writing in those days: Wilfred Sheed was writing criticism at the time, as was Albert Bermel, and so was Richard Hughes, who was doing extraordinary work for Commonweal. I had taken my doctoral work under Lionel Trilling, who was my real god as a critic. But he had nothing but scorn for the drama—he didn’t think it was worthy of a man of intellect. I was determined to demonstrate, if I could, that the same values could be brought to bear on the theatre that were being used by him and others like him on literature and poetry.
RICH: I became a drama critic in 1980, and the changes, just since 1980, are extraordinary. When I was writing about film at Time magazine in the late ’70s, there was a full-time drama critic, Ted Kalem. He died in the early ’80s and was succeeded by Bill Henry. When Henry died, that was the end of it. Similarly, at Newsweek, theatre coverage must be a quarter of what it was. Even in the 1980s at Newsweek, Jack Kroll reviewed pretty much what a first-string critic of the Times would review. That’s gone.
The editors don’t consider theatre a national art?
RICH: Not unless it’s produced by a national corporation like Disney. Then it’s a national art. That’s the problem.
BRUSTEIN: In fact, it’s become a different kind of national art. The theatre has decentralized itself, even though obviously there’s still an enormous amount of activity in New York. But the reasoning of editors is, if you go to Boston, Louisville or Chicago, you’re not talking about something that the readers of the New York Times, for example, can connect with, because they can’t get to it.
“Remember that this country was founded by Puritans who were fleeing England, where the first thing they did in power was to close down the theatres.”
There are terrific critics these days in dance and in music—such as Tim Page at the Washington Post, Mark Swed at the L.A. Times and Joan Acocella at the New Yorker—but I can’t think of a young critic in the theatre today who can analyze an actor’s technique with the same skill that Acocella has brought to analyzing a dancer’s technique. Why have wonderfully agile, committed critics emerged in those disciplines but not in the theatre?
BRUSTEIN: I think one reason is the theatre is still considered to be an entertainment for tired businessmen. It’s been very hard to persuade people that the theatre is an art form on a par with dance, symphony and other classical music, opera and literature, even though Frank and I, along with other critics, have been working very hard to persuade people that this is true. But our editors—not my editor, but I think a lot of editors, particularly on newspapers—don’t think it’s true. What they prefer is someone to arbitrate the consumption of entertainment—a consumer guide—and tell people where to go, as they would recommend restaurants. It’s what I call Himalaya criticism—loved him, hated her.
There’s also a Puritan aspect to this, which I never tire of mentioning. Remember that this country was founded by Puritans who were fleeing England, where the first thing they did in power was to close down the theatres. Plays could be performed if there was musical accompaniment, if they were called operas. In short, music was sacred, the theatre profane. In my neck of the woods, in New England, there’s lip service for support of theatre but very little money for it. The money goes to music. It goes to the symphony. It doesn’t go to the theatre.
RICH: I think what Bob says is entirely right. There’s still that cultural bias. I don’t think, however, that explains entirely why there are so few young writers who match Joan Acocella. I have a child who is a freshman in college, and for his generation, theatre is hardly on the map culturally. It’s not hip. No one is trying to indoctrinate children in the theatre more than I have with my kids, who love culture and are big culture buffs. They’ll go to the Pollock show at the Museum of Modern Art, or they’ll go to see the newest film at the Angelika theatre, or they’ll go see Philip Glass in Brooklyn before they will go to a Broadway house, or an Off-Broadway house, or to the New York Shakespeare Festival. I can’t quite explain why this is so, but it’s not that there hasn’t been good theatre—there has been. Still, surveys actually show that virtually no young people are going to theatre. And if they are going, they’re going to big commercial crap.
BRUSTEIN: The median age of our audience at the American Repertory Theatre is 41. It’s a very young audience, which is why we don’t have a large subscription base, because they don’t buy subscriptions. But they’re a passionate audience, deeply involved in theatre.
RICH: But you’re in a college town.
BRUSTEIN: I don’t think it’s college kids that are going—I think it’s young professionals.
The habit of theatregoing is lost in a lot of ways, and that’s where price enters the picture. I’m of the last generation of New York outer-borough kids for whom it was not unusual to get on the subway from the Bronx or Brooklyn to come downtown and pay $3 to sit in the balcony of a Broadway theatre—even less Off Broadway. It was as easy as going to a movie. Now those same seats are $55, apart from formal discount programs.
BRUSTEIN: Price is important. In the case of New York audiences, I think it has something to do with all those standing ovations and endless bravos—people seem to be not applauding the show, but their own expenditure. You don’t see that in any other city in the country, really—people don’t go that ape shit when a play is over. They respond with affection and with enjoyment, but this is an unnatural condition.
What is the best training today for theatre critics?
BRUSTEIN: At the Yale School of Drama, we thought we were giving excellent training to drama critics. Looking over the field, we saw most drama critics didn’t know anything about dramatic literature—or any literature. They could not put the play in its time—its social, political or metaphysical contexts. They didn’t know anything about production, or about theatrical process. So we thought it was our obligation to train people in those areas. And we turned out some really first-rate people, none of whom could get jobs in the major media because they didn’t appeal to the average theatregoer. They were not going to connect with a reader who would trust them regarding whether to see Chicago or Fosse or whatever the latest musical hit was. We lost heart about training such critics, because there’s no sense training people for nonexistent jobs. Now we train them to be dramaturgs.
“I don’t think the theatre is on the front lines of the culture wars. Gangsta rap is.”
We’re having this discussion a week after the end of the impeachment trial. Where does theatre fit into the culture wars now?
RICH: I haven’t seen any intersection. You see, I feel that theatre is a minor player in the culture wars. The only example of recent vintage is Corpus Christi, and that was a political football created by a group that was just scouring to find something. If it hadn’t been Corpus Christi, it would have been the Paul Rudnick play, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. It’s simply happenstance.
Is the NEA still an issue now?
BRUSTEIN: It’s always relevant.
RICH: It’s relevant, but it’s arguing about a symbol rather than a thriving, monied enterprise. I don’t think the theatre is on the front lines of the culture wars. Gangsta rap is.
BRUSTEIN: I don’t agree. But I think there’s a sufficient number of really important and powerful playwrights around who aren’t simply writing editorials—they’re not journalists in that sense. What may be making people lose interest in the theatre is that so many playwrights in so many theatres are telling us over and over what we already know: That it’s important for all the races to be equal; that it’s important for women to share power with men; that it’s important for gay people to be respected and not abused. These things are all true and important, but they’re not interesting as art because there’s no surprise in it. And art has to be surprising. The truth is surprising. Life is surprising and unpredictable, and not a sufficient number of playwrights are being unpredictable.
RICH: I agree with you, and I feel that makes my point. That’s why the theatre is not at the center of the cultural debate. Even Corpus Christi said nothing shocking. It was manufactured as shocking by its political opponents.
I have a friend whom I never reviewed, Jonathan Reynolds, who wrote a play, Stonewall Jackson’s House, that was, I would say, the kind of iconoclastic play that you’re talking about. It was saying everyone isn’t created equal. It was talking about race in a way that you never hear in the theatre. In spite of good reviews, not a single nonprofit theatre in the country would produce that play except the one in New York that originated it, the American Place Theatre.
BRUSTEIN: I was desperate to do that play. The reason I didn’t was because it wasn’t a good enough play, despite its reviews. It did everything I thought a play should do, except it simply wasn’t written well enough.
RICH: Let’s say that for the sake of argument you’re right—it’s a flawed play. But I think if it had been more on the side of the angels on the issues you mentioned, people would have worked it through another draft. No one wanted to touch it. There are plays of far less quality that get a million productions. What it didn’t have was all the truisms that congratulate an audience on their moral superiority instead of challenging them.
BRUSTEIN: I think it’s crucial that artistic directors be willing to put on plays that they disagree with ideologically but that have quality as plays.
RICH: But who’s writing them?
BRUSTEIN: David Mamet is writing them. Paula Vogel’s writing them. Paula Vogel has written very unpredictable, idiosyncratic, kinky plays, like Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, for example, or How I Learned to Drive. Those are very subversive plays. How I Learned to Drive, to me, is almost as subversive as Lolita, because she doesn’t take the approved, politically correct position on sexual harassment.
Bob, looking back on your debate [at Town Hall in January 1997] with August Wilson, what was learned from that experience?
BRUSTEIN: One thing I learned was the inability of journalists to get their facts right. I think there was only one accurate report in the Times out of the four or five that appeared that really reflected what happened that night. I’ve forgotten who did it, but it didn’t take sides.
RICH: Probably William Grimes, our new food critic. Shows you all talents are transferable.
BRUSTEIN: Yes, that’s right. I think that it was a very healthy and salutary debate, frankly. It didn’t seem so at the time because it was so divisive and such faultlines were drawn between members of the audience. But it was very important that we finally began to talk about some of these things that we only mumble about in secret. And the fact is, Wilson had said some really quite outrageous things regarding the capacity of black artists to work only in black plays. It seems to me that was a very restricting and segregating thing to do, and I thought it had to be challenged. Every time I talk to a group of black people, once they hear what the issues are, they respond positively to the fact of the debate. They don’t see it as in any way a racist assault on themselves.
RICH: Without rehashing the whole thing, I certainly agree with Bob that Wilson’s position that black artists should be segregated and can only do each other’s work is totally untenable. To me, what’s interesting about the debate is that it was a dead end. I saw people, some public intellectuals in New York City, at that debate that I’ve never seen in the theatre. People were eager for that conversation. But how is it being played out in terms of the theatre and its art? There’s been no significant play that I’ve seen from August Wilson or anyone else—I may have missed it—that deals with the issue of race in America. I haven’t seen those intellectuals who turned out to take one side or the other turn out again for a play. So to me, it’s kind of another version of the Corpus Christi debate. The issues are very interesting, but where are they being played out in the actual life of the theatre, as opposed to being played out in journalism, and pieces by me or Bob, or in American Theatre magazine?
“I think it’s crucial that artistic directors be willing to put on plays that they disagree with ideologically but that have quality as plays.”
Is our theatre immobile right now? Is it the opposite of the theatre of the ’60s?
RICH: I agree with Bob that plays don’t deserve brownie points because they deal with political issues. I’m not saying that we should now have a Group Theatre about race, or we should have Viet Rock, or that all plays have to be David Rabe plays, or whatever. But I do feel that, even in terms of metaphor and of a real pursuit of cultural issues that are not journalistic, it’s not happening. I really admire Paula Vogel—she’s a superb writer. But I would be hard-pressed to argue that her plays are on the cutting edge of cultural debate. And race. Where’s race? August Wilson has fallen silent since then.
BRUSTEIN: Suzan-Lori Parks is for me the most exciting African-American voice today, the most original and most innovative. She’s got two new plays coming out.
If I had thought of it, I believe I would have said at the debate with Wilson that the major issue that we’re wrestling with today is not just racism. Clearly there’s a lot of racism in this country, and it must be confronted. But I think there’s another issue and another danger, which is a suppression of thought and language considered by some to be racist. If people become so sensitive that words like “niggardly” are taken to be racial insults, all you will do is drive feelings underground where they fester and become very ugly. I believe in more speech rather than less speech. I’m very fearful about “freedom from speech,” the suppression and control of speech being demanded by otherwise worthy groups. Minorities are better off when they know who their enemies are, rather than muzzling them through guilt or fear.
And is that suppression and self-censorship evident in the theatre?
BRUSTEIN: Very much so.
RICH: Stonewall Jackson’s House is a perfect example. This is a play that most readers of American Theatre aren’t going to see, because they can’t see it. What you’re saying about the suppression of conversation about race—I don’t think that’s really happening so much in the public sphere. Whether it be conflicts over words like “niggardly” or “Ebonics” or whatever, there’s a tremendous amount of debate in the public sphere. But in the case of the theatre: Why would, for lack of a better term, politically incorrect debate about race be less welcome than in all the other arts? This is not a problem in television. It’s not a problem in movies. It’s not a problem, certainly, in contemporary fiction, where politically incorrect stuff happens all the time. And kids, my kids, talk about it. “The Simpsons” and “South Park” deal with more subversive, challenging, politically incorrect notions about race than the American theatre does.
BRUSTEIN: Absolutely. I think it’s possibly because the theatre community is made up of what Howard Rosenberg once called “a herd of independent minds.” They herd together and communicate the same ideas to each other. And it may be—we can only speculate psychologically as to why it’s so—because people in the theatre are among the very few people in this country who really love what they do, and who are being paid for something they love. Most people in this culture are doing things they hate and are being paid a lot of money for it. For the most part, theatre people have a lot of guilt about that, which transmits itself into this kind of obligatory social conscience on the part of some who really don’t have that much social conscience. That’s where we get into trouble.
Has the resident theatre movement that began in the ’60s achieved what it set out to build?
BRUSTEIN: The resident-theatre movement is not in a very healthy or buoyant state at this particular moment. It had its great days. I think its great days will come again. It’s going to need another Sputnik—by that I mean it’s going to need some external impetus that will get everyone so scared that they say, “We have to support the arts,” and “We have to support education in order to keep up with international competition,” which we’re not doing now. It’s in the schools that the audiences are developed for the theatre and for all the arts, and frankly, they’re not being developed now. Kids are growing up thinking that graffiti is great art and that gangsta rap is great music. They’re helped in this by Time magazine, which runs a cover telling you that these are the great art forms of our time. Multiculturalism—which has been so effective in giving a voice to people who have not had a voice in the past—is now becoming a kind of uniculturalism, in the sense that it creates hostility about so-called Eurocentric culture, which is a crucial part of American culture.
RICH: The fact remains that if you’re not seeing plays, and therefore all you’re getting is the pop culture that is sent on the pipeline of cable TV into your house, there’s no alternative. One of the horrible things that has happened over the course of the culture wars has been that the demonization of the NEA has been used to demonize spending on culture, period, by every segment of government—federal, state and local—in many parts of the country. The bashing of the NEA had the effect of making the arts in general subversive, and making culture the first thing that can be slashed out of a school budget. That, by the way, was the intent of a lot of people on the Right. They’ve done as much damage as multicultural madness has from the Left, I would argue.
BRUSTEIN: I think that’s an extension of the Puritanism we were talking about, and it’s also a demonstration of hypocrisy, which we haven’t talked about, but which is rampant in our government. I mean, Tartuffe is being enacted every day by the religious Right and the freshmen Republicans.
But as far as objections to the NEA are concerned, they essentially come out of deep homophobia, deep sexual nausea and a deep hatred of the “dirty little secret,” as D.H. Lawrence called it, that the theatre seems to be identified with. The notion that the theatre should be funded according to so-called community standards is the death of the theatre, the death of the arts. When in history have community standards told us what quality is or excellence or value? Great thinkers throughout history, starting with Shakespeare, have scorned the whole notion of community standards.
RICH: Including the thinkers who created the country. Once again, the Right doesn’t say, “All right, if you want to do your salacious, anti-God, anti-patriotic play, no one’s saying you can’t do it with private money. But why should we federal taxpayers have to pay for it?” The fallout politically goes beyond NEA money—community standards are being used to beat up people who are using private philanthropy and not public funds. Corpus Christi had no public money in it.
BRUSTEIN: I want to quote Shaw on community standards: “Forty-million Frenchmen can’t be right.” (Laughter.) And the other thing I want to emphasize is this horrible, nauseating content-restriction clause that, for some reason, the Clinton Administration pushed to the Supreme Court after it had been struck down by a federal court in California. Now we have the Supreme Court on record as validating a violation of the First Amendment.
RICH: What I find equally appalling are these enhancement deals—you’ve written very well about this, Bob—in which the nonprofit theatre is playing footsy with commercial theatre. In my view, the Alliance Theatre of Atlanta serving as a tryout for Disney is simply whoredom. And it blew up in their face, because it bombed.
I feel that this development—this so-called merging of the nonprofit and the commercial—is culturally significant for two reasons. First, that’s one less original American play or musical on the schedule for a theatre that supposedly exists to do the kind of plays that Bob does or that any self-respecting nonprofit theatrical institution would do. Also, it contributes to the coarsening of theatre, which should be providing alternatives to Beauty and the Beast and Riverdance.
Then we have the Lincoln Center Theater situation. With Parade, they got involved with another Disney wannabe company that has now gone belly-up, stuck them with bills and given them a show that’s going to have lost perhaps five or six million dollars—in a not-for-profit institution? I think there’s something seriously off. There was a Faustian bargain there, and it should be a wake-up call that Livent turned out to be engulfed in fraud. How is the American theatre served by that arrangement?
BRUSTEIN: Everyone involved with the commercial theatre is under the obligation to make money for his or her investors and for himself or herself. When that is your animating motive, then all decisions are made accordingly: the choice of the play, the choice of the director, the choice of the theatre, the choice of the star, how and when you get the critics in. The alternative—in which your animating motive is to create a work of art, a collective work of art—is a socialist idea, not a capitalist idea. And it’s very hard for a socialist idea to survive in an essentially ravenous, capitalist society. That’s why the nonprofit theatre is now fighting for its life and its virtue, because it is so easy to succumb to the various temptations that are out there just to stay alive.
“The more I got involved in theatre and making theatre, the more I saw the incredible difficulty that goes into getting something on stage.”
As the two of you look back at your critical writing, are there opinions that you’ve changed or topics you would approach differently?
RICH: Well, of course. In fact, in my book it’s one of the issues I try to address. By and large, my opinions have not changed. But in terms of what I stressed, the things I emphasized, the harshness of tone, the over-generosity at times? Sure, there are things I’d change. I think any writer of any kind, including a critic, who remains completely frozen in sensibility and whose writing style doesn’t mature and improve over a 20-year period is dead. That’s just not the way writing works.
BRUSTEIN: I had occasion to look over Seasons of Discontent, my first book of collected criticism, recently. I didn’t read the whole thing. But I read a few essays and I was appalled at how harsh I was, and how judgmental and stupid I was about the process of theatre. It just didn’t occur to me that I was talking about human beings. I was talking about an art form all the time. I think John Simon admired me in those days and copied that style. The more I got involved in theatre and making theatre, the more I saw the incredible difficulty that goes into getting something on stage.
One of the reasons I gave for not taking the Times job in the early ’60s—and it was the major reason, I think—was that I was privileged to be as tough as I was as long as I wasn’t affecting anybody’s livelihood. If I’d gone on the Times, obviously, I would have affected people’s livelihood. Whereas today, my concern is that I may be affecting people’s sense of themselves. The actor has nothing but himself or herself to offer—that’s the instrument. It’s not a flute or a fiddle or a cello. That’s why I do deplore some of the crueler opinions being voiced by a few of our professional colleagues. I’m looking for other ways to go about criticism.
RICH: My experience, obviously, is different from Bob’s in that I did not enter the theatre. But life experience changes you, too, and over the course of this job I came to have a different sense of the people who were involved in the theatre and what they were up against. I have also looked at some of my earlier stuff and said, “I can’t believe how harsh this was, and how unforgiving it was, and how I was so concerned with artistic principles that I forgot that there was any kind of humanity involved.” Ideally, you grow up—and it’s shocking when you have colleagues who actually don’t grow up. One place where we may differ is that I still feel very conscious of a certain kind of reader—the angriest, most intelligent mail I got as a drama critic was from people who didn’t like things that I had sent them to. It was not from people saying, “Oh, why didn’t you like Starlight Express?” It was from people saying, “Why did you send me to Glengarry Glen Ross, with all that dirty language, and what was it about? It had no story.” At the Times, you’re writing for a million people. That can mellow you a bit in terms of trying to be clearer in your arguments, clearer in what you’re saying so that people, whatever your opinion is, can better understand where you’re coming from and what they’re in for.
BRUSTEIN: The great value of my writing for the New Republic is I’m writing for a readership that probably doesn’t go to the theatre and, therefore, doesn’t need guidance from me. However, I do get a lot of mail about the things we produce at ART from people who say, “How can you do this to the classics? Why did you think this was a good play?” I respond to all of them personally. And we try to talk to our audience a lot though symposia and pre-production discussions to explain why we go about doing the things we do and to make it dear that there’s a purpose behind them. We don’t try to insult audiences. I think the ultimate corruptibility of criticism is its lack of accountability. As critics, we’re not accountable to anybody, except maybe our editors or our readership.
RICH: You are accountable. The readership can turn on a critic. I’ve always been struck by the example of the film critic Bosley Crowther, who had dismissed Bonnie and Clyde as just a routine gangster film. I was going through Times microfilm and I found two full pages in Arts and Leisure of letters attacking his review of Bonnie and Clyde—people were outraged that he had missed what was then and probably still is a turning point in American cinema. The audience really got him. I think that led directly to his being replaced by Renata Adler, who could not have been more different.
More proof to your point that the pendulum does swing back and forth. That brings to mind a topic I want to address—the whole question of experimental theatre in America. Is that extraordinary movement past?
BRUSTEIN: No, there’s the Wooster Group, and Richard Foreman, and people like Bob McGrath with the Ridge Theatre. You know, whenever we tend to generalize about the death of the theatre, someone comes along and revives it. All it takes is one artist. It took Chekhov to revive the moribund Russian theatre. It took Brecht to revive the moribund German theatre. They’re out there, and they’ll reappear. Whenever anyone asks me, “What’s the future of the theatre?” I always have to say, “The future of the theatre is whatever artists are coming along to revolutionize it.”
RICH: I totally agree with that. We have to have an infrastructure, for lack of a better term, that supports that artist when he or she does come along. We have to make sure that that artist gets an audience. And that’s why I’m worried about things such as the commercial theatre so boldly annexing nonprofit theatres on Broadway. It wasn’t that long ago that you could do Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway, you could do Angels in America on Broadway. You wouldn’t get rich doing it, but Broadway would give plays like that cultural prominence that would help speed up productions at nonprofit theatres and help disseminate them the way that Broadway once helped disseminate A Streetcar Named Desire. Now, it’s almost impossible to do that unless it’s a British import or there’s a star. And it’s going to become less and less possible as these corporations gain more and more power. How I Learned to Drive could’ve been done on Broadway 15 years ago. It wouldn’t have been a better or worse play for having been, but it would have meant that “Theatre X” in Omaha might have found it a little earlier and would’ve taken more of a shine to it.
I agree with Bob that artists always come along, and people who love the theatre want to work in the theatre and can’t be talked out of it no matter what new media there are. But there has to be a theatre there to receive them.
Robert Marx is a director, essayist and theatre producer. He is vice chairman of the Princess Grace Foundation and a former director of the National Endowment for the Arts theatre program and former executive director, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
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