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News in Brief for December 2013

The historic Saenger Theatre reemerges after Hurricane Katrina, NEA reports a study on national theatre attendance, Chicago Shakespeare Theater celebrates 25th anniversary, and more from December’s round-up of news items.

Meandering Like a River
GRANITE FALLS, MINN.: The winding curves of a river are said to “meander,” and the organizers of the Arts Meander no doubt had that evocative word in mind for their autumn events Granite Falls: Saturday Nights!, which strolled through the city’s riverfront historic district in October. Saturday Nights!, produced by PlaceBase Productions in partnership with Granite Falls Historical Society and Granite Falls Riverfront Revitalization, was the capstone event of a year-long project that staged community-based site-specific musical productions around Granite Falls. The first walking production led audiences along the Minnesota River, tracing the town’s history from the last Ice Age. The second production, Paddling Theatre: From Granite Falls to Yellow Medicine, placed the public in canoes as performers told tales of how Granite Falls became the county seat in the 1870s. The final segment, Saturday Nights!, drew onlookers through historic downtown’s Main Street, where a 21-piece big band created live music from the ’40s and ’50s.

PlaceBase Productions aims to revitalize rural communities through theatrical productions that spark an interest in preserving history and expanding tourism. The series of events was fully funded by individuals and businesses within the Granite Falls community. “We hope this will serve as a model for the use of theatre art as a catalyst for community development,” says PlaceBase Productions’s Ashley Hanson. Here’s art that walks the walk.

Lab Results
NEW YORK CITY: If you still think of children’s theatre as felt puppets acting out Mother Goose tales, some works in development by artists-in-residence at New Victory Theater LabWorks this season should school you otherwise. True, there will be avian puppets in Broken Plastic Bird Heart, a new piece in development from designer/director Julian Crouch (Shockheaded Peter, Wolves in the Walls) and bassist/ukulelist/singer Saskia Lane, but they will be assembled from discarded plastic, feathers and “random detritus,” according to a press release—and they’re inspired not by nursery rhymes but by photographer Chris Jordan’s haunting, eco-conscious images of albatross corpses on the polluted Midway Atoll in the Pacific.

The stage for that show will be covered in sand. And something called “live sand painting” will figure in Light: A Dark Comedy by the newly formed Shoehorn Theater Company, about a world in which the sun has stopped working and a little girl named Moth hunts illumination amid a steampunk set “made of machines and contraptions.”

Also developing work at the 42nd Street theatre will be the physical theatre troupe Parallel Exit, which merges circus, dance and lazzi into immersive new work; and Fiasco Theater, the upstarts behind 2011’s impish bluegrass Cymbeline, who will create an irreverent new take on Measure for Measure. This last play is the only one with a mainstage season slot at New Victory—it will open there next February—but LabWorks projects are intended for future life. Trusty Sidekick’s The Boy at the Edge of Everything, developed in LabWorks last January, will premiere at Seattle Children’s Theatre next March. And a child’s work shall lead them.

Rate Shock
NATIONWIDE: It’s no news that performing arts attendance has taken a hit since the recession, though as TCG’s own annual Theatre Facts has reported, the last two years have seen a rebound in those figures, if not quite up to 2008 levels (see AT, Nov. ’13, “Expect the Unexpected”). A new study by the National Endowment for the Arts, which surveyed approximately 37,000 U.S. citizens over 18 about their participation in a variety of arts events and activities, sees attendance trends from a different angle. Asking respondents in 2008 and 2012 (though not in the intervening years) if they’d seen a play or musical in the previous year, the NEA study reports rates of decline in reported attendance at musical and non-musical plays as 9 and 12 percent, respectively. Also in the study: a rate of decline in reported attendance for straight plays between 2002 and 2012 of 33 percent.

Those percentages reflect a rate of change. Read another way, though, the NEA’s figures show that among the total population surveyed, the percentage drop between 2008 to 2012 was 1.5 and 1.1 for musicals and plays, respectively.

As Sunil Iyengar, who directs the NEA’s office of research and analysis, pointed out, “One valuable thing TCG’s Theatre Facts provides is a look at the supply—the performances, the productions. This NEA report is only about the demand, if you will. If you’re seeing productions and performances go up, and the demand isn’t keeping up with them, that could explain the gap.”

Iyengar also grants that the sporadic nature of the NEA’s arts-participation surveys—they’ve been done in 1982, 1985, 1992, 2002, 2008 and 2012—means that they can only offer a “snapshots” of attendance trends rather than clear annual trend lines.

“It’s true that often people will model these trends, assuming the rates were constant between 2008 and 2012. That’s why periodicity—how frequently you take the survey—is so important.” To that end, Iyengar reports, “We are moving toward doing an annual survey with a shorter number of questions that will tell us arts attendance rates.” The NEA plans to release the full 2012 report next spring.

Screen Streams
SEATTLE and NEW YORK: Cutting-edge live performances are coming to a screen near you—indeed, maybe the screen in your pocket, now that two major players in the field have joined forces. Seattle–based On the Boards, a center for the creation and presentation of contemporary performance, has partnered with TenduTV, a New York–based digital network for performing arts programming, to distribute select films from its video-on-demand streaming platform. The deal with Tendu expands On the Boards’s digital reach to iTunes and Amazon Instant, and to global platforms, and, in return, Tendu—which has focused primarily on dance and ballet—can add more theatrical titles to its catalog.

So while the partnership’s initial offering is Catherine Cabeen’s dance/performance piece Into the Void, the next two will be Reggie Watts and Tommy Smith’s Transition (covered in AT, Oct. ’11) and Radiohole’s Whatever, Heaven Allows (AT, Dec. ’10). And the prices are competitive, with rentals in the $4–5 range and purchases around $10–15. .

The interior of the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans. (Photo by Will Crockler)
The interior of the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans. (Photo by Will Crockler)

Canal Street Revival
NEW ORLEANS: The historic Saenger Theatre, a Crescent City jewel tarnished by Katrina, has reemerged after a $53-million renovation under the aegis of a National Rehabilitation Tax Credit program. The Canal Street landmark, a leading example of Italian Renaissance architecture designed by Emile Weil, was built in 1927, and the new revamp—led by the firm of Martinez + Johnson of Washington, D.C.—has restored the theatre’s original grandeur, replicating the carpet, chandeliers and paint scheme, as well as bringing its technology and amenities thoroughly up to date. The reopened theatre has a seating capacity of 2,600 and has so far hosted national tours of The Book of Mormon and Ghost: The Musical, as well as concerts and stand-up comedy. December’s theatrical offerings include Sister Act (Dec. 17–22), and next year’s include Beauty and the Beast (Feb. 4–9), Memphis (March 11–16) and War Horse (May 13–18). Go to

Back in Black
ST. LOUIS: When The Black Rep opens this year’s Black Nativity on Dec. 4, it will be an especially festive occasion, as it will inaugurate the 37-year-old company’s first season in a new space after losing its decades-long mainstage in August and spending a few tense months without a stage home. When the board at the Grand Center sold the Grandel Theatre, the former church building where the Black Rep had staged its plays for the last 20 years, the company was startled, and had to scramble for a new berth. “It was tenuous for a while,” confesses founding producing director Ron Himes. “A lot of people offered spaces but could only give us one slot. We didn’t want to have our audiences chasing all over town.”

Finally, in October, The Black Rep sealed a deal with Emerson Performance Center at Harris-Stowe State University, which will host The Black Rep’s three-show season (with another winter show at the Missouri History Museum). Himes couldn’t be happier. For one thing, the 250-seat house is only 10 rows deep, so it will have the “same intimacy” as the Grandel. More important, “For our company to be on the campus of a historically black university is a great opportunity,” Himes says, citing potential collaboration with the school’s theatre department. “The overhead is considerably less—we were in the other space six months out of the year. This one, we’re going to be in here about 12 to 15 weeks.” So is The Black Rep ready to settle down with its new partner? Says Himes with a chuckle, “We don’t know that it’s a long-term solution yet. This is a first dance.” And a step up.

at_dec13_chicagoshakes_bookChi-Town Shakes Book
CHICAGO: Anniversaries come and go, and the playbills pile high. But when it came time to commemorate 25 years of producing, Chicago Shakespeare Theater decided to venture beyond the usual yearbook/scrapbook approach. In the new anthology Suiting the Action to the Word, the subject is Shakespeare in performance, and the theatre’s work supplies the examples. The roster of contributors is impressive, from actors Simon Callow to directors Michael Bogdanov, Edward Hall and Josie Rourke. Many of the contributors are Chicago-based, as are the editors, CST scholar-in-residence Regina Buccola and Valparaiso University dean and professor of literature and humanities Peter Kanelos. And there’s even a short piece by a nontheatrical Chicago celebrity: Peter Sagal of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” But CST has some far-flung critical fans represented in the collection: the Guardian’s Michael Billington, the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout and the Toronto Star’s Richard Ouzonian.

“It was a delicate balance,” reports Buccola. “Because it came from an academic press, we were asking the theatre to give scholars access to its archives and video of performances, but it had no control over the material. They had to put a lot of trust in Peter and me not to let anyone grind axes. No one does, of course.” CST should be happy with the result; as Buccola says, the book’s animating idea is that the theatre “has produced really great work that deserves to be more widely known among people who study Shakespeare.”

In addition to an introductory essay, co-editor Buccola’s contributions include an interview with CST founding artistic director Barbara Gaines. “Though she doesn’t set out with this in mind, the work Barbara has done has been very appealing to feminist scholars like me,” says Buccola. And to many others, it seems.

Off Is On
NEW YORK CITY: Off-Broadway ain’t what it used to be, goes the familiar lament. Judging by some recent developments, one thing that’s different—in a good way—is the increase in venues in the vicinity of New York’s Broadway theatre district (a large number with the Off-Broadway designation cluster a few neighborhoods away, in downtown Manhattan). Joining the midtown ranks of Second Stage, Playwrights Horizons, the Signature Theatre, Theatre Row and New World Stages is a new Off-Broadway concern called The Theatre Center, scheduled to open in early 2014.

The three-stage complex—featuring a 249-seater, a 199-seater and a 99-seater—will be run by Broadway producer Hugh Hysell  (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) and Catherine Russell, who currently runs another theatre district mainstay, the Snapple Theater Center, as well as starring in Snapple’s long-running hit Perfect Crime.



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