About a Boy
Another year, another lackluster live broadcast musical from NBC… I guess this is now a tradition that we’ll all have to put up with, since America tuned in by the millions once again to see another unimpressive production of an old show. It’s hovering somewhere between the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and being felt up by a TSA employee at the airport in enjoyability levels, but, like both of those things, Americans now feel at least a little obligated to play along.
Whether they showed up to hate-watch, or whether they actually hoped it would be an enjoyable way to spend three hours, it doesn’t matter. There were millions of eyes watching the same thing on TV at the same time, and that means that we, as a nation, shared in a grand communal moment that should all make us feel warm an cozy together. Also, NBC made a crapload in ad revenue, so there’s that.
As theater professionals, we can try to pick this thing apart and explain what went wrong. Maybe it’s just that this particular show doesn’t work in this format, or that having no live audience for a live show is awkward and uncomfortable; but if you want to get right to the heart of the matter, there’s no one better to walk you through everything that’s wrong than the always interesting Sam Landman at Regret-A-Day (warning: the language may be a little salty for your workplace).
However, we will eventually have to face the fact that NBC probably never intended for this thing to be enjoyed in the first place.
Jane Chu, the new chair of the NEA, was in town recently to praise Minnesota for it’s support for the arts. You could have taken that as pretty standard boosterism, but as it turns out, it was a harbinger of good things to come. The NEA just rolled out its first round of 2015 grants, and out of $29 million distributed, $1 million came to Minnesota. Children’s Theatre Company won the big money, taking home about 10% of that.
Minnesota’s arts incubator, Springboard for the Arts, also hit the jackpot in granting for this season, picking up $800,000 from the Kresge Foundation.
In fact, according to the latest Giving in Minnesota report from Minnesota Council on Foundations, charitable giving in our state has continued to increase over the past several years.
Though, when you actually dig in to the Giving in Minnesota report, you find that while giving is up overall, giving to the arts is down. Fortunately for us, the performing arts still grab the biggest share of giving, but there haven’t exactly been steady increases. But, goshdarnit, you plucky theater people still keep finding ways to get out there and make the show go on.
Just Getting By
Two years ago, Penumbra Theatre looked like it was on the brink of financial collapse, but they managed to right the ship, and now they’re working with balanced books. Out east, even my odds-on favorite for “next LORT house to shut down”, Philadelphia Theatre Company, has been yanked back into life.
However, when even the seemingly bullet-proof Cirque du Soleil has cash problems, you know you’re in a weird time for the health of live performance. Still, the big, big for-profit theater sector is putting some jingle in its jeans, enough so that Wall Street veterans are swooping in to invest on Broadway. Remember when we were all worried that Broadway would fall apart after 9/11? Those days are gone, friends, and it’s just money, money, money all the time now.
Except, there’s the troubling problem of Broadway’s audience demographics, which don’t necessarily spell out long-term health in a nation that’s only going to become more diversified in the years to come.
But, if you’re worried about theater ticket sales, you could always sell them alongside porn. That’s nothing but class. (And it’s profitable!)
Today, I’m mourning someone that I didn’t even know. Former theatre critic for the Minneapolis Star (and later, Star-Tribune), Peter Vaughan died last Friday at the age of 76. Though Vaughan retired from the newspaper almost 20 years ago, the theater world of the Twin Cities was in some part shaped by him. His two decades of reviews from the ’70s to the ‘90s spanned across the big explosion of the theater scene here, and more than a few of the Twin Cities heavy hitters today cite him as both an encourager and a challenger who pushed them to do better things. He could be a demanding critic, and his biting wit was sometimes feared by the theaters he reviewed, but he set a high bar, not only for theater, but for the art of criticism itself. (You’ll find his reviews cited frequently in The Critics Canon: Standards of Theatrical Reviewing in America.)
Of course, theater professionals always like to complain about the state of theater criticism, and sometimes view critics as enemies to be beaten back. Recently, New York theater critic Joanne Kaufman wrote an article in which she admitted that she often bails on shows halfway through. Instead of opening up a conversation about how to improve so that people want to stick around for the entire show, one press agent responded by blacklisting Kaufman from his shows in a passionate letter to the Wall Street Journal.
At some point or another, we’ve all dreamed of blacklisting the critics from our shows. Oh, what a wonderful world it would be without some busybody tearing down our beautiful, important work! And, we’re slowly getting that wish. Theatre critics are being dropped left and right, and even though a small army of dedicated bloggers is moving in to fill that niche, we can’t ignore the fact that a good critic is absolutely instrumental in creating a good theatre scene. As much as they hate it, artists need that push to keep growing and improving. If nothing else, they need a worthy foe to fight against.
A critic like Vaughan was certainly a worthy foe, if you wanted to view him that way, but, more importantly, he was a champion of good work and a fan who genuinely enjoyed finding what was good. As he once wrote:
“Probably the most disappointing aspect of Twin Cities theater is how often good, even exceptional work, is ignored by audiences. One might argue that we have too much theater and that the exceptional often gets lost, but I fear that too often, people shun theater for the very reasons I am attracted to it.”
Vaughan viewed his job as an effort to get those audiences to know about that exceptional work; so, even though I never knew him and wasn’t even here when he was still writing, I will miss Peter Vaughan, and I hope that our current crop of critics can carry on at least a bit of what he had.