It is so granted

I thought that Season-Announcing Season was long past us, but the Walker doesn't play by anyone else's little rules. The art center/giant robot head just announced their 2016-2017 performance season, which features a heaping helping of Merce Cunningham.

The company also recently announced that they will be the proud recipient of a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation in support of new artistic collaborations. If "Mellon Foundation" and "grant to push giant local institution to make new art" sound familiar, this is the same foundation that recently dumped $1 million on the Guthrie to fund new works for three years.

Man, Minnesota, I don't know what you did to catch Mellon's eye, but keep it up! Let's keep that sweet, sweet foundation cash flowing. Maybe it actually has something to do with promising to create new work, instead of endlessly recycling classics?

Hey, Commonweal Theater in Lanesboro, I see that you are ditching your Ibsen festival in favor of adding a second series of plays that could feature new plays by younger playwrights. Maybe you should give Mr. Mellon a call.

Emergency! Arizona!

Speaking of flowing cash, last week on News and Notes, we talked about Arizona Theater Company and their intense desire to turn on the money tap. It looks like they finally got the spigot going. At least for now…

ATC became the latest LORT house to sail too close to the rocky shoals of insolvency. On June 27, they announced that they needed to raise $2 million by the end of the fiscal year to stay afloat. The fiscal year-end on June 30 came and went without $2 million miraculously dropping out of the aether in three days, so that absolutely definite, inflexible, inarguable date that would irrevocably spell the end of the company was immediately pushed back to July 15. July 15 ended with only $718,000 raised, so that absolutely definite, inflexible, inarguable date was again extended through the weekend.

At this point, it was like a 24-hour telethon boldly marching on into its 37th hour, but the company did finally announce at the end of the weekend that the $2 million goal was reached. (Half of that came from one donor who pledged $1 million if the other half could be raised from the community.) Congratulations, ATC! You have lived to celebrate your 50th season!

It sounds like a happy ending to the casual observer. ATC was in a little bit of a pickle, but, goshdarnit, the community rallied together and saved them. However, the company has been swimming in red for years. They posted a staggering $1 million deficit on their 2013 season alone, after several years of lesser (but still six-figure) deficits, and have been struggling through debt repayment plans ever since. You can celebrate now, but there's a damn good chance that June 2017 will look like deja vu all over again.

It's always sad when a mainstay institution like this runs into trouble. (It would be especially sad for Arizona, since ATC is the only national-level professional theater in the state and one of the only regional LORT houses in the Southwest.) It's certainly not an outlier, though, since the once robust US regional theater system is under a lot of strain right now, and several pieces of it have broken off in the past few years. The question is, in the face of shrinking audiences, how do we fix this?

Who let these filthy peasants in here?

I'm not entirely sure how to fix it, but here's a lesson in how not to fix it. Over in the UK, Richard Jordan, a well-known writer and producer of theater (or "theatre", as those wacky Brits pronounce it), went to see a reimagined production of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, featuring an actor who is well-known for playing someone or something called "Jon Snow." Jordan emerged from that evening's entertainment to pen a disgusted op-ed for The Stage declaring the audience "possibly the worst West End audience I have ever encountered."

What could upset poor Richard Jordan so? Apparently, he was shocked, appalled, aghast even, at the sight of a full house of younger audience members who had the audacity to eat food, laugh and generally enjoy themselves in the theater while watching an actor they quite like perform in front of them. Apparently, no one told these whippersnappers that theater is supposed to be a quiet, grim reverie in which you sit patiently waiting for your medicine to be doled out to you.

*sigh* Here we go again. Another angry invective from the theater snobs about how "theater is not a social event." Somebody call up the Cumberphone Campaign people. It's time to educate our audiences instead of entertaining them. Let's pass out the lockable cellphone cases and crank up the tirade. Draw up the list of unreasonable demands! It's time to for Britain to rejoin the crusade against the modern world! (Though, to be fair to the British people, we're doing a pretty good job of crusading against the modern world, too.)

While we're at it, let's all stand outside and shake our fists at all those damned Pokemons on our lawns. Get off our lawns, Pokemons!

Fortunately, views like Jordan's are getting pushback this time around. Amber Massie-Blomfield provided a counterpoint in The Stage telling the theater world that its indignant audience-shaming isn't going to help keep those McDonalds-munching masses coming back to us again. Instead, Massie-Blomfield says that we should be rolling with the times:

"There is an irony about the conservatism of theatre professionals decrying audiences being too noisy. As culture evolves, so do the ways in which people interact with it."

But I'm sure that Kit Harington (Mr. Jon Snow himself) doesn't agree. After all, he's the exquisite artist on the stage whose performance is just being ruined by these greasy McNugget eaters…

Wait… no… He's totally cool with it. In fact, Harington has this strange notion that it's a good thing when your audience is having a good time. According to him:

“I am afraid that, if the theatre is going to die of anything, it will be from exactly this type of stereotyping and prejudice aimed towards a new and younger generation of theatregoers."

By the way, Richard Jordan and everyone else complaining about audience members eating in the theater: that was exactly what was happening back when Marlowe's Doctor Faustus was first performed. You cannot claim this is a troubling new development, especially since you probably would have been watching Marlowe's original production next to an unwashed Londoner sucking on half a cornish hen while tossing nutshells at the stage. If anything, you should be thankful that it's only popcorn today.

In the meantime, if we all continue snarling at our audiences for not making the theater a quiet little mausoleum, then it will wind up being that very thing. It's very easy for a theater to be silent when there's no one in the seats.