Tuesday, August 19, 2008

New Season, New Directions

On Saturday August 9th StageSource - Boston's premiere service organization for the area's theatres and theatre professionals - hosted a (hopefully) annual conference focusing on "Raising Our Standard." Although most of the day was dedicated to round-table discussions by arts professionals, the highlight of the day was a discussion with the new artistic directors for the region's three major LORT theatres. In attendance were Curt Columbus, recently appointed Artistic Director of Trinity Rep in Providence, RI; Peter DuBois, incoming artistic director at the Huntington Theatre, and Diane Paulus, artistic director for American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge beginning in the 2009-2010 season.

Each of these artists practically embodied the organizations which they represent from the community-based, grassroots idealism of Curt Columbus to the uber-artistic, forward-thinking Diane Paulus with Peter DuBois falling short of artistic ingenuity but proving himself as an adept fundraiser and middle-of-the-road politico. The discussion moderated by the amazing Scott Edmiston (one of Boston's leading directors) and the self-gratifying Kate Snodgrass, illuminated many fascinating points on the role of the regional theatre in the 21st century as well as the particular direction each of these artists intends to lead their respective theatres and, thereby, the arts in the New England area.

Curt Columbus was, quite possibly, the star of the discussion given his two-season reign as artistic director of Trinity Rep. His vision can be summed up as reimagining the regional LORT theatre as a part of and an integral element to the community. Curt's idea that regional theatre needs to shed its ivory coating so that it can be relevant to the lives of every American is certainly not new, but definitely revolutionary in an era where regional theatres pan to corporate sponsors, sure-fire successes, or "educational" i.e. "safe" programming in order to keep their doors open. One of his most impassioned moments occurred as he recalled a group of students attending a matinee when a teenage audience member suddenly shouted, "I knew he was gonna do that." Curt's enthusiasm at this student's engagement with the art is emblematic of his entire leadership of Trinity Rep. I garnered from his presentation that he wants to break down the barriers that exist between the community and theatre - going so far as to say that we need to reclaim the idea of "community theatre." He wants his theatre to be an open forum - just as in classical Greece - where theatre is intended for everyone in the most democratic sense.

Diane Paulus proved an equally intriguing leader for American Repertory Theatre. As a director whose work has spanned genres from the night club of her long-running Donkey Show to classical opera and contemporary musical/theatre works, she has established herself as an innovator in the arts. Her approach to artistic leadership is to use the stages of A.R.T. as trial grounds for inventive performance. Her theory is that artists need to try-out work before an audience and that artists with an intriguing new idea have a place at A.R.T. Viewing the A.R.T. as a trial ground for new work is certainly a return to founder Robert Brustein's vision of the theatre. As Ms. Paulus recounted, when she graduated from Columbia University, she allegedly said that she would one day like to run the A.R.T. as Robert Brustein's legacy. A graduate of Harvard, Ms. Paulus was familiar with the work of Brustein and felt that the A.R.T. was her artistic destination when she read the mission: "to expand the boundaries of theatre." This, she said, was a mission behind which she could dedicate her career.

Peter DuBois comes to the Huntington Theatre by way of The Public Theatre in New York and the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska. Although he's young, Mr. DuBois speaks as a relic of the old guard of artistic directors - the ones who, like Nicholas Martin, promulgated regional theatre into the for-profit Broadway model as opposed to community-based, grassroots organizations. Mr. DuBois' ideas on regional theatre revolve around finding corporate sponsors and developing new playwrights on the Cape where he can relax with his partner and dog. If I were a funder of Huntington Theatre, I would be weary of renewing my subscription/donation for the fear that Mr. DuBois will spend my money on his summer vacations or developing playwrights' work who already have commissions at other theatres. In a phrase, Mr. DuBois is a product of Reagonomic artistic leadership. In his presentation, he dropped names such as George C. Wolf and Paula Vogel. I would suspect, however, that neither of these artists nor their contemporaries will find a home at the Huntington Theatre under Mr. DuBois' leadership.

The entire discussion was tinted by Curt Columbus' assertion that he is interested in theatre engaging audiences as civic engagement as it was in ancient Greece. At Trinity Rep, they have instituted a talk-back after every performance which are led by community leaders as opposed to theatrical professionals. This has led, as one audience member relegated, to a deeper involvement with the art. Mr. Columbus recounted the view of one of his Russian mentors who said that "theatre is part church, part circus." He furthered this thought with his ideas that theatre is created from the moment the patron parks their cars until they leave the show. His idea is that theatre is an all-encompassing experience and should be viewed as more than just a cultural tete-a-tete. This was reflected in Peter DuBois' statement that in choosing a season, he doesn't think about the plays so much as he thinks about the experience for the audience.

One of the most well-received comments of the discussion was when Curt Columbus asserted that we currently have a ticket-selling model for regional theatre where the artistic product is merely viewed as a commodity as opposed to an educational/cultural contribution to society. Mr. DuBois supported this position by pointing out that the most exciting developments in theatre management for him have been season sponsorships (such as Time Warner's for Signature Theatre) which allows a theatre to price tickets at an affordable $10-$15. If Mr. DuBois is able to achieve this at the Huntington, he will be well worth his appointment and annual salary. Ms. Paulus, however, had little to say about fiscal management of her theatre - which maybe a result of her inexperience as an artistic director for regional theatre or the fact that her administrative staff will concern themselves with fundraising. If the latter is true, she will certainly be quick to learn the "strapping on the kneepads for the donors" as Curt Columbus so eloquently phrased it.

All in all, this proves to be one of the most exciting times in the Boston theatre scene in recent memory. The fact that the three new artistic leaders are two gay men and one woman, certainly points to the currents of change that are adrift across America. I find it more than coincidental that the Democratic national convention played "Let the Sun Shine In" as entrance music for Al Gore's speech while Diane Paulus' revival of Hair at the Public Theatre receives rave reviews and sell-outs. Perhaps, this is the dawning of a new Age of Aquarius?

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