Are D.C. Theaters Playing It Too Safe?
In March, the Washington Post's chief theater critic, Peter Marks, lamented that the 2012-2013 seasons of several large D.C.-area companies—among them Signature Theatre, the Kennedy Center, and Arena Stage—were too reliant on such chestnuts as My Fair Lady and Dreamgirls. "The clear bet theaters are making is that these shows will be far easier to market, and thus their auditoriums will be easier to fill," Marks wrote. This week, Arena's former director of marketing and membership, Chad Bauman, penned a response to Marks' essay and the reaction on Twitter it generated. In Bauman's view, no theater is ever "playing it safe," because almost every kind of production, including well-worn musicals, is a financial risk. He also argued that "popular programming" can be valuable in growing theater audiences by serving as a sort of gateway drug.
Are theaters peddling familiar fare to limit risk? Is there such a thing as "playing it safe?" Washington City Paper theater critic Bob Mondello responds.
Bauman’s argument is decently persuasive about the phrasing “playing it safe”—let’s all concede that nothing in theater is really safe—while more or less missing the more general point. The frustration of serious theatergoers with D.C. theaters—not just Arena Stage, but many of the city’s more prominent troupes—making conventional, commercial choices rather than more daring ones has to do with the breadth and reach of a theater season, not with the individual attractions. Someone’s bound to do My Fair Lady within a few years (it was just at the Kennedy Center a couple of seasons back, and at the National Theatre less than a decade ago), but what does it say when that’s the choice Arena makes, while scrappy little American Century Theater is the troupe that tackles, say, Lady in the Dark.
And all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, I’d guess that it is easier to sell tickets to Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which gets done to death and which Arena did last season and has done before) than to that same playwright’s Tiny Alice, which D.C. viewers have only ever been able to see at Washington Shakespeare Company (back before it was Avant Bard). And it’s certainly easier for Arena to sell tickets to Meredith Willson’s The Music Man than to his Here's Love, which would be the equally tuneful but considerably less familiar choice for a company that was founded specifically as an alternative to the Broadway hit machine.
As for the argument about getting people started in theater—I buy it wholeheartedly. The thought that kids whose first show was Cats might someday come back and see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof sustained me through all the times Andrew Lloyd Webber’s furtacular clawed its way back to town. But that doesn’t mean I’m anxious to see Cats at one of our repertory houses. The introducing-new-audiences-to-theater argument feels more valid in a town where there are only one or two theaters to do the entry-level stuff than in a city where dozens of companies (including dinner theaters) are vying for patrons. When I was growing up in the ‘60s, D.C. theatergoers mostly had just Arena and the National Theatre to choose from, and the latter was where kids saw Oliver and Annie Get Your Gun, the former where they later caught One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Mother Courage. Arena could certainly have used the entry-level argument back then, but its seasons were filled with Strindberg and Ibsen, and it brought new theatergoers in by rediscovering stage versions of Marx Brothers musicals and such ‘30s comedies as You Can’t Take It With You.
That said, I see nothing wrong with resident troupes doing pop. I just find it more bracing when the pop fits the troupe’s mission. When Arena produced Arthur Laurents’ reworked Hallelujah Baby, or the pre-Broadway Next to Normal, it was appealing to pretty much everyone in the serious-theatergoing base it had built up over many years—African-American audiences, musical fans, folks who like new work, folks who like classics, folks who think about social issues—as well as to more mainstream consumers of entertainment. When Arena does Oklahoma! or The Music Man, it’s appealing first and foremost to mainstream consumers of entertainment. Not that the company’s longtime supporters won’t enjoy those shows too, but neither they nor the troupe’s mission can reasonably be said to be the driving force behind staging them.