We are ready to get turnt on box Chardonnay and binge Man in the High Castle, and not think about theater for a spell. For some, January is a slower, more reflective time (and cheaper, thanks to Broadway Week). We did the best of list. We did the worst of list. Shows are open and running and we, far from the madding New Year’s Eve crowd in Times Square, refuse to think of the pre-Tony spring onslaught. Instead we fashioned resolutions for 2016, imagining ourselves the hive-mind of New York theater. So squeeze off a cuppa Char and listen up:
1. We need to talk about race. Again. Tonya Pinkins recently made headlines by leaving Classic Stage Company’s Congo-set production of Mother Courage and Her Children, directed by Brian Kulick. Actor and director apparently reached an impasse over their interpretations of the title role. In a statement, Pinkins says that her artistic view as a black woman was not respected, and she’s promoting the hashtag #BlackPerspectivesMatter. We haven’t seen the production, but Pinkins capped off a highly race-conscious year: condemnation of Manhattan Theatre Club’s white-male-dominated season; the use of yellowface in a local production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado (quickly canceled); casting a white actor as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in an Ohio university’s production of The Mountaintop; and outrage from the Asian-American acting community about a needlessly all-white revival of Noises Off at the Roundabout. At the same time, yes, it was a remarkably diverse season on Broadway (Hamilton, Allegiance, On Your Feet and more). We need to sit down at a big table and talk about who’s being cast, what characters are being written and who gets to tell whose stories. Can our theater look more like America?
2. Cast troupers, not movie stars. It’s not rocket science: Celebrities mean big box office. Whether they’re any good is a roll of the dice. For every fresh and surprising turn by Sam Rockwell or Keira Knightley, there’s Bruce Willis or Al Pacino doing work that’s deeply misguided or barely registers. You know who shows up and gets the job done? Troupers. New York has some of the greatest actors on the planet and they should be constantly employed—in leading roles. As producers, artistic directors, casting agents and directors, we should have their names engraved on our desks, but here are a few of them: Ron Cephas Jones, Reg Rogers, Andrew Garman, Brooke Bloom, Bill Heck, April Matthis, Marylouise Burke, Scott Shepard, Larry Pine, Thomas Jay Ryan… The casting of Danny Burstein as Teyve in the excellent new Fiddler on the Roof shouldn’t be an exception to the rule.
3. Commission more issue plays. Yes, we know people start snoozing the minute you say, “political theater.” But that doesn’t mean we can’t commission and produce more plays about gun violence, prison, religion, drugs and war. Our job is to make theater relevant to the audience today, through any means: satire, music, shock tactics, ultra-realism, and ideological confusion. We shouldn’t depend on London for meaty theater that grapples with, say, state power or financial fraud.
4. Make classics weird again. Common wisdom among those of us who produce classic work: It’s New York, not Berlin. Our audiences don’t want to see Long Day’s Journey Into Night in business suits against giant video monitors. They will not accept their Shakespeare, Williams, Odets, Molière or Ibsen deconstructed, intertextualized and regietheatricalized. That’s because we have failed, over the past several decades, to train audiences to appreciate new directorial and dramaturgical approaches. We’re stuck in a time warp in New York. It’s been nearly 20 years since Belgian-born director Ivo van Hove starting playing with the classic repertoire at New York Theatre Workshop. And now, with the smashing A View from the Bridge (via London) we see him on Broadway. By stripping away the surface dust and period detail, he gets to something deep and primal in Arthur Miller’s tragedy. Let’s follow van Hove’s example and rethink how we put on classics for a modern audience. If we’re not breathing new life into old texts, we are mere morticians.
5. Stand up for theater critics. This may be the hardest resolution of all, the equivalent of shedding 50 pounds or quitting booze. Critics are not our enemy. They echo back to us, eloquently and honestly, what the work is saying (even when we utterly disagree with the bastards). They’re also an endangered species, even more than artists. If we stand idly by as reviewers lose jobs—or half their column inches to cover us—we are complicit in the dumbing down and marginalization of the stage. Tell publishers that critics matter. Sure, not every one deserves equal respect and some should have retired years ago, but collectively they represent a voice vital to the art. Lose them and we lose our conscience.