Not so long ago regional theater companies strode the land like artistic giants, giving us a varied season of great plays from New York and beyond at a fraction of the cost. They employed
locally based actors, often performing in repertory, and introduced an occasional new play that transferred to The Great White
Way. Then smaller theaters entered the picture grabbing chunks of the repertoire and along with an explosion in the
entertainment industry - movies, sports, pop music, recreational dining - newer patrons began to migrate to different
venues and lower price points.
How to counter this and move with the times? If you're Arena Stage, you hire a celebrity architect - a
"starchitect" - mount an aggressive fundraising campaign, promote it endlessly, and build. You fire-up the
new play development program - that's where the dough and glory are - stoke the special interests agenda - that's
where the funding is - and base your season on a 365-day schedule. You hire as many new playwrights as you can, with
double (and triple) the number of people writing grant proposals and press releases. You participate regularly in co-productions
with outside companies, using your theater as the final port of call. You bring in touring companies, latch onto marketable
playwrights for retrospectives, with loads of staged readings, and bump up the ticket prices, way up.
So how has it worked? On the face of it, not well.
The new site is a monstrosity: visually it is out of touch with the surrounding community - where it hulks like a beached
ocean liner - and one more suited to Vancouver, the "starchitect's" home town. It's basically a glass
box slipped over an existing theater structure and foundation; in essence, an expansion. On the inside, it gets worse.
There's loads of wasted space, with floor to ceiling glass windows, doubtlessly requiring enormous energy consumption.
The floor plan has you climbing up, then down, then up again to get to your seats, which are reduced in size to get more bodies
into the houses. And the sightlines (and acoustics) will have you craning your neck repeatedly, like a bobblehead doll,
one that's hard of hearing.
This is not the vision that the Arena sold us on as we trekked across the river for several
years to the unfriendly confines of Crystal City or the far reaches of U Street (where at least there was a nightlife to speak
of). Then it was about community; now it seems they have an agenda for America.
As a critical and economic enterprise, it has been uninspiring.
Other than their opening show Oklahoma! - that they milked like a cash cow on and off for half a year - on their
own they've mounted little of interest and less of financial success. True Chicago companies have come regularly
with their own productions, and the touring companies use Arena's facilities whenever there's a lull, but as a resident
theater company, Arena's been a dud. This season offers a nice microcosm of the new normal: a dated backstage comedy,
one old-new play and one new and forgettable farce, two co-productions, a magic act, a "festival" tricked out with
a couple of classics, and another famous musical to recoup their losses (hopefully).
After bleeding red environmentally and economically, it seemed
natural to book the actual play Red. Using once again the broad shoulders of The Windy City and the success
of the play's recent Broadway-run, the Pulitzer Prize-winner for drama looked like so much of a lock, the Arena jacked
up its ticket prices. All seats are 75 bucks, 85 on the weekend. All things are aligned for a big payout. Except
for one problem: At 100 minutes, this flimsy (2 characters with 35 pages of dialogue) and overrated script is all about spectacle.
As a biodrama of Mark Rothko and commentary on the 1950s art movement, it says next to nothing; and what it says is flat out
wrong. But don't take my word for it. Read what the cultural critic of The Washington Post had to say about the dramatic license taken with the artist and his time. DC-area audiences may line up for this over-designed
fantasy, but if they do, it will say more about the psychology of crowds and the effectiveness of marketing than it does about
the excellence of theater. Yes, the play features an outstanding lead actor, but you can see his talents displayed around
town in much better productions, at a fraction of the cost. And if you want to add Red to your theatergoing
background, well, 2-man shows are a staple of smaller venues, where they'll figure out a way to splash paint on a canvas
for an hour-and-a half.
When your favorite resident or regional theater wants to take it to the next level - and
asks your help to make it happen - just Remember What Happened on Maine.
© John F. Glass, February 10, 2012