Monday, June 28, 2010

More Discussion on the Theater Capital Dilemma

The recent buzz about Chicago being the US's "theater capital" has caused an upheaval in this city and beyond. It has changed the way that we think about ourselves in the national stage. But more importantly it raises some bigger questions. Kris Vire wrote a very thoughtful article in the TimeOut Chicago blog last week about the potential harm a New York production of David Cromer's production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Vire argues that while good for promoting Chicago's image and product, many times when productions go to New York, the stars don't come back to Chicago.

Another point he makes is about theatrical tourism. If Chicago is the theater capital as everyone is saying, why are we farming out our productions to New York. His best statment of the whole article comes in the last paragraph:

So what if, instead of continuing the New York–centric 20th-century model, we make our city a theater tourism destination? With others so willing to call Chicago the real theater destination of North America, wouldn’t it be great if we embraced that label ourselves? What if theater audiences actually had to come to Chicago to see Chicago-style theater?

The answer to all of Vire's questions and suggestions is money. Why do the Chicago actors stay in New York? Because New York producers can pay them. Why do Chicago productions move to New York? Because the New York model is set up to make money - the Chicago model is build to develop plays and reside in the community. In New York, everyone is constantly looking for the next big thing. And whether it be in business, dating, or theater they are always going to go to something that is going to advance them in some way. And whether that next big thing is from Chicago or London, the only thing they care about is making a buck and getting the position and standing to make more on the next one.

This, incidently, is why New Yorkers go to the theater (implying a physical building) whereas Chicagoans go to the theatre (a institution of culture made up of a company of artists).

Yes, we would love to see our actors and designers paid for what they do. Yes, our city would love the revenue that theatrical tourism would bring. It would be amazing to be an important industry like theater is in New York. To get that sort of attention and national attention. But what would we have to give up to attain that?

Few people are going to travel to Chicago to see a play. Even fewer are going to come to see a play that does not have a big star in the leading role. And no one will ever come to Chicago just to see a storefront production unless they personally know someone who is playing in the piece. Look at the problems that New York is having marketing shows without a big name in on the marquee. In Chicago we're already complaining about Goodman and Chicago Shakes bringing in outside talent - does anyone think that will get better if we suddenly become a tourism destination?

Do we really want to change our theatre community that much? Do we really want to give up the sense of ensemble-ship and our position as an incubator for compelling theatre? It is our community that has made us what we are. It is the ability for actors to find work and playwrights to find companies willing to make the investment and produce their work that have build our reputation as a theatre city. Sure, not everyone is "making it." Not everyone is performing at Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, or Writer's Theatre - but it is the hundreds of smaller companies and thousands of other actors that work their way up that make the upper level theatre that much better and the smaller theatres that much more important.

Let New York steal our productions and our actors. We'll know where they come from and that we were the city that instilled the heart before it made the money. And if we really want to change the landscape of theatre in these United States, isn't it more impressive to be able to say that we are providing New York with more successful actors and more profitable productions that New York can provide itself? Isn't it better to say that in order to get to New York you have to make it in Chicago first? While this model may not carry the big dollar amounts behind it, it's the type of theatrical stability I would like to see in this town.

Happy Birthday:
Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936)

1 comment:

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