Tear It Up or Tear It Down

October 25th, 2010 § 0 comments

Of late, I begin most of my days trawling the Internet, searching for intriguing theatre stories that largely escape the glare of the usual purveyors of stage news. I am, in this chore, curating the American Theatre Wing’s Twitter feed, as a supplement to the company’s work, looking for stories that complement our interests; when I find a story that’s a bit offbeat, off-topic or which seems to call out for a prefatory opinion, I tweet it as  myself.

My highly unstructured survey of each day’s theatre journalism is driven almost entirely by the relatively indiscriminate Google News. As a result, I am rapidly surveying screen after screen of headlines assembled because they include, or are attached to articles which contain, the word “theater” or “theatre,” depending upon the stylebook of the individual publication. On the average day, I’m scanning about 500 headlines and making snap judgments about whether to read an article, and then again whether to share it more broadly.

This gives me a particular and perhaps peculiar overview of what’s “making news” in theatre, yet it has consistently yielded a type of story, and therefore a type of theatre activity, which seems to be happening on a daily basis: theatres are either being demolished, slated for demolition, or saved from demolition and restored by either government agencies or community action. Having realized that these stories are so commonplace, in cities and towns both large and small, they rarely appear in either The Wing tweets or my own, since the net effect would be as repetitive as finding the stories about them has turned out to be.

If you’re at all familiar with my writing, you might well expect me to have a knee jerk reaction: elated at restorations, heartened by stays of execution, worried about potential razings and despondent over losses. But in point of fact, that’s not the case.

I am pleased that each and every venue written about has seemingly provoked such passion within the community where it exists. People seem to genuinely treasure theatres, the older the better, even long-shuttered ones, be they legit houses or movie palaces. Whatever the circumstances, they provoke wistful editorials of bygone glory days as well as hopeful declarations about how a revitalized theatre can in turn reenergize the real estate and community around it. Indeed, the mantra of a theatre as a center for economic development seems to have infiltrated the general consciousness. Those stories that I stop to read are replete with tales of other communities that preserved their heritage and their economic base by causing theatres to rise up to their past vitality, as the basis for rallying the troops to save the venue in question.

And that’s where my skepticism sets in.

Can it be true that in each and every case where a theatre was saved from the wrecking ball and lovingly brought not simply up to code, but back to its architects’ original intent, downtowns have truly been saved? Is there really enough quality entertainment on tour or being produced in each of these locales to motivate the populace to once again fill the theatres as they did in the heydays when they were built three-quarters of a century ago, 100 years past, or even earlier? Does every feasibility study generated miraculously discover hordes of people ready to abandon their LCD TVs, their Wiis, and their generally busy schedules to gather together as in halcyon days for the marvel that is live performance? No question, it would certainly be nice to think so. And no question, it has worked in many places. But I worry.

I worry that theatres built for another era, when population, demographics and entertainment options were different, are being saddled with at times unreasonable expectations; that after the opening celebrations fade, they will once again decline in popularity and vitality. I worry that theatre companies will be persuaded to participate in the dreams of a municipality or developer that don’t really suit their needs creatively. I worry that if you rebuild it, they will not come.

This pessimism is infused not by a dark cloud that has suddenly hijacked my love for and faith in the power of theatre. It comes from article after article in which the sole focus is the building itself, not the art or entertainment necessary to make it viable. Articles that have heralded the rebuilt and expanded Arena Stage are not the examples of which I speak, because that project was undertaken by a vibrant and ongoing artistic institution that was expanding to meet its needs. It’s the projects in small, out of the way towns, and those disconnected from clear creative impulse and need which I fear may one day tip the scales of economic development away from restoring theatres, because one too many has failed to measure up.

At this point, I should interject that I love old theatres, and could spend hours exploring their nooks and crannies. As The Tony Awards have surveyed most every venue in New York of late, I have marveled at how theatres have been shoehorned into unusual physical configurations, and I have been as thrilled at finding vintage lighting panels which (reportedly) still function as I have been at seeing ceilings stripped of grime to reveal painted constellations, or freshly imagined in the spirit of vintage artwork.

I love the trip back in time I take whenever I visit Goodspeed, restored some 45 years ago in the spirit in which it was built in the 1870s; harbor deep emotion for the unsightly food terminal that is home to Long Wharf, where I did some of my earliest theatergoing; and I am eager to see what the renovations at Hartford Stage have meant to a building in which I learned my trade. My emotional investment is considerable.

But it’s another Connecticut venue that fuels my concern for the daily litany I survey of projects completed, underway or proposed nationally: the Connecticut Shakespeare Theatre. This 1200 seat structure, perched where the Housatonic River meets Long Island Sound, was, for a time from the 50s through the 70s, a serious attempt to rival theatres in other Stratfords — those in Canada and England. For theatergoers of a certain age in southern New England, the mere mention of the spot brings memories of shows starring Morris Carnovsky and Katharine Hepburn, of school trips that were first encounters with Shakespeare. But the Connecticut theatre reportedly operated for many years reliant on the largesse of a few wealthy patrons who kept it going even as audiences shifted their allegiance to upstart regional theatres in Stamford (The Hartman, itself now gone), New Haven and elsewhere; when those patrons passed away, so did the theatre, leaving bars, motels and shops named for a Bard who had fled.

I wish the Stratford CT effort well, just as I wish every theatrical endeavor well. But I fear that at least some of the theatre revivals I read about every day are not truly theatrical endeavors, but are instead real estate deals. You can take any room, most any building, and make theatre in it, but when you restore “A Theatre,” only live performance can take place in it. I hope that anyone involved in preserving and restoring theatres, or pleading for their renewal or survival, remembers that to keep a theatre alive, there must be the act of theatre to fill it. Because if there aren’t performers to “tear up the stage,” as we sometimes read about performances, then perhaps it might just be time to tear that theatre down, rather than let it serve, as too many do, as boarded up eyesores, or as the imagined, reinvigorated home of unidentified plays and players.

Sometimes, it’s best to let the past give way to the present and future, and instead of clinging to buildings filled with memories and ghosts, build wholly anew, for today’s theatre groups, so that they may flourish.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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