Among a small subset of the theatre community in New York, this is The Whiny Season. I have named it thus because every April, as the crush of Broadway shows rush to open before the Tony eligibility deadline, as the not-for-profits rush to open the final show of their seasons, a small group of professionals find themselves compelled to attend the theatre almost nightly for two or three weeks – and on their Sunday or Monday evenings they meet up once again at the plethora of fundraising events that support both artistic and social service causes, all of which clamor to feature our best known musical performers as their entertainment.
As these professionals encounter each other, their first conversational gambit is invariably about the volume of theatre to be seen, usually accompanied by the phrase, “Wow, it’s never been like this before.” I find that phrase pretty amusing, because I hear it annually – each year is always the busiest, the craziest, the most demanding. The evidence, when examined, would quickly prove that most years are about the same, give or take two or three shows, but as they say, the memory can play tricks.
I have not set out to chastise those who bemoan the loss of their evenings for a few weeks due to a preponderance of theatrical riches (and some cubic zirconia as well). I am one of their number, the recipient of these kvetchings, though not a contributor to them. I consider myself fortunate to have access to all of this work, and if I harbor any resentment at the commandeering of my schedule, it is only because I must see a proscribed set of plays in a certain time period, and that often results in my being unable to see other work of value. Most recently, I was disappointed to discover thatKin had closed at Playwrights Horizons, and I had not managed to get to it; I have a list of shows to be seen immediately after April 28, when my theatergoing becomes a matter of choice once again. The whining may cease around me, but my calendar won’t free up for weeks.
So why do I bring up an affliction that besets perhaps a few hundred people each spring, if not to sympathize or ridicule? I do so because I have begun to look at it as a curious social experiment: what happens when the act of doing something we love – seeing theatre – becomes compulsory, becomes work? It can quickly become a chore, especially if you factor in such minor distractions as late season flus, remaining connected with your family, keeping up with your magazine subscriptions, or getting your daily work completed. The very act that has led you to your chosen profession is transformed into a checklist of commitments to be met, rather than entertainments to be enjoyed or intellectual challenges to be considered. And that, I have to say, is indeed unfortunate.
For some time, I have divided my theatergoing into three types: compulsory (anything that is Tony eligible, to be seen in close proximity to its opening), essential (the work of anyone who may be a guest on one of the Wing’s media programs soon or in the future), and the rarest of the three, shows I simply want to see (some of which certainly fall into the prior two categories). I like to think I go to everything with the same sense of anticipation that accompanied my forays to the TKTS booth while a college student, I hope my mind remains open to the experience the artists want me to have, rather than facing the work with a head filled with gossip, news accounts, last week’s grosses and the like.
But I must say that compulsory theatergoing is anathema to the true experience of theatergoing, precisely because we might fight the desensitization to the very thing we love. Perhaps, as in romance, it is impossible to retain the flush of first love, of passion, that marks each new beginning. At middle age, I enjoy having evenings at home, and as I’ve written in various quarters before, I think we actually become better theatergoers if our world is not proscribed by that of the stage; we can appreciate theatre more completely if we follow the news and consume a variety of other culture, high and low, live or digital. Our appreciation may in fact grow from not spending too much time in theatre, because we bring that other knowledge and those other sensibilities with us when we do encounter new creative works for the stage.
I was, in my youth, a voracious theatergoer and I think any young person pursuing a career in this business or any affiliated field should adopt a similar approach. My motto in those days was, “If it’s free, it’s for me,” and I saw work I would never have ventured into under other circumstances. The irony, of course, is that it is only at my age that one has developed the professional and personal relationships which remove the burdensome cost of theatergoing from the equation; those who would most benefit from an onslaught of theatre in their formative years (and I mean their 20s, and perhaps their late teens), have the hardest time seeing it. We all focus our energies on getting schoolchildren to experience the wonder of theatre in order to plant the seed, but we fail to water that young plant (to torture a metaphor) in the time closest to when it will begin to bear fruit.
I am often asked, enviously, about how one becomes a Tony voter; I have nieces who believe I have the world’s greatest job; I have friends who still don’t quite get that for the past eight years, I have had to see – and have indeed seen – every show that has opened on Broadway, along with a variety of Off-Broadway and regional work, and they marvel anew each time I remind them. That is why I face The Whiny Season with equal parts bemusement and annoyance at those who editorialize so freely about the great chore that faces them. After all, isn’t a key factor behind our work in the theatre the fact that we loved seeing theatre and wanted to be a part of it? While it is as regular as typhoon season, or tornado season, The Whiny Season is not a natural occurrence, but a product of our own making and our own desires, I cannot evangelize against it for fear of becoming a boor and a bore, I can say that I hope that the whiners will look beyond their busy calendar and some minor sleep deprivation and remember why it is that they go to the theatre. If it proves to much, if you have become too jaded, too cynical or simply too overwhelmed, know that there are ranks of theatergoers, the people we work to serve, who would happily step into your shoes and, I hope, be forever inoculated from the debilitating scourge of compulsory theatergoing, since it is in fact a privilege, not a burden.
In an era where Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare and the like make it easy to apprise thousands of people at once as to my theatergoing, I want to say (although I was taunted for doing so over the weekend on Facebook) that after 30 some years of avid theatergoing, I still go to the theatre with an open mind and high expectations, and there is no greater joy than seeing something I might have otherwise avoided, and finding it not just good, but great. Indeed, I recently recounted for the actress Laurie Metcalf my story of seeing Balm in Gilead some 25 years ago only in order to help a friend lay off the expense of an extra ticket he held, and emerging having seen an exceptional and still vividly remembered piece of theatre.
I end our podcast “Downstage Center” every week with the phrase, “No matter where you live, I hope we’ll see you at the theatre.” After saying it for almost 100 programs, it remains utterly true. And I hope we’re both there, even if we have to be, because we want to be.
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As a final note, let me say that the aggregation of openings in April, and sometimes in November as well, is the result of many factors, both economic and strategic. To tease apart the many strands behind this agglomeration of theatrical activity in compressed periods is a separate topic altogether, more suited for a graduate course in arts management and producing than for this blog. Its foundation is both practical and perceptual, but I have chosen to opine only on its effects, not its causes.
This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.
April 19th, 2011 § 0 comments