A very good friend of mine began a successful tenure as the p.r. director of the Long Wharf Theatre in 1986, one year after I’d taken up the comparable position at Hartford Stage. He came blazing out of the gate with a barrage of stories and features in the first few months he was there. But as their third play approached, he called me for some peer-to-peer counseling. With a worried tone, he said, “Howard, my first show was All My Sons with Ralph Waite of The Waltons. My second show was Camille with Kathleen Turner. Now I’ve just got a new play by an unknown author without any stars in it. What do I do?”
My reply: “Welcome to regional theatre.”
Now as that anecdote makes clear, famous names are hardly new in regional theatre, though they’re somewhat infrequent in most cases. In my home state of Connecticut, Katharine Hepburn was a mainstay at the American Shakespeare Theatre in the 1950s, a now closed venue where I saw Christopher Walken as Hamlet in the early 80s. The venerable Westport Country Playhouse ran for many years with stars of Broadway and later TV coming through regularly; when I worked there in the 1984 and 1985 seasons, shows featured everyone from Geraldine Page and Sandy Dennis to David McCallum and Jeff Conaway. I went to town promoting Richard Thomas as Hamlet in 1987 at Hartford. The examples are endless.
So I should hardly be surprised when, in the past week, I have seen a barrage of coverage of Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire with True Blood’s Joe Manganiello, or Joan Allen’s return to Steppenwolf, for the first time in two decades, in The Wheel. Indeed, I make the assumption, even the assertion, that they were cast because they were ideal for their roles, not out of any craven attempt to boost box office (Manganiello has even played the role on stage before, and of course Allen is a Steppenwolf veteran). I truly hope they both have great successes. But the stories are coming fast and furious (here’s an Associated Press piece on Allen and an “In Performance” video with Manganiello from The New York Times).
I have to admit, what once seemed a rare and wonderful opportunity to me as a youthful press agent gives me pause as a middle-aged surveyor of the arts scene. Perhaps it’s the proliferation of outlets that make these star appearances in regional theatre seem more heightened, with more attention when they happen. And that’s surely coupled with my ongoing fears about where regional arts coverage fits in today’s entertainment media priorities, which by any account are celebrity driven.
At a time when Broadway is portrayed as ever more star-laden (it has always been thus, but seems to have reached a point where a successful play without stars is the rarity), I worry that this same star-focus is trickling down. Certainly Off-Broadway is filled with “name” actors, so isn’t it reasonable that non-NYC companies would be desirous of the attention made possible by casting actors with the glow of fame? If Broadway maintains sales for plays by relying on stars, it’s not unreasonable for regional companies to want to compete in the same manner against the ongoing onslaught of electronic entertainment.
Again, I doubt any company is casting based solely by name, like some mercenary summer stock producer of bygone days, but one cannot help but worry about the opportunities for solid, working actors to play major leads when Diane Lane takes on Sweet Bird of Youth at The Goodman or Sam Rockwell plays Stanley Kowalski at Williamstown. Aren’t there veteran actors who deserve a shot at those roles? Yet why shouldn’t those stars, proven in other media, have the opportunity to work on stage, especially if it benefits nor-for-profit companies at the box office without compromising artistic integrity?
I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth here, and I know it. But I go back to the essence of my friend’s quandary back in 1986: what do regional theatres do when they don’t have stars? They go back to serving only their communities, which is their first and foremost priority, but they fall back off the radar of what remains of the national media that might allocate any space to stage work outside of New York. They have raised the expectations of their audiences, who love seeing famous folk in their town, on their stages, then can’t always meet them. Are theatres inadvertently contributing to a climate in which celebrity counts first and foremost? How then does the case get made for the perpetual value of the companies that either don’t – or never could – attract attention by working with big names.
Theatres play into this with their own marketing as well; it’s not solely a media issue. Even when they rigorously adhere to alphabetical company billing in programs and even ads, their graphics usually manage to feature famous faces (notably, Yale’s Streetcar does not). Though in some cases, even the billing barrier has fallen, acknowledging the foolishness in trying to pretend someone famous isn’t at the theatre, it grates a bit when regional theatres place actors “above the title” in ads or use the word “starring,” when ensemble was once the emphasis. When the season brochure comes out for the following season, or seasons, which actors seem to recur in photos, for years after their sole visit?
This past February, The New York Times placed a story about celebrity casting on its front page, as if it were something new, and ensuing reportage seemed to carry a whiff of condescension about the casting of stars in Broadway shows. Though when the Times‘ “The New Season” section came out two weeks ago, who was on the front page of it? James Bond – excuse me, Daniel Craig. Celebrity counted there as well. Because it sells.
In a week when Off-Broadway shows like The Old Friends, Mr. Burns and Fetch Clay, Make Man opened to very strong reviews, it’s worth noting that none featured big box office stars, and that as of yet, none have been announced for commercial transfers. Their quality is acknowledged, but perhaps quality alone is not enough to sustain the productions beyond their relatively small-sized venues. Time will tell. While that’s no failure, it suggests that theatre is evolving into two separate strata, unique from the commonly cited divisions of commercial/not-for-profit or Broadway/Off-Broadway/regional. Perhaps the new distinction for theatre has become “star” or “no-star.” And if that’s the case, I think it bodes ill for the health of not-for-profit companies, the vitality of audiences, and for anyone who seeks to spend their life acting, but may never get that TV show or movie that lifts them into the realm of recognition, or even higher, into fame.
Incidentally, can anyone say, quickly, who’s playing Blanche at Yale? Because, in case you forgot, the play is really about Blanche. Not the werewolf.