"Democracy. " "The History Boys. " "Shining City. " "Blackbird. " "The Lieutenant of Inishmore. " "I Am My Own Wife. " "Well. " What do these...
“Democracy.” “The History Boys.” “Shining City.” “Blackbird.” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.” “I Am My Own Wife.” “Well.”
What do these plays have in common? All were recent, nonmusical hit plays on London and New York stages, and have won or been nominated for major American (Tony Award, Pulitzer Prize) and/or British (Olivier Award) honors.
Oh, and one other thing.
Despite kudos elsewhere, these scripts — by writers famous (Martin McDonagh) and lesser-known (Christopher Shinn) — have not yet been seen at any of Seattle’s three largest professional playhouses — Seattle Repertory Theatre, ACT Theatre or Intiman Theatre. And several were (or will be) produced on a quite modest scale at much smaller local companies, or at local colleges and universities.
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Used to be the big houses swiftly snapped up the plays with the greatest national buzz. But that has palpably shifted in recent seasons.
Example: Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” was acclaimed on Broadway and London’s West End, and earned a 2006 Tony Award. The seriocomic play about striving British schoolboys and their unorthodox teacher seemed a shoo-in for a future Seattle Rep season.
And which company is presenting the Seattle premiere? Much to my own surprise, ArtsWest, a modest-sized (but ambitious and alert) West Seattle cultural hub.
ArtsWest is also producing the local debuts of the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit “I Am My Own Wife,” and in 2008-09, “History Boys” and recent Tony nominee “Well” by Lisa Kron.
Meanwhile, the scrappy Seattle Public Theater has introduced Off Broadway hits on its small-scaled stage at the Bathhouse Theatre, including Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero” and Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain.” Next season, SPT will mount Deborah Zoe Laufer’s award-winning black comedy “End Days.” Meanwhile, in Olympia, Harlequin Productions presents the area debut of Conor McPherson’s Broadway success, “Shining City.” And last year the University of Washington staged a student version of “Our Lady of 121st Street” — the first local production of a play by the very hot New York writer Stephen Adly Guirgis.
So what’s the problem? As long as heavily touted plays get done sometime, somewhere, in the near vicinity, does it matter where?
Of course it does.
But before pondering why, let’s consider the often-complex, decidedly unscientific process of how the regional theaters select the scripts they stage.
How it’s done
The basics: The biggest regional theaters in a large city usually get first dibs on any contemporary hit play, because they can: 1) pay higher royalties to the author, 2) perform to larger audiences and 3) summon up more resources (financial and artistic) for the production.
Fine, but there can be complications. First of all, the rights to a touted new drama may be in limbo for years due to an extended New York run. Or held up by a planned national tour (which likely will not make it up to the northwest corner of the country). Or a pending movie or TV version.
When the rights are available, there’s still the matter of taste — which there is no accounting for and never will be. Even if audiences and critics elsewhere lapped up the play, and the playwright won a mantel full of awards, the artistic honchos at the Rep, ACT or Intiman may simply not like it.
If they do, the next big concerns are financial. Many is the time that a major Seattle theater paying professional wages has passed on a play because the size of the cast, amount of scenery and number of technicians added up to a budget-buster. (Such fiscal concerns were a factor in the loss of numerous once-vital, mid-sized professional companies — Empty Space, Group Theatre, Bathhouse Theatre and Alice B. Theatre.)
There’s also the behind-the-scenes financial pressure on artistic directors to conjure some magical “balance” in a season. It’s a dubious attempt to control fate, but there’s still pressure to schedule just the right mix of comedy and tragedy, classics and new works, familiar authors and obscure ones, riskier ventures (including world premieres of untried scripts) — a formula that would (theoretically) keep subscribers happy and pump up the box office.
Small and fringe troupes have fiscal worries too, but greater flexibility. Royalties on an acclaimed play will cost them less, the actors will earn less and the expectations audiences have in terms of production values may be lower. With lower financial stakes, a smaller theater can risk putting more of its own spin on a script, and there’s a nice shot of prestige (and boost to ticket sales) if you’re the first spot in town to snag a much-publicized work.
But what about the audience? Is “History Boys” going to be as good at ArtsWest as it might have been at ACT or Seattle Rep?
Seeing it will certainly be cheaper: The top ticket to the Rep is $59 these days (with assorted discounts for seniors, young people and subscribers). The best seat in the house at ArtsWest? $29.
Here’s the rub: Can a smaller company match the artistic level of an A-class production at Intiman, the Rep or ACT?
Yes, with luck, pluck and creativity. And no, if the demands of the script are simply beyond a company’s grasp.
The “little guys”
Consider “The History Boys.” It requires a large crew of very well-trained, gifted and boyish male actors who can rip through the fast-paced, erudite dialogue and ace the South Yorkshire accents. Though one wishes ArtsWest well, the company’s artistic record with larger plays is spotty.
On the other hand, Seattle Public Theater did a bang-up job on the smaller-cast “Lobby Hero.” And the advanced drama students at University of Washington and Cornish College for the Arts, under their teachers’ tutelage, have given first-rate interpretations of challenging new fare.
Now, with our larger theaters concentrating more on hatching new plays, and doing more (and more elaborate) classic dramas, maybe it’s fine that the “little guys” are taking up the slack.
But our fringe troupes are in a great position to scout and take more risks on edgy young talent, and one hopes they grab that mandate. I also can’t help but wish the Rep or ACT had a swing at “History Boys” first. And who should get first dibs on such current sensations as Pulitzer Prize-winner “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts, Off Broadway’s “Blackbird” by David Harrower and M. Elizabeth Osborn Award-winner “Gee’s Bend” by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder? I hope they wind up on whichever stage can truly do them justice.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org