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How to build an audience
It was billed as a panel discussion on the challenges facing modern American theater, but it unfolded with the feel of a two-act play. Act I could have been entitled The Perils of a Theater Career. Act II: The Show Must Go On.
The audience consisted of about 30 students who turned out on a spring afternoon to hear the stories of three artistic directors from regional theaters, all Boston College graduates. Entitled “Tough Decisions: Leading the American Theater in the 21st Century,” the symposium was held April 26 in Gasson Hall and sponsored by the theater department. David Dower, the head of artistic programs at ArtsEmerson in Boston, moderated; he opened by asking each panelist to talk about a moment of great challenge.
Kate Maguire ’77, the artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG), told of being hired to run the Berkshire Theatre Festival 16 years ago and having to work with a 50-member board of directors. “There was one really powerful woman, and . . . 49 people who were basically there for cocktail hour,” she said. At the end of her second season, Maguire recalled, the board chair took her aside and told her, “We hate everything you did,” singling out a play written by Orson Welles in the early 1950s called Moby Dick—Rehearsed. Maguire was mystified. “I said, ‘Moby Dick? The one that was based on a story by Melville, who lived in the Berkshires? I thought that was a good idea.'” The board chair’s response: “We like happy endings, and stars.”
“The next season,” Maguire said, “I opened with Camelot” and began a gradual process of “educating the audience”—adding unfamiliar pieces into a more traditional summer lineup. In the current season, the BTG is staging several premieres, including Edith, a drama about the wife of President Woodrow Wilson, along with standards such as A Thousand Clowns and A Chorus Line. “It took about 10 years to get to the point where I feel like I present the plays to the board, and they trust me,” Maguire said. She also noted that over that decade she helped reshape the board, making it smaller (it currently has 38 members) and more participatory. In addition, she oversaw the 2011 merger between the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield to form the Berkshire Theatre Group, an organization with five theaters in three towns.
Tony Taccone ’72, the artistic director since 1997 of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California, noted that “artistic directors live in this place between the artists and the public.” His moment of great challenge came, he said, in the fall of 2002, five years into his tenure. “We had three shows in a row that tanked”—for various reasons. One play, John Guare’s 1966 The House of Blue Leaves, was a dark comedy that included a terrorist bomber in Queens, New York. Poor ticket sales suggested it was too soon after September 11, 2001, to find humor in this subject. The other failed productions foundered upon irreconcilable differences between Taccone and their directors. “My general manager is walking around saying things like ‘We’re hemorrhaging!'” he recalled.
Taccone was by then well established—he had commissioned Tony Kushner’s Angels in America while at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre in the 1980s—and when one of his Berkeley Repertory board members—a Bay Area entrepreneur—told him, “We pay you to take risks—keep taking them,” he rededicated the company to “doing out-of-the-box stuff and taking advantage of . . . our audience, which is highly educated and actually can handle a work of metaphor,” Taccone said. Recent productions include not only last year’s Three Sisters by Chekov, but also the 2009 world premiere of the musical American Idiot and the 2010 premiere of Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead. “Now we don’t sell play titles, we sell artists,” Taccone said.
Paul Daigneault ’87, the artistic director and founder of SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston, recalled a telling comment made by Broadway actress Alice Ripley at a recent SpeakEasy event. Ripley said young people going into theater should think of their career as a lighted candle, Daigneault recounted. “Other people will try to blow out your candle, and you’ve got to keep it burning.” To which Taccone added, “and there’s wax dripping on your hand, and the wax hurts your hand.”
Both Daigneault and Maguire said coping with fear of flops is part of the job. “If I choose a show, and I’m not afraid of it in some way, I think there’s something wrong,” Daigneault said. Maguire said her planning with colleagues always involves asking, “‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ And there are probably six worst things that can happen, and we prepare for all six,” from poor ticket sales to losing an actor to the kitchen staff quitting.
When the discussion shifted from risks to rewards, the panelists made it clear they love their work. Taccone described the satisfaction of bringing an artistic vision to the stage. “The look on an artist’s face, a playwright, an actor, a director, when you realize their work. . . . You are trying to pursue deep truths through the prism of each other.”
Maguire spoke of the possibility of an audience member transformed. She recently learned that one of her colleagues had abandoned moral judgments about gays after seeing the BTG’s production of Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! “I thought, ‘That’s why I do this,'” Maguire said.
The panelists also rejected the notion that theater is endangered by the proliferation of other media. “As long as I’ve been alive, theater has been dying,” Taccone said. “It’s not dying, but it’s changing.” As productions incorporate increasingly sophisticated sound, lighting, and video effects, there are more opportunities for talented—and technically savvy—young people to break in.
That message wasn’t lost on John Delfino ’12, who for the past year has been volunteering in the SpeakEasy lighting department. Like most theater students, he started out at Boston College hoping for an acting career but came to realize the technical aspects are “no less creative. You’re not any less involved in the theatrical process when you’re not on stage.”
Dave Denison is a Boston-based writer.
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