Branch-office culture

How non-profit regional arts lost their claim to those adjectives.
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Carmen Cusack as Nellie Forbush in 'South Pacific' at the 5th Avenue Theatre

How non-profit regional arts lost their claim to those adjectives.

One of the exciting ideas of a generation ago was the notion of nonprofit regional theaters. The idea swept the country, with the Seattle Repertory Theater, started in 1963, as a prime example. Nonprofit was meant to be contrasted with Broadway-oriented fare; "regional" meant attention to local actors, playwrights, and themes. As with public broadcast, you were to have an antidote to the commercial "wastelands."

As Sarah Palin might say, How'd that nonprofit thing-y work out? Not very well. As with college football, the idea turned more into a feeder program for Broadway. Seattle theaters, particularly the Rep and Intiman, have made much of the fact that their directors, like Dan Sullivan and Bart Sher, had one foot firmly planted in Broadway and often used the regional theaters to develop shows that were headed to the Great White Way. Likewise, shows that were hits in New York were soon imported to local stages.

A good example was the recent touring show of "South Pacific." It was a fun-house mirror: here was Bart Sher, late of Intiman, doing a show in New York that then toured to Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, with Sher on hand fundraising for Intiman. (Not a very good touring production, in my view, though maybe it was just because expectations were too high after the New York raves.) One barely knew whom to hold accountable.

It turns out, according to a story in The New York Times, that the "South Pacific" venture made $96 million for its backers, including the Public Theater and Lincoln Center Theater. Now these two non-profit theater companies are getting more seriously into producing shows for Broadway and for touring versions. Next up: the new musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," which ran at the Public this spring. The Public, through its for-profit arm, will raise $2.2 million to buy a 50 percent stake in capitalization costs of the musical, joining private investors in the venture.

At one level, and aided by the new technology, you have a kind a re-nationalization of American arts. Just as local-variant coffee shops are now supplanted in part by generic Starbucks (sometimes masquerading as local variants), so you have local theater companies testing out shows for national markets. This soon becomes a drug for audiences, who won't pay serious ticket prices for shows that don't have a marquee national name associated with them.

Still, I sense there is a swinging back of this pendulum. The Rep recently decided against another "name" director (meaning strong New York credits), seeking stability by reconnecting with the local acting pool by picking Jerry Manning, who is more known as an artistic director of the enterprise (helping others flourish) than as a stage director. ACT's innovative approach of selling $25 monthly memberships, rather than just season subscriptions, is meant to revive an adventurous audience, who takes chances on unknown plays, work-shopped versions, as well as full-bore productions.

Seattle arts, more than most cities, have long had a New York orientation. Speight Jenkins at the Opera, Gerard Schwarz at the Symphony, Peter Boal (and before him Kent Stowell and Francia Russell), all came here from New York City. Shouldn't there be a richer artistic DNA for a "world city"? (An example is the way Los Angeles looked to Latin America for its new symphony conductor.) And shouldn't we eventually have the self confidence to cherish our regional distinctiveness more?


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