Oliver Herford & Celebrities of Yore

Exterior of The Players Club in New York City.  Photo taken in 2010.
The Players’ Club, #16 Gramercy Park Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Players (or the Players Club) is a private social club. It was founded in 1888 in New York City by actor Edwin Booth. Booth was often regarded as the greatest actor of his time. It was created in response to a perception that the theatre suffered due to a lack of interaction with the wider world of culture, literature, and art.

Booth purchased a mansion at 16 Gramercy Park and turned it into a social club for an eclectic range of artists of all types with the intention of integrating membership from the international theatre community . The club continues to this day.

Oliver Herford (1860 – 1935) was an English writer, humorist, artist, and illustrator. He was a longtime member of The Players.

Oliver Herford
At a dinner, Oliver Herford found himself sitting next to a very serious young woman.
“Tell me, Mr. Herford,” she said. “Have you no ambition beyond making people laugh?”
“Yes, I have,” he replied. “And someday I hope to gratify it.”
“Please tell me,” she said eagerly! “What is it?”
He said, “I want to throw an egg into an electric fan.”

Herford wrote much more than just satire, but his writing and illustration as a humorist resonate more than a century later.

An electric fan in 1899

In 1899 he published An Alphabet of Celebrities. It was formatted like a children’s primer, but the content was trendy, witty, and farcical. It is filled with comedic jabs at every notable household name of the time. This included actors, playwrights, novelists, politicians, world leaders, Biblical personas, characters in popular fiction, and many more.

The entire book is illustrations. The printing process allowed only two colors of ink and included no half-tones. He captures the likenesses of celebrities and historical figures and manages to lampoon them in every kind of comedic state.

Click on the pages in the embedded media below to review the entire book.

B is for Bernhardt, who fails to awaken Much feeling in Bismark, Barabbas, and Bacon.

Sarah Bernhardt was one of the very most prominent and renowned stage actresses of her time plus a contemporary of Herford and fellow Players Club member.
Here, she seems to be sending current & historical leaders into comas, along with a
figure from the New Testament.

I is for Ibsen reciting a play while Irving and Ingersoll hasten away.

Playwright Henrik Ibsen was another contemporary of Herford, as was Actor Sir Henry Irving and writer Robert G. Ingersoll. This book is more than a whimsical tour through the alphabet; Herford is systematically razzing everyone in his circle.
When you look up photos of these people, the caricatures are spot-on, too!

Left-to-right: Robert G. Ingersoll, Sir Henry Irving, and Henrik Ibsen

Y is for Young, the great Mormon Saint, Who thinks little Yum Yum and Yvette so quaint, He has to be instantly held in restraint.

This one might be my favorite. Yvette Guilbert (born Emma Laure Esther Guilbert ) was a French cabaret singer and actress of the Belle Époque. Yum Yum is the heroine in The Mikado operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan (originally opened in 1885). Brigham Young, of course, was the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) from 1847 until his death in 1877 (not long before this publication). He had 55 wives and 56 children. Here he is so intent on pursuing Yvette and Yum Yum that he must be restrained by an unidentified police officer.

The internet makes the entire book into a rewarding scavenger hunt. Plugging each character name into a search results in (really nerdy) laughs.

I do not expect everyone who reads this to take the time to look up every character in this book.

But I know that some of you (and you already know who you are), most definitely, will.

Old World Spectacle

Our methods of producing spectacle evolve across the decades. New technology is not necessarily more miraculous than the older methods. Every era has its own special stage magic. 17th century Europe enjoyed theaters equipped with wing-and-drop scenery combined with the pole-and-chariot system.

Český Krumlov is in the southern Czech Republic. There, The Castle Theatre sits behind the moat near one wing of the castle. A Baroque theatre space with fully functioning machinery survives there today.

Baroque opera in the Castle Theatre in Cesky Krumlov (southern Czech Republic). Pole-and-chariot set change system, in support of a wing-and-drop set.

A pole-and-chariot system is a method for moving scenery. There are slots in the floor. Wall sections or other scenic elements are carried on vertical poles that extend down through the stage into a machine-room below-deck.

A wing-and-drop set is a set made up of shaped and painted 2D elements, usually fabric. These include vertical pieces on the side and horizontal pieces across the top. Together with a backdrop, they often include forced perspective to create the illusion of a grandiose interior or exterior. By changing the elements quickly with machinery, the entire setting is changed.

Feds Cite Slumping Broadway Sales but League Notes Growth – Facts Behind Stats

th-94Determining what is happening on Broadway at any given time can be especially confusing. Snapshots are often offered as are summaries but there’s rarely a view that is panoramic, all-inclusive, or devised in a manner that provides an accurate idea about what is occurring over a length of time.

What we know about Broadway is that overall ticket prices continue to rise and that grosses also continue to rise. What do those two basic stats mean and what else do we know? Those may be the billion dollar questions.

In an examination of ticket prices, box office revenues, and the fiscal health of The Great White Way, we can attempt to determine what is really occurring on Broadway. We’ll do so by citing reports from various sectors, considering what certain numbers mean over an extended period of time, and looking at the how and why of various facts. All of this is an attempt to separate real fact from fictive fact.

Broadway League’s Reports

th-93According to the New York Times, the Broadway League, which is the organization comprised of theatre owners, managers, and producers, announced that the 2015-2016 was, in essence, a fiscally successful one.

The Times reports that the league announced in May that there was a new record set for ticket sales this past season, as Broadway brought in $1.365 billion in business. Also, the League notes that more than 13 million people came to see Broadway shows this past season. The organization concluded that over the past two years attendance has risen by 13.3%.

But those figures need to be put into perspective. In 2012-2013, Broadway saw a dip in attendance, which was down 6.2%, as 11.6 million attended shows. The 40 theatres that comprise The Great White Way had sales totaling $1.14 billion. Interesting to note that despite attendance being down by more than 6%, grosses were only down by 0.1% from the previous year.

imgresThe next season, which was 2013-2014, 13.1 million went to Broadway shows, up from the previous year by 7%. But the growth over two years was only 0.8%. Revenues totaled $1.37 billion. Note that although over that two-year period growth was less than 1%, profits rose by about 22%.

With a 13.3% rise in attendance over the past two seasons, adjusting for the downward trend in 2013-2014, the three-year gain in attendance was a modest 2.1% per year. That’s minimal at best. How much have ticket sales risen in that three-year period?
First, it is interesting to note that contrary to what has been announced, Broadway did not break any box office records in 2014-2015. Sales fell from $1.37 billion in 2013-2014 to $1.365 billion in the most recent season. Thus, revenues were just about stable. The growth in Broadway grosses over three years would then be about 7.33% per season.

Revenue Tops Attendance

book 876In a three-years period, revenue growth topped growth in attendance by more than three-to-one. Those should be some of the figures on which we focus when determining exactly what is happening on Broadway. In essence, pricing is outpacing demand.

One thing to keep in mind is this- an audience member is always an audience member, but gross box office receipts that are reported without being adjusted for inflation are not an indication of fiscal health. The League’s report does not adjust for inflation, thus more revenue may not be the result of a thriving theatre industry.

What the Fed Says

fedIn recently published Fed Beige Books, which are released two weeks prior to each Fed policy announcement and which focus on the fiscal health of the 12 different regions of the U.S., the Fed noted that although the economy was expanding across the U.S., there were some exceptions and New York City and the Broadway theatre were part of those exceptions.

In one report, which was published in late July 2015 and after the Broadway league announcement concerning record growth, The Fed noted. “Tourism activity has shown further signs of slowing — particularly in New York City, where both hotels and Broadway theaters report slowing business and declining revenues, and a major retailer attributes recent weakness to reduced tourism.”

times squareIn their latest reports, issued on September 2, the Fed observed, “Tourism activity has generally remained soft, though there have been scattered signs of a pickup. In New York City, Broadway theatres note that attendance and revenues rebounded somewhat in the latter part of July but have slowed a bit in early August.”

Overall, Broadway looks to be sluggish and not as vibrant as some claim. Of course, the Broadway League is offering an overview of an entire season that ends in May, while the Fed reports cited are for May through August. That’s one reason for the contrasting views. However, there’s more to be gleaned here in terms of what the actual fiscal pulse of Broadway is.

A Closer Examination

It is worth considering why these two different entities may be offering contrasting points of view, and attempt to reconcile exactly what has been influencing Broadway’s rising box office sales of 7% over the past three years and what that rise in revenue and increase in attendance really mean.

Bread and Circuses – Does This Describe the State of Broadway?

th-69Some of the greatest theatre in the world can be seen on the Broadway stage. Also, some of the worst theatre in the world can be seen on the Broadway stage. In addition, Broadway does not have a monopoly when it comes to quality theatre. You can find amazing theatrical experiences Off-Broadway, and across American in various regional, university, and summer theatres. Of course, that’s not to mention theatre in other countries where, often, theatrical experiences eclipse those on Broadway.

Big Effect Theatre

th-76Broadway, in the last 30 years or so, has been consumed by the big effect. Sometimes that big effect has been accomplished simply, such as the original production of Pippin, and sometimes it’s been done using fairly extraordinary means, such as in shows like Miss Saigon, Evita, Wicked, and many other shows.

It’s easy to decry big effect theatre as being that and only that. But sometimes it is only that- the big effect. Still, there’s nothing to say that Broadway or any theatre should not utilize the big effect. The question is, though, at what price is it being used? That question is both a practical and artistic one.

Considering Theatre

th-70One question to ask about any show is does the play or musical really benefit from looming video screens, high-powered FX, and automated scenery that seems to do everything but spew lines and smile. The latest Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman (2012) opted to go with the original 1949 set designed by Jo Mielziner. It was noted that the set was used because Mielziner’s design specifically connected with the progression and development of the play and Willy’s character.

That doesn’t mean to say that Broadway should be about recycling ideas. The 2013 revival of The Glass Menagerie was noted for its fine acting as well as the atmosphere created and enhanced by the moat that surrounded the Wingfield apartment and the fire escape that seemed to disappear into the ether.

th-68Some thought that these new touches enhanced the play, while others felt that they made image and atmosphere more important than the language. This is the same sort of argument you might get for a play by Shakespeare being produced using the latest special effects.

If you’ve got a good script in hand, then it becomes a question of balance. If you’ve got a show on the boards with gaping holes, then the big effect can tend to become a superficial remedy but not a cure for what ails the production.

Big Effect Nothing New

th-72The big effect is nothing new. In the American theatre during the mid-19th into the early 20th centuries, the exciting effects in Ben Hur, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Black Crook, Under the Gaslight, and many other shows, thrilled audiences. These shows had fairly complex plots but often relied on two-dimensional characters.

Also, the extravaganza, which featured thrilling stage devices, special effects, and atmospheric enhancements, was in full gear. These shows often had thin plots and simple characters. They focused a lot of their energy on engaging audiences through spectacle.

Great Theatre at Low Costs

th-75One question to consider is might simplifying productions reduce ticket prices? This doesn’t mean lowering standards, but it does entail focusing more on the actual performance rather than the elements we use to enhance performance. The Medieval cycle plays often involved major special effects, while the English Renaissance theatre offered simple production elements, allowing the lines and acting to create the scene. Which of those types of plays are more likely to be produced on Broadway today?

th-74Perhaps we are past that type of bare bones presentation except in rare instances such as when Mark Rylance and company came to Broadway in 2013 and performed Richard III and Twelfth Night using basic production elements. Is this a more genuine theatre experience, or do we require everything that technology has to offer in order to be satisfied in the theatre? Should theatre become more like film, and if it is, is it still theatre, or should there be a movement towards ensuring the art form remains pure? (Whatever that means?)

These are questions worth asking, considering, and debating. Why? Because if we don’t stop and ask these questions then we’re mindlessly producing plays in a manner that is more akin to Mab Libs than art.


th-66The musical If/Then was a highly imaginative undertaking by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt. It was complex in thought and offered fairly interesting characters in life-changing situations. But when watching the production it was hard to stay connected to the show, as each scene, with it’s shifting, highly customized scenery, exacting lighting, and intensely orchestrated sound was so controlled that the actors were inhibited by those things that should be supporting their performances.

Were they really live performers or these beings having to conform to what stage technology allowed them to do? Simple things, such as the powerful use of diagonals, geometric configurations, and multilevel playing were nonexistent.

th-65Somehow this need to clutter a production with “something” steals the genuine, human energy from a show. If these are the types of productions that Broadway aspires to at an average ticket price of more that $100, then perhaps basic questions concerning what the theatre experience should prize the most should be asked.

You can’t help but think that If/Then and other Broadway shows would be better served by simplicity so that the play or the musical can play rather then be pushed along at breakneck speed.

th-71Then again, we get back to in what places we might really see and experience great theatre? Maybe that’s what Off-Broadway and other venues are all about, producing great theatre. Broadway may just be, for the most part, bread and circuses to stimulate our senses for a few hours, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Arts and Education’s Powerful Potential Still Undervalued in US

Is this the only way to learn something important or useful?

Is this the only way to learn something important or useful?

As schools, colleges, and universities begin the new academic year, it’s a good time to consider the arts and their connection to education. Last year one apparently well-intentioned administrator decided that the arts needed to take a backseat. This occurred when Interim Principal of the Harley Avenue Elementary School in Elmwood, which is located on Long Island, cancelled the annual kindergarten variety show. Why was it shutdown?

This was done because an accumulation of snow days resulted in lost instructional time. Some at the school felt that the kindergarten students had more important things to do than to perform in a show. What was that? They had to prep for college exams.

Interim Principal Ellen Best-Laimit

Interim Principal Ellen Best-Laimit

The explanation for the action arrived in a letter from Interim Principal Ellen Best-Laimit and four kindergarten teachers. The missive read, in part, “The reason for eliminating the kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, co-workers, and problem solvers.”

Perhaps Interim Principal Ellen Best-Laimit has never been tested by being on stage, or by having to develop an artistic skill, or by having to interpret dialogue or a piece of music? All of these endeavors do teach participants to be “strong readers, writers, co-workers, and problem solvers.”

Still, there are various educators who feel as if the arts are an add-on to the educational process. However, if pressed on the question “what sort of world would we have without the arts?” most would have to reply, if being honest, a rather empty and dull one.

What Do Some Business People Think?

Innovation and the arts go hand-in-hand.

Innovation and the arts go hand-in-hand.

What do some of the most important business leaders and innovative creators think about the arts? Here are just a few quotes.

“In my own philanthropy and business endeavors, I have seen the critical role that the arts play in stimulating creativity and in developing vital communities….the arts have a crucial impact on our economy and are an important catalyst for learning, discovery, and achievement in our country.”
Paul G. Allen, Co-Founder, Microsoft

“We need people who think with the creative side of their brains—people who have played in a band, who have painted…it enhances symbiotic thinking capabilities, not always thinking in the same paradigm, learning how to kick-start a new idea, or how to get a job done better, less expensively.”
Annette Byrd, GlaxoSmithKline

“It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”
Steve Jobs, in introducing the iPad 2 in 2011

“A broad education in the arts helps give children a better understanding of their world…We need students who are culturally literate as well as math and science literate.”
Paul Ostergard, Vice President, Citicorp

“Arts education aids students in skills needed in the workplace: flexibility, the ability to solve problems and communicate, the ability to learn new skills, to be creative and innovative, and to strive for excellence.”
Joseph M. Calahan, Director of Cooperate Communications, Xerox Corporation

What skills, innovative thinking, and creativity does it take to successfully produce a 17th century comedy?

What skills, innovative thinking, and creativity does it take to successfully produce a 17th century comedy?

“GE hires a lot of engineers. We want young people who can do more than add up a string of numbers and write a coherent sentence. They must be able to solve problems, communicate ideas and be sensitive to the world around them. Participation in the arts is one of the best ways to develop these abilities.”
Clifford V. Smith, President of the General Electric Foundation

“The rapidly evolving global economy demands a dynamic and creative workforce. The arts and its related businesses are responsible for billions of dollars in cultural exports for this country. It is imperative that we continue to support the arts and arts education both on the national and local levels. The strength of every democracy is measured by its commitment to the arts.”
Charles Segars, CEO of Ovation

Impact of Arts

Language, analytical, collaborative, and creative skills come together in a simple play reading.

Language, analytical, collaborative, and creative skills come together in a simple play reading.

In Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning, the only study of its kind conducted in the US, it was found that the arts had a major effect on a wide range of children, including those who are considered to be at risk. The study, which was undertaken by the Arts Education Partnership and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and funded by the GE Fund and the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation, found that “involvement with the arts provides unparalleled opportunities for learning, enabling young people to reach for and attain higher levels of achievement.”

Valuing the Total Effect

A phone, which is a collaborative product that developed by merging art  and technology, is an artistic, technological, and cultural portal.

A phone, which is a collaborative product that developed by merging art and technology, is an artistic, technological, and cultural portal.

The arts are just one element of a commitment to total education. That commitment includes academics, health and physical fitness, and social and cultural skills, as well as artistic endeavors. It is not preparing students to take tests and score high on them so that schools look good. Somehow we have been sidetracked as to what education is about. This may be a result of No Child Left Behind as well as the emphasis on the Common Core. But no one will care one bit about what any child got on a standardized exam when they grow up and have to perform in the workplace.

Rather than high grades on exams, they will want people who can think logically, creatively, and rationally while dedicating themselves to mastery in their field as they work towards innovative solutions, new ways of envisioning the future, and concrete methods dedicated to improving our lives. The arts can help cultivate that in everyone at any age.

Bad Behavior by American Theatre Audiences is Nothing New


Hand to God recently had an incident with an audience member.

So many reviewers, columnists, and performers are bemoaning the recent bad behavior of Broadway audiences. It’s as if having people in the audience who distract other audience members, upstage the show, and act in ways that detract from the live stage performance are something new. These actions are not. Such behavior is actually normal in the American theatre. If, somehow, you manage to not have anyone act inappropriately, then you truly have had a special live theatre experience.

Often Isolated

Ideal audience?

Ideal audience?

At any given performance of any play, there are small, isolated displays of rudeness by audience members. Most are fairly innocuous and go unnoticed by the majority of those in attendance, monitoring the house, and performing on stage.

Incidents such as unwrapping and consuming food, using chewing tobacco, commenting on the action or a line in a play, or discussing the day’s events with a friend are done habitually and have been a part of the theatre for centuries. Note, none of these types of poor behavior involve technology. Incidents with technology have been occurring for less than a half-century.

Audience Control

Park Theatre was known for rudeness.

Park Theatre was known for rudeness.

Controlling audience behavior and encouraging proper decorum has been an issue in the US since the late 18th century. Many critics and commentators, including Washington Irving, Walt Whitman, and Frances Trollope, wrote about the audacity, poor manners, and outrageous actions of audiences in New York, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and other parts of the country.

In 1802 that when he went to see a show at the Park Theatre in New York City, Irving wrote, “Although constables were stationed in the gallery to keep order, they did not do so. The gallery gods whistled, shouted, hissed, and groaned. They showered spectators in the pit with apples, nuts, and gingerbread. The spectators in the boxes were not so noisy but for them too playgoing was a social occasion. The belles simpered and coquetted. The beaux studiously wielded their glasses and ostentatiously ignored the play. The men in the pit suffered drip from the chandelier and barrages from the gallery, but their own behavior was not the best; they stood on the benches before the curtain went up like spectators at a football game before the kick-off.”

Frances Trollope

Frances Trollope

Trollope, who went to theatre throughout the U.S. in the early to mid-nineteenth century, was in the nation’s capital during a performance when she observed, “One man in the pit was seized with a violent fit of vomiting, which appeared to not in the least to surprise of annoy his neighbors; and the happy coincidence of a physician being at that moment personated on stage, was hailed by many in the audience as an excellent joke, of which the actor took advantage and elicited shouts of applause by saying ‘I expect my services are wanted elsewhere.’”

Man sitting on coat, placed on rail of audience box, with his back to the stage.

Man sitting on coat, placed o rail of audience box, with his back to the stage.

She went on to comment on the many politicians in the audience, saying, “The spitting was incessant, and not one in ten of the male part of male part of the illustrious legislative audience sat according to the usual custom of human beings; the legs were thrown sometimes over the front of the box, sometimes over the side of it, here and there a senator stretched his entire length over the bench, and in many instances the front rail was preferred as a seat.”

Such activities would not be tolerated today. However, humankind being what it is, there is, due to the very different natures of each person and the fact that the U.S. is not a police state, bound to be behaviors amongst theatre patrons that annoy other theatregoers as well as, at times, the actors on stage.

Ian McKellen and Acting Shakespeare

McKellen in Acting Shakespeare.

McKellen in Acting Shakespeare.

It was in the 1980s that I went to see Ian McKellen in his one-man show Acting Shakespeare at the Charles Playhouse in Boston. The show was being performed in the theatre’s 500-seat house and the performance was sold out. I had seats in the second row and was but 10-feet away from the actor.

When McKellen took the stage to applause he launched into one of Shakespeare’s famous soliloquys. I can’t remember which one because as the great actor began the speech, he was joined by an elderly gentleman sitting in the audience left section. That man recited the piece word for word with McKellen.

You could feel the entire energy of the house change, as we listened to this odd duo that featured the rich voice and amazing interpretive skills of one of the greatest actors of the English speaking stage and the shaky but enthusiastic tones of an aging lover of the Bard.

Perhaps he felt a bit murderous that night. Who could blame McKellen if he did?

Perhaps he felt a bit murderous that night. Who could blame McKellen if he did?

After the first speech was over, McKellen greeted the audience and introduced the show. He then launched into his second piece, which was a reading of what is written on the great playwright’s tombstone. The actor focused stage left on the imaged tombstone, his back to the man who had recited the initial passage with him, and began, reciting, and the elderly gentleman, once again, join him-

“Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare to
Digg the dust encloased heare…”

Then McKellen thrust out his right hand towards his unwanted fellow performer, stopped reciting, and without turning towards the interrupter said, “I say, old chap, I believe the people came hear tonight to hear just one man recite Shakespeare.”

With that pronouncement, the audience applauded, the old man laughed, and the rest of the evening was McKellen performing in the manner he had intended, alone.

Richard Wagner and Thomas Edison

Wagner's theatre.

Wagner’s theatre.

It was the great opera composer and producer Richard Wagner who was instrumental in devising a few simple but fairly effective methods of controlling audience behavior. He did so by utlizing specific design elements in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which was built in the 1870s.

First, he created a seating arrangement that made audiences focus on the stage by eliminating the side boxes, which were often the source of interruptive behavior. He also lengthened the distance between the stage and audience and placed the orchestra in a sunken pit so that they could not be seen.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he dimmed the lights in the house, which meant the only part of the theatre that was illuminated was the stage. By blacking out the audience, he greatly diminished the opportunities for theatregoers to interact and misbehave, while his other innovations demanded that audiences focus on what was happening on stage.

Lighting controls.

Lighting controls.

In 1879, Thomas Edison created the first successful electric light. By the 1880s, cities were being wired for electricity and by the 1890s theatres had begun to make the transition from gaslight to electric.

Electric light gave us much more control over audiences by giving stage practitioners a means to focus audience attention on specific parts of the stage, including upstage and stage right and left areas that gaslight could not effectively illuminate. The new lighting used in productions, as well as in the complete extinguishing of house lights during a performance, demanded that audiences focus their attention on the show and not on one another.

Technology Controls and Out of Control

Madonna guilty!

Madonna guilty!

Ironically, much of the same technology that gave theatre producers more control over audiences is also responsible for now distracting audiences. Powered by an electrical charge, our mini-computers, which we still often refer to as “phones,” have become the primary distractive elements in today’s theatres.

Whether it’s someone illegally recording a performance, taking pictures of a show, surfing the Internet, or texting a friend, lover, or babysitter, these devices, which now light up previously darkened auditoriums, have become a major nuisance. Along with all of the distractive activity they inspire, they also, occasionally ring in some manner when someone forgets to shut them off or mute them.

It’s very perplexing to those who work in the theatre. These devices have clearly accelerated loutish behavior.

Hand of God

The Hand to God offender apologized.

The Hand to God offender apologized.

Recently, a bad behavior incident, which was widely written about and discussed, involved a young man who was attending a performance of Hand of God on Broadway. Prior to the start of the show, the man went on stage and plugged his cell phone charger into an electrical outlet on the fairly realistic set. Of course, the outlet was not practical, but the theatergoer saw a representation of reality on stage and went with it.

This type of behavior, which is the kind of thing that simply mystifies many of us and totally bewilders anyone working in the theatre, is not uncommon. Patti LuPone recently snatched a phone from someone texting during an Off-Broadway show in which she was performing, Madonna drew criticism for texting during Hamilton, and many other incidents have been chronicled with increasing frequency.

The offender during Hand to God was a 19-year-old named Nick Silvestri who said in a press conference held by the producers, “I don’t go to plays very much, and I didn’t realize that the stage is considered off limits.” He also noted, “I’ve learned a lot about the theater in the past few days — theater people are really passionate and have been very willing to educate me. I would like to sincerely apologize to the Broadway community.”

Typical Yankee Character

The Yankee character.

The Yankee character.

What many do not understand, especially those in the theatre, is that this behavior is typically American, and we should expect it and take positive steps to change the culture that engages in it. In the first successful American play, The Contrast (1787), playwright Royall Tyler created a character who mirrored the uneducated, well-meaning, sincere, and simple American. This was the Yankee character; a type that would be popular on the American stage for close to a century.

In The Contrast, Jonathan, who is the Yankee character, talks about going to see the play School for Scandal. As he accounts what he witnessed on stage, it becomes evident that he thinks he’s viewed real life playing out in front of him. It’s a very funny monologue, partly due to the innocence and ignorance of the character.

Although not all of those who offend are like the Yankee character, Mr. Silvestri and others who are connected to him by their lack of knowledge regarding the theatre and what’s expected of them, are. Remember, cellphone technology is new to everyone and constantly developing, and those who have grown up with it see it as essential and natural to their lives as eating, breathing, and speaking.

Please Check Your Devices?

th-27Finally, and this is a radical idea for curbing the problem, perhaps it’s as simple as having a place for people to check their devices when they are going to a show. It sounds cumbersome for sure and 99% of those who have cells, which is about 100% of the public, would resist it.

In lieu of such an invasive and time-consuming practice as checking cellphones, perhaps a campaign to really educate people about theatre decorum and phones would be in order? Whose job would it be to educate theses people?

It would be the job of those of us in the theatre. After all, they are coming into our house and we set the rules. That being the case it’s our responsibility to make sure that those rules are clearly understood and enforced.

Broadway Musical Hamilton – Not about the Future, about the Now in America

hamilton543The new Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) musical Hamilton has garnered a lot of attention and praise. It almost immediately sold out its Off-Broadway run at the Public Theatre, was designated for transfer to Broadway just after it opened to five-star reviews, and now that it’s in previews on Broadway every celeb wants to be seen at what is considered to be a groundbreaking show.

Getting the obvious out of the way, this is a piece of musical theatre that is expertly crafted, directed, and performed. Miranda is a genius, and with director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and musical director Alex Lacamoire, he’s created a theatrical piece that works on many different levels.

Past and Future Brought Together?

hamilton6576Some pundits are saying that this musical is about the future of America. This is for a few reasons with one being that most of the leads, in stark contrast to our white founding fathers, are being played by men of color. In other words, this is a colorblind production and making it thus reveals the future of what our country can be.

However, more so and more importantly, the casting, which features superlative performances, is not just about what our country might be one day, but what it is now. This musical is a living paradigm of society today, where color lines in the eyes of many of those who are just being born and those who are in their late-twenties to early-thirties mean little to nothing when it comes to working together, falling in love, or creating lasting friendships.

Race, Violence, and Injustice

South Carolina retires Confederate flag.

South Carolina retires Confederate flag.

Of course our country is in no way perfect, much like any performance of a live theatrical event where mistakes are made, performances morph and shift, and each audience brings its own energy. We are not all colorblind in the U.S., but we are living in a time when less than a decade ago most of us could not have imagined the President of the United States being black, police officers and departments across the country having to answer for their unconstitutional and illegal practices, and South Carolina permanently and officially removing the Confederate flag from its state house.

The musical Hamilton is a complex mix of history, character, and motivations set to a hamilton0989nonstop contemporary music score, accented by hip hop and R&B rhythms, and told through lyrics that are brimming with insight, cleverness, and irony. In its Gestalt it is the epitome of not the America of the future but of the America of today.

There’s a great historical irony to having so many people of color play white Americans. The obvious one has to do with the fact that some of those on stage may be playing those who may have actually enslaved their forebears.

The famous Bert Williams, performer.

The famous Bert Williams, performer.

The other, less-obvious irony has to do with the fact that white stage actors first defined black characters in the U.S. From the time that Thomas D. Rice first did his Jump Jim Crow act to minstrelsy to the hundreds of Uncle Tom productions that played in the U.S. for more than 60 years to Al Jolson through to so many more performers and productions, blacks were told how to speak, act, and talk by whites.

This white definition of what it was to be black was so pervasive that for decades black performers would use pitch-black makeup to darken their skin and white to exaggerate their lips and the palms of their hands so they would fit the image that white actors had created. They spoke in the black dialect whites spoke on stage and mimicked the shuffling body movements of their white interpreters. With Hamilton all of that is reversed.

Williams as a black character.

Williams as a black character.

What makes Hamilton so powerful is it is a work of art that in many ways reveals what may be the final pitched battle between those who feel the need, for whatever reason, to create divisions by race, and those who see race as a social construct that has been foisted upon them by long-dead theorists, social scientists, and political leaders.

Naive to Say

Eric Garner's death.

Eric Garner’s death.

Of course, to say that the U.S. is colorblind, or that racial tensions and divides don’t exist, or that there are not still major injustices in what should be a system of equal justice would be not only naïve, but wrong, to say. The facts are our prison system is filled with a disproportionate percentage of men and women of color, men and women of color are still marginalized in many ways, and the low standard of living combined with high crime rates and levels of drug use in minority communities are beyond alarming.

At the same time, there are many people trying to make a difference in a variety of ways. These earnest folks are living in a time when change is eminently possible, however, it is still difficult to engender.

Imperfect World

A father and his daughter.

A father and his daughter.

There will never be a perfect world as far as race and how it defines us is concerned. But what Hamilton and its popularity says, what this piece of art emulates, is that because we are now willing to begin to address day-to-day racial injustices in this country and think of humankind as an entity of equals and not as disparate colors, that in the here and now while we watch this musical in the theatre we are not seeing the future but experiencing the present.

In an imperfect world, it is comforting and inspiring to know that such an experience exists. Hopefully, Hamilton will help us take the next steps necessary towards creating a country where the definition of race has become obsolete. In doing so, we should remember all that was unimaginable less than a decade ago that is now reality, and boldly address the challenges that lie before us. The musical Hamilton is past, present, and future in one.

Where Is Broadway Headed and Do We Need To Do Something About It?

BROADWAY 15Broadway is this amazing amalgam of shows, ticket prices, theatres, artists, producers, marketing and branding agents, and more. For the past 50 years or so there’s been a lot of concern as to where Broadway is going and what will happen to it. The fact is since the 1960s Broadway has fluctuated from periods of financial stability and growth to decline.

Whatever the case may be in the future, the fiscal, moral, artistic, and spiritual wellbeing of Broadway are all a part of the lives of every theatre professional, whether they are working on The Great White Way or involved in an independent, professional theatre in one of the 50 states. Here are some questions that everyone who is involved in the monetary aspect of the theatre needs to ask themselves and answer honestly.

Short or Long Term?

The Phantom of the Opera15Are they looking just at the short term, the next four to 11 months or the long term? By “long term” not “long run,” but the overall health of the business as it relates to all aspects, including audience, industry, art form, etc. This is one of the toughest things to do, calling for a strong alliance of those in the business and the various organizations and unions that serve Broadway and the American theatre.

Artistic vs. Fiscal Balance

6.207210This is yet another difficult undertaking. In balancing the artistic and the fiscal elements of a production, producers are trying to give audiences stellar shows at affordable prices while attempting to make a profit. Many years ago, Off-Broadway was seen as a solution to this dilemma, and to a degree it is still one. Broadway’s dilemma is in maintaining high artistic standards while still being able to provide tickets that are affordable to the general public.

The Next Generation

kids theatre36The future of Broadway, and the entire American theatre, is dependent upon its ability to attract young audiences who will want to keep coming back as they get older and have their own families. The more that can be done now and in the next decade to attract student groups and families the more fiscally sound Broadway and the American theatre will be.

Giving access to student groups in the form of affordable ticket prices, backstage tours, talkbacks, intellegent and reflective study guides, and workshops will go a long way to cultivating tomorrow’s theatregoers. Theatre audiences are aging and those potential theatregoers who are now in school and college communicate, socialize, and make money-spending decisions in an entirely different way than their parents and grandparents.

What Are Fair Ticket Prices?

The Lion King15The hundred million dollar question is “what are fair ticket prices?” How can a show make its nut, pay its investors, and still be affordable for audiences? Popular shows that become award-winners will raise their ticket prices to take advantage of the fact that people want to see the show, whereas those plays or musicals that are having a hard time attracting audiences will lower them considerably.

This “what the market will bear” pricing is understandable; and, yet, if ticket prices were set at a rate that reflects fair value in terms of the show, budget, and a reasonable profit, that type of pricing might actually create a ripple effect for attendance, as seats become affordable to a wider demographic.

Is There Something You Can Do?

empty theatre37Everyone involved in the professional theatre needs to ask themselves what they are doing right and what they can do to improve the current situation on Broadway to provide access. Ticket prices for shows continue to rise and the demographic that can afford such continues to narrow. What can be done?

If the answer is “nothing can be done,” then we think again and become creative. This is not an indictment but a request that everyone honestly evaluate themselves in terms of what they bring to the professional theatre in a positive way, and what they contribute in a negative manner in terms of inhibiting its growth.

th-36A sure sign of the times is that those in their late teens to mid-twenties are uninterested in subscribing to cable-TV. There are now some streaming services available, and more being developed, that can give that demographic what they want and at a much cheaper price. Is there such a solution that Broadway can provide? Does it have to do so?

The basic idea is to ask yourself is there something else that I can do to in some way improve the American theatre by increasing ticket sales while making shows more affordable to all levels of society and preserving high artistic standards? Producing shows is not an easy business, and, yet, at the same time nobody said that it would or should be.

But at this point in time it’s pretty clear that everyone involved has to be totally committed to the ultimate goal, which is hopefully not just extraordinary ticket sales, but, rather, a commitment to a strong artistic product, affordable ticket prices, and the betterment of the American stage. If that can happen on a consistent basis, then the American theatre may see growth on all levels.

Tony Awards Tommy Tune Controversy and Other Broadcast Choices Raise Questions about Ceremony

tony 2398989

The coveted awards.

The 2015 Tony Awards, which will be broadcast live on CBS on June 7, are filled with controversy regarding which parts will be seen live and which will be only available via YouTube. At this point, Tommy Tune’s remarks regarding his Lifetime Achievement Award have been relegated to the Tony Awards YouTube channel. Creative awards, including those for Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, Scenic Design, Lighting Design, and others are given off air with clips of acceptance speeches shown to the live audience during commercial breaks and the full speeches available later on YouTube. The award for Best Play and Best Musical is not accepted by the writers of such, but by the producers.

Whose Awards Are These?

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The Tonys are a major production.

These decisions regarding which recipients are seen and which are not raises questions as to the reason for and intention of the Tony Awards. The awards are supposed to “celebrate excellence in Broadway theatre.” However, more and more they have become commercials for current and upcoming shows.

Let’s face it, this is the only national audience to which Broadway has access, and it makes sense for producers to use it to create interest in specific productions as well as get people across America thinking of Broadway in general. But should that occur at the price of actually compromising the intention of the Tonys?

Simplicity and Then Complexity

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch made a big splash at the Tony’s last year.

The Tony Awards started simply. The original awards were held at the Waldorf Astoria on April 6, 1947. Winners received a scroll and articles of jewelry. Medallions were not awarded until 1949. Then, 20 years after the Tonys originated, things changed in a major way.

The awards ceremony was originally overseen and presented by the American Theatre Wing. The Wing is “dedicated to supporting excellence and education in theatre.” In 1967, the Wing joined with The Broadway League to present the awards. This was also the first time that the Tonys were broadcast live nationwide.

The Broadway League is a very different organization from the American Theatre Wing. Comprised of theatre owners, general managers, and producers located in New York City and 250 other cities across North America, The Broadway League is the national trade association for the Broadway theatre industry. This marriage between League and Wing, as noted in an earlier Broadway IQ feature, is an uneasy one, and over the years it has switched the focus of the awards from a celebration of excellence to a three-hour long marketing extravaganza.

Movements for Change

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Will Tommy Tune’s remarks be broadcast?

Over the years, various organizations and individuals have tried to get the Tony Awards to shift their focus back to their original, and still stated, intent. This year is an exceptionally busy one for such activity.

One involves the Lifetime Achievement Award. It has been the practice to not show the remarks of the person receiving this award. That, of course, may seem like an odd choice for the Tonys. Here you have someone such as Tommy Tune, nine-time Tony winner in four separate categories and an amazing creative force on Broadway, and yet he won’t be allowed to have access to the full public forum.

In the New York Daily Post in a piece entitled “Tell the Tonys to give Tommy Tune his due!”, entertainment columnist Michael Riedel writes “In the past, some lifetime achievers have been relegated to the pre-telecast ceremony, their speeches appearing only on YouTube.

“This shouldn’t happen to Tune!”

Also, to the end of having Tune appear live, theatrical blogger Richard Skipper has started a petition at Change.org that notes, “”I am addressing the fact that at The Tony Awards, The Lifetime Achievement Award will NOT be presented during The Tony telecast. I would like to change that! Can you weigh in with your thoughts? Please sign the petition and pay it forward.” That petition can be found via this link.

Fun Home is nominated for Score and Book.

Fun Home is nominated for Score and Book.

Another petition has been started to get the Tonys to broadcast the categories of Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical. The petition, which was originated by those associated with The Interval, which is “a theatre website, founded to be a virtual home for female voices of the theatre,” is in response to the nominations of Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron for Fun Home. Tesori and Kron wrote the score and Kron the book.

This petition questions, “When girls across the country turn on the Tony Awards, what do you want them to see?

“We want them to see that women can write musicals, and we think an important step in achieving this is that the Tony Awards broadcast the categories of Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical this year.”

That petition may be found here.

The Point Being

These movements to change what is broadcast live at the Tonys focuses on the fact that the point of the Tony Awards has been lost. If we cannot celebrate live those who have created the live theatrical events that are to be honored, then perhaps their needs to be truth in advertising. If the Tony Awards are a showcase for Broadway, then be honest and forthright about it. If they are a celebration of excellence, then make them such and honor those creative people as they should be. The Tony Award lineup for the CBS broadcast up has not yet been finalized. But it will need to be soon.

The American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League: Dedicated to Different Goals?


The Wing champions American Theatre

The Wing champions American Theatre

The American Theatre Wing notes on its website, “In 2017, we will celebrate 100 years of service to the American Theatre. We have been tirelessly committed to championing and honoring American Theatre.” The Wing created and is responsible for the administration of the Tony Awards®. Each year in their effort to foster the American theatre, they present thousands of dollars in awards and grants and offer a wealth of educational programming. They are dedicated to preserving our theatrical past, celebrating its achievements, and fostering its future.

Controlling the Awards

Who chooses the Tony nominees?

Who chooses the Tony nominees?

An article published in the Huffington Post last week noted that often there are 50 people on the Tony nominating committee this year. That’s many more than even the recent past. As an example, in 2007-2008 there were 27 and last year 47. But each year various members of the committee elect to recuse themselves. Of the 50 who are on the committee this season, 11 will not participate. Someone will recuse him or herself if there is a conflict of interest or if they cannot see all of the shows on Broadway. This is the first year that the Tonys have defined when someone should be recused.

The interesting thing about the whole process of selecting the committee each year is that, according to the article, it is not transparent. Basically it comes down to the Tony Administration Committee selecting members of the nominating committee by the fact that they are “deemed worthy” to be on it. It is a select group to say the least.

The Tonys: An Uncomfortable Partnership

The Broadway League partners with the Wing to create the awards

The Broadway League partners with the Wing to create the awards

Although the Wing is credited with being in charge of the Tonys, these awards are actually controlled by two entities, which are known by the name Tony Awards Productions. Tony Awards Productions is comprised of the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League, also known as the League. It’s been widely reported and, at times, it fairly evident, that this marriage is not made in heaven. That’s partly due to the fact the League is comprised of real estate folks, theatre owners, and investors, producers, who see the Tony Awards® not so much as a way to honor the very best in the American theatre, but more so, as a marketing tool.

The Wing and the League are very different beasts with very different goals and that has bred so much acrimony that the League has threaten to create its own awards for excellence, which smacks of both vanity and narcissism. Last year, prior to the awards, the publication DEADLINE offered an article by Jeremy Gerard that highlighted this controversy.

Broadway Lights Controversy Over Rivers

Rivers' controversy.

Rivers’ controversy.

In September 2014, the Broadway League got entangled in controversy when they decided they would not dim their lights to honor the passing of Joan Rivers. League leadership said that Rivers did not meet the criteria for the honor. Eventually producers and theatre owners changed their minds, but the incident became an embarrassment for the organization, as some members expressed their dismay at the decision and various celebrities who felt that the late comedian did deserve the honor launched an online petition.

Fair Ticket Prices

An American in Paris has received numerous nominations this year.

An American in Paris has received numerous nominations this year.

In a recent Backstage article entitled “6 Facts about the Broadway League,” it was noted that along co-sponsoring the Tonys, being engaged in the community, and making sure professional theatre is seen around the U.S., that the League is focused on keeping ticket prices fair. In essence, the organization is dedicated to making sure that unscrupulous resellers of tickets don’t gouge the public and that they are licensed. This consumer protection is important.

Considering the Two Entities

Thus, when you review the list of Tony nominations this year consider that although they are supposed to be given to those who have attained the highest artistic achievement on the American stage that, for better or worse, a Tony win, or two, or three, or more can mean an extended run on Broadway, big national tours, and a huge increase in revenue.

However, to call this a “bad guy, good guy” scenario would be wrong. The League is not a bunch of villains, and nor is the Wing comprised of heroes. These are two groups of people, theatre professionals, invested in many ways in the American theatre and focused on not only making sure that it thrives, but taking on the responsibility of not only making a profit for investors and employing thousands of professionals, but also helping to ensure that the very precious and lively art form of theatre survives and thrives.

In that sense, the Tony Awards® hit their mark, and in a world where nothing is perfect or simple, especially the art of live performance, that odd couple, the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League, may just be a semi-perfect marriage.

The Cost of Doing Business on Broadway

An American in Paris on Broadway.

An American in Paris is Broadway at its best.

In 2011, the New York Times Arts Beat blog offered an article entitled “The Staggering Cost of Broadway.” In it, writer Patrick Healy referenced the revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a three-character drama that had recently been produced in London and was transferring to Broadway. In interviewing London producer Sonia Friedman about the hit production, it became clear exactly how costly it is to produce a play on Broadway.

Healy wrote, “This ‘Betrayal’ revival cost £350,000 (about $565,000) to mount in the West End, Ms. Friedman said, and an additional £65,000 ($105,000) to pay weekly running costs. By comparison, she estimates that the same production would cost about $2.8 million to mount on Broadway — the standard amount for a commercial play production — and an additional $260,000 or so to run each week.”

Why So Costly?

It's no secret that Broadway is an expensive place to do business.

It’s no secret that Broadway is an expensive place to do business.

A Broadway show costs, at minimum, $2.5 million to mount. The musical Next to Normal had a production bill of about $4 million and The Book of Mormon cost approximately $9 million. The question is why, and the other question is what effect do expansive budgets have on Broadway?

Why it costs so much has to do, in general, with the high price of doing business in New York City, and specifically on Broadway. First of all, Broadway contracting through unions can be challenging. Union agreements are very specific in terms of not only how much people are paid but how many people must be hired. These contracts cover crews, technicians, musicians, and others. Salaries are high, it’s expensive to build, move, and put in sets and tech shows, theatre rentals are high, and advertising budgets have skyrocketed.

What does the theatre in London have that New York does not? The answer is flexibility in contracts. That lack of “give” in Broadway contracts results in more “take” on the part of producers. From whom do the producers “take?” That would be from those who go to the theatre.

The Cost of Tickets

A fairly simple show with a star is an expensive ticket.

A fairly simple show with a star is an expensive ticket.

In an article published on June 10, 2014, the Los Angeles Times noted that for the first time in the history of the Great White Way the average ticket price for a Broadway ticket surpassed $100. The average cost for a ticket was $103.88, and that was up 5.5% from last season when the average price was $98.42. Of course, that is the average price. Many shows sell tickets for more than $150 a pop and, also, for less than $50.

But the point is it is very expensive for patrons to go and see a Broadway show. A family of four can spend $600 on tickets alone; add in transportation, parking, and a possible meal and the price tag for an evening at the theatre can hit $800 plus.

For the past five seasons, the average rise in Broadway ticket prices has been 6.8%. The average yearly inflation rate for that same period was as low as 1.47% and as high as 3.16%. The average rate of inflation for those five years was 2.04%. Yet, Broadway ticket prices rose three times more than the rate of inflation.

Like the Weather

New shows continue to offer Broadway hope for the future.

New shows continue to offer Broadway hope for the future.

With that being the case, shouldn’t everyone involved in Broadway be asking if something’s askew? People ask, but, like the weather, everyone complains about the prices of going to Broadway. but no one does anything about them. And perhaps like climate change, many seem to care little of the anomaly that rapidly rising ticket prices, associated possibly with the cost of doing business, are having on the Broadway theatre.

The interesting thing is that in some years Broadway ticket sales have been up. In 2013-2014, the number of people who went to a show rose by 5.5% over the year before. However, the year before was dismal as far as ticket sales were concerned. Also, grosses rose in 2013-2014 by 11.4% over the previous year. Interestingly, that’s double rate of the increase in ticket sales.

However, if we compare those ticket sales to 2012-2013, the year before, when they were down by 6.2%, the increase of 5.5% is not as substantial as we’re led to believe. The Broadway League extolled the rise, but put in context it was actually fairly weak.

Consider, if sales were down 6.2% one season and went up 5.5% the next, they were still off by 0.7%, as they had not fully recovered. A healthy season would have seen them rise by 8% to 9%. And although Broadway had not fully recovered from its attendance drop, it certainly did in terms of grosses, as Broadway shows grossed a total of $1.14 billion in 2012-2013 and then $1.27 billion in 2013-2014.

Will Broadway Collapse Under Its Own Weight?

Although a Broadway collapse may seem ridiculous to some, such an event is not impossible. As far as we can tell, most theatre movements, styles and genres, and venues eventually fade away, are transformed into new entities, come a resounding crash. Those in the U.S. that have gone by the wayside include the Lyceum Circuit, Vaudeville, and Burlesque. All were very popular forms of entertainment. We can go back as far as Ancient Athens when Greek Tragedy disappeared from the stage after about an 80-year run. That was, partly, economically based.

Broadway shows are exceedingly expensive to produce, ticket prices continue to rise, and it becomes more and more difficult for producers to make a profit. In Shakespeare’s day the play was the thing and production costs, theatre rentals, and ticket prices were low. We might look to that era for some basic answers to some tough questions.

Is the New Golden Age of American Theatre Beckoning?

Broadway was electric in its Golden Age.

Broadway was electric in its Golden Age.

The Golden Age of American Theatre is considered to have lasted about 40 years, depending upon how you define it. Starting sometime around 1915 and lasting until sometime in the late 1950s to early 1960s, it was a time that saw the Little Theatre Movement develop, the Harlem Renaissance bloom, Broadway houses multiply and then decline, and great works that defined the American theatre and made the rest of the world respect our dramatists, composers, and lyricists come into being. Broadway was the central focus of this period of stage enlightenment.

It was a heady time that included groundbreaking works such as The Emperor Jones, Show Boat, Mulatto, The Adding Machine, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Oklahoma!, as well as many more works that would define and redefine the voice, vision, and vocabulary of the American Stage. It set new standards for the stage and made Broadway theatres the most coveted and admired venues in the world.

Ingredients for a Golden Age of Theatre

The Theatre of Dionysus where the first Golden Age began.

The Theatre of Dionysus where the first Golden Age began.

There are certain periods, instances in history, where theatre has reached unprecedented artistic heights. These may be chronicled quickly, as typical periods that make it on the list are Ancient Athens, Ancient Roman Theatre, English Renaissance, the Spanish Golden Age, Japanese Kabuki and Noh Theatre, and French Neoclassicism. Golden Ages tend to be defined specifically within a nation’s or region’s borders.

Overall, certain elements seem to be in place for a Golden Age of Theatre to develop and exist. These include:

  1. A nation or region dominating as a military power
  2. A burgeoning economy
  3. The move towards developing an identity or a “national” voice
  4. A desire to express that voice through the performing arts
  5. Theatre that has been made accessible to all

Charles Gilpin as Brutus Jones.

Charles Gilpin as Brutus Jones.

Interestingly enough, most of these times when theatre flourished were also times of strict control by the government. Also, these ages have tended to be defined first by the dramatic literature that was created, and thus, theatre that primarily featured innovative scenography, highly developed physical acting, or other such artistic endeavors that are not chronicled by written scripts, have been left out of the mix by scholars.

Finally, Golden Ages tend to be short-lived overall, with spans ranging from 50 to 100 years. Perhaps because the national energies that created them also tend to last about that long or maybe due to the fact that these periods tend to be times of national unity, and such occasions are rare and limited in time.

Can There Be a New Golden Age in US?

The original production of Death of a Salesman.

The original production of Death of a Salesman.

After the 1960s, the American theatre changed drastically as the Regional Theatre Movement and Off-Broadway started to take focus away from Broadway. In 1992 Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. That marked the first time that the prestigious award was given to a play prior to it coming to New York. Again and again this would be the case with the Pulitzer. This change was emblematic and indicative of the decentralization of American theatre.

And that is where this question concerning a “new” Golden Age is posed. Can there be a Golden Age if New York and Broadway are no longer the central staging grounds for new works? In addition, can there be a new age of greatness if Broadway theatre, due to extravagant ticket prices, is inaccessible to so many Americans, if our national voice is so diversified, and if the theatre now has so many entertainment rivals, including the Internet and the various types of media available through it, TV, and film. All of these factors conspire against a Golden Age.

The way we communicate and don't communicate has changed.

The way we communicate and don’t communicate has changed.

Additionally, the whole communal experience of the theatre runs contrary to how we live our lives. The days of sitting down to dinner at a table with friends and family is a past memory for most. There was a time when TVs and radios were shut off, everyone was called to the table, and people ate together and conversed.

We can now access anything we want on our phones, which are really high powered computers, and so many of us sit in groups eating, meeting, and sometimes chatting, as our visions are firmly fixed on these devices, or, we simply sit along with our Android, iPhone, tablet, or laptop, paying attention to whatever screen it lit up in front of us.

The Stage Is Set

To have another Golden Age of Theatre in America, we may have to redefine exactly what constitutes such. New elements might include:

  1. A stable national government that is defined by diversity
  2. A vital economy that includes a rising middle class
  3. Regional movements that connect to communities
  4. A national theatre festival made up of regional productions
  5. Theatre experiences that find their dynamics in the basics- strong acting, scripts, and direction
  6. Ticket prices to theatre performances and programs that make such affordable for all

The stage awaits.

The stage awaits.

Such an age would need a confluence of factors and elements that are in the offing, and that may never come together at all. All may be influenced by and many may be initiated by creative people who are committed to the art form and those who are well heeled enough to support it. One important ingredient that every great age of theatre has had that is not on our list is a few key people with foresight, creativity, and energy who possessed the bravery to take on new challenges, see things that others could not, and make them come alive in the form of theatrical performance.