Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author and script coverage consultant whose publishing credits include 21 books, 112 plays and musicals, 4 optioned feature films, and columns that appear throughout the world. For more information, visit her website.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This month: STAGE-STRUCK: WHY THEATER ENDURESHas it really been 30 years since I first trod the boards at the Gaslighter Melodrama Theatre in Folsom, California? Little did I know at the time the tremendous impact that acting and directing would have on my career as a professional writer. Even though my last stint on stage was with my own company in the summer of ‘86, I still hold a fondness for this medium. Therefore, I can’t help but ponder its fate as technology increases its influence on how we spend our leisure hours…and our money. Is theater, as we know it, a dying art form or is it more vibrant than ever before?
I recently put this question to Martin Denton, Founder/Editor of www.nytheatre.com, Executive Director of The New York Theatre Experience, Inc. and a professional reviewer of New York stage productions.
Q: In the aftermath of September 11th, I particularly recall the advertising campaign that declared that the curtain would never go down on the city of New York. Synonymous with the heart of the theater industry itself, this poignant message was consistent with NYC's efforts to keep the doors of its playhouses open. Yet across the country, regional theaters have continued to fold, owing to a decline in community support and financing. As an avid theater-goer and critic, what do these trends say to you about the future of plays and the playwrights who pen them?
A: I can’t really speak to regional theatre because I just don’t have the facts about it. But I can say unequivocally that the theatre in New York City is more vibrant than at anytime in recent memory. There’s an explosion in the off-off-Broadway world—new companies are forming every day, it seems, and new spaces—especially in the boroughs, especially Brooklyn—are popping up. This is an exciting time to be covering theatre in New York. Theatre will never disappear because it’s such a vital part of social discourse. It’s the easiest, cheapest, and most immediate means of performance.
Q: In spite of the economics, accessibility and longevity of the live theater experience, a lot of new writers cite that the physical parameters of a stage are too limiting to tell a story that will resonate with an audience. What would be your counter to that argument?
A: Theatre morphs and re-invents itself to stay pertinent; its practitioners innovate with new technological tools and new storytelling styles to make their work timely and interesting to their audience. This is, in fact, one of the reasons I love theatre--the freshness and inventiveness of artists, especially younger ones, especially off-off-Broadway, is hugely exciting. There's a company called Fovea Floods, in Brooklyn, headed up by two recent Skidmore College graduates named Josh Chambers and Tim Fannon. Their work combines state-of-the art video and audio with traditional film and theatre to create a very relevant kind of theatre. I've seen them use their techniques on classics (e.g., a recent smashing revival of Brecht's "Arturo UI") and to build brand-new pieces (their most recent show, "Bull Spears"). The Vampire Cowboy Theatre Company melds cutting-edge pop culture, vintage noir/pulp culture, and traditional and modern fight choreography to tell stories that younger audiences really respond to. Playwright/director Peter Petralia has been exploring ways to use computer technology and a host of high-tech multimedia components in his work. And there are lots of other examples. The point is, theatre is no longer just limited to people standing on a stage and acting out a story. All of the trappings of modern life--tangible and intangible--can and should be incorporated in the theatre experience.
Q: Since 1996, your website, www.nytheatre.com, has been providing a weekly overview of what's playing on virtually every stage in the Big Apple. How did this ambitious undertaking come about and how many people does it take to compile such comprehensive data and all of those reviews?
A; I started nytheatre.com as a hobby, never imagining it would blossom into the full-time endeavor that it has become. In 1996, I was working in a senior management position at Marriott Hotels, Inc., and I decided to take an Internet class to learn about this new technology and how it might apply to my work. After I took the class, I decided to try and create my own website, and so I built, for fun, something that I called “Martin’s Guide to New York Theatre.” In those days—not so long ago, but seemingly eons in Internet time—it was easy for a new website to get noticed by people, and my site about New York theatre caught on. Within a year, it had morphed into nytheatre.com and become a valuable resource for people interested in finding out about the theatre scene in New York City. Eventually, I decided to leave my job at Marriott and pursue the theatrical part of my life full-time. We created The New York Theatre Experience, Inc., which is a nonprofit corporation whose primary activity is to support and promote theatre via nytheatre.com. Today, I am the site’s editor, designer, and chief theatre reviewer. I still write every show listing myself. We have 16 volunteer reviewers (more than that during the summer theatre festival season), plus many others who contribute content to nytheatre.com.
Q: In October 2004, The New York Times dealt a major blow to non-profit community theaters that rely on free press coverage to help promote their upcoming productions. In your view, what precipitated this decision and how has it impacted nytheatre.com?
A: I suppose that the Times, like any other for-profit entity, made this decision primarily for economic reasons; presumably they have conducted research that indicates that their target audience is less interested in theatre than in other subjects. I wouldn’t be surprised if advertising revenue played a role in their decision as well.
While we can’t blame them for seeking ways to maximize their profitability and to be perceived as attractive to their target readers, their decision to eliminate free listings in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of dozens of productions each week is a really sad one. It tells people that theatre isn’t “important” in the eyes of the “newspaper of record.”
And it limits the theatre that Times readers will be aware of to (mostly) commercial Broadway and off-Broadway shows, plus the works of the large nonprofit theatre companies. Given the shrinking coverage of theatre in other outlets in NYC—again, largely because of economic considerations—this means that the off-off-Broadway sector, which is the largest, most vital, and most creative component of the New York theatre scene, will have to work even harder than they already do to get attention. These small companies are losing one of their most visible sources of promotion, and this will have a direct impact on their ability to attract audiences, funding, and to reach audiences here in New York and in the regional markets across the country.
All of which makes what we do at nytheatre.com even more important. Our coverage of New York theatre has grown every single year that we have been in operation; we are now listing and reviewing more shows than any other outlet that I know of. We also do this at no charge, either to the theatre companies we serve or to the readers who rely on our information. We remain committed to continuing this, particularly in the face of the Times’ reductions and others. What we need to do now is educate theatergoers and theatre makers that, if they cannot rely on the Times for steadfast support of the art that they value, they can rely on nytheatre.com to do everything possible to spread the word.
Q: Approximately how many productions do you cover per month? How does this compare to publications such as Time Out-New York?
A: Right this minute there are about 188 current productions listed on nytheatre.com, plus more than 160 coming attractions. Time Out-New York, which is known for its comprehensive listings, has about 140 this week. In September 2004, we reviewed 51 productions on nytheatre.com; in contrast, Time Out-New York and the Times reviewed about 35 apiece.
One of the things that I’m proudest of is that for the past three years, nytheatre.com has reviewed every single show in the New York International Fringe Festival. That was 183 shows in 2002, 200 in 2003, and 191 in 2004. No other outlet even comes close. We do this because we think that every participant in this, the largest multi-arts festival in North America, is entitled to at least one review, to at least that much feedback for their hard work and effort. We do this with an all-volunteer staff of amazing, dedicated theatre folks—actors, directors, playwrights, etc.—who contribute their time to make this happen because they understand the importance of giving these shows their one review.
Q: Let’s talk about musicals for a moment. A number of companies seem to be going the route of reviving old standards. Does this speak more to an absence of new works or to the assessment that earlier musicals still resonate with contemporary audiences?
A: Well, this trend has been around for a while now. In fact, I think Broadway producers are starting to run out of viable titles. As a rule, I think revivals of musicals are bad for the theatre, because they put resources—and by that I mean both the artistic contributions of artists and the dollars contributed by backers and producers—into work that, in general, lacks immediacy and merit. Season after season we see revivals of shows that were crafted for stars of a bygone era—“Bells Are Ringing,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Damn Yankees,” etc.—clumsily grafted onto current performers who deserve instead to have original material created for them. I’d rather see Donna Murphy in a flawed, difficult work like “Passion” than in a trifle like “Wonderful Town” any day of the week.
Now of course there are always exceptions. Some musicals have been splendidly re-imagined and revitalized—the recent “Carousel” comes to mind—and some really are classics that deserve to be seen again and again, such as “Gypsy.” But in general, if I had my way, I’d leave the revivals to either the companies that specialize in concert-style productions that don’t use up a lot of resources, such as Musicals Tonight! or York Theatre’s Musicals in Mufti; or to community/off-off-Broadway companies such as Paper Mill in New Jersey or Gallery Players in Brooklyn.
Q: As a critic, you've had the opportunity to sit through the best and worst of everything on the other side of the footlights. What are your top three criteria you use to evaluate a production's merits?
A: There’s really only one criterion that matters in the final analysis, and that’s did the show speak to me—did it move me—did it teach me something or show me something new. I often say that the theatre is where I go to find out what I think about things, and any production that makes that happen for me is valuable.
Q: What stands out as the most compelling (or mind-numbingly horrible) play you've ever seen, and why?
A: I have seen lots of really compelling plays over the years, I’m very happy to say. Some of the ones that I thought really changed the kind of person I am—that really had a positive impact on my world view and life—would include John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” and Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen.” Actually, Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound” was really important to me, because I saw it when I was the same age as the leading characters, as I was leaving home and striking out on my own for the first time. So it was enormously resonant and has a special place in my heart.
As for mind-numbingly horrible—that tends to happen mostly when a completely misbegotten revival is foisted on the audience. Kelsey Grammer’s “Macbeth” comes to mind.
Q: A number of our readers are aspiring playwrights. What can they learn about improving their craft and increasing their chances for production by becoming a free subscriber to your website?
A: Well, the most direct answer is that they can read our “nytheatre buzz” page, which contains announcements and news specifically for the theatre community. This page always has info about at least one playwriting competition or festival or something similar that playwrights may want to participate in.
But, the site as a whole, because it contains so much current information about what’s going on in the theatre in New York—especially the reviews—will probably be of interest to these folks as well.
I am a huge supporter of new playwrights and one of the goals of The New York Theatre Experience, Inc. is to help spread the word about emerging playwrights. We publish an anthology every year of about 10-12 new plays that we have seen during the past season by never-before-published playwrights. (We only publish plays we’ve seen; we don’t take submissions!) The plays we publish in these annual collections, which go by the name “Plays and Playwrights,” get a fair amount of exposure; about half of what we’ve published to date have gone on to productions outside New York after publication. Playwrights who are interested in learning more about this program can visit the website, www.newyorktheatreexperience.org/pep.htm.
Q: What is your advice to new writers who want to break into Broadway?
A: I guess it’s: Don’t want that. Only about 30-35 shows are produced on Broadway every season; no more than a dozen of them will be new plays. Instead, aim for off-off-Broadway, where you actually can realistically get produced; you can also, eventually, carve out a decent career in regional and community theatre without ever having a show on Broadway. And of course there is always the chance you’ll be ‘discovered’.
Q: Last question: what's your favorite stage play or musical and why?
A: A very hard question! My favorite play, I guess, is “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, but I’ve never seen a production that completely satisfied me. My favorite theatre experiences are more visceral. For example, recently I loved “Movin’ Out” and I had a ball at “Hairspray” because, in each case, of the pure joy and energy emanating from the stage. Great performances are what I treasure most, I think. At the top of my list: Stockard Channing in”Six Degrees of Separation” and Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly.” Unforgettable and irreplaceable.
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Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author and script coverage consultant whose credits include 21 books, 115 plays and musicals, 4 optioned feature films, and articles that appear throughout the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Her latest book, COULD IT BE A MOVIE, is now available on Amazon or directly from her publisher at www.mwp.com.