Theater Musings – By Gary Beck

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Pic by Nanzui Palomino

 

 

Seven million G.I.s returned from World War II and went to college on the G.I. bill, paid for by grateful Uncle Sam. This led to the establishment of hundreds of new colleges lusting for students in a competitive marketplace. Liberal Arts proliferated. By the late 1960s, college theater departments had usurped the role of theater companies in the training of actors. A formerly disreputable profession, except for stars, that once made mothers suffer when their pride and joys studied acting, suddenly was semi-respectable, when offspring graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Unlike the other performing arts, which require high skills, training and discipline, acting is the least structured performance art. Most students don’t participate in acting until college, unlike dance, for example, which invariably starts when children are very young. Colleges also use the grading system, which inhibits the exploration of extremes, often a sloppy, chaotic process, yet vital to the development of stagecraft. So bright young people who wanted to be actors went to college by the thousands, yet the colleges never told them there was only theater work for a few hundred, almost none of it paying. In general, the same thing happened to directors, many of whom were encouraged to deconstruct the classics, their professors blissfully unaware that the classics are class documents that lose stature and are deflated when Macbeth becomes a mafia don and Hamlet becomes a mental patient.

Regional theaters affiliated with universities furthered the aspirations of undergraduates who multiplied like rodents. Off-Off Broadway teemed with hastily and casually produced plays of dubious quality that attracted small audiences, mostly family and friends. Broadway productions of the classics became fewer and fewer, invariably with a Hollywood star and a weak supporting cast that is contra the needs of classical drama, which mandates capable actors to sustain the world of the play. Consequently their productions didn’t thrill the audience, resulting in poor returns for the producers, subsequently leading to fewer productions of the unprofitable classics. Most ominous, like the other performing arts in America, theater was beginning to lose its greying out audience, without younger people replacing them.

 

Someone in the 1960s said it took ten years to build a theater company. When I decided to start my own company in the early 1970s, it was a most peculiar commitment for me, since I was the quintessential loner in an art form that mandated group involvment. Well some of us make questionable decisions occasionally. I outlined a ten year plan to build a classical theater ensemble that would start with Commedia del’Arte, and transition into early Moliere farce (he performed Commedia, then evolved to Baroque comedy). We would do our first sophisticated performances in the latter stages of the Moliere period. I would translate, direct and if necessary perform. The next period would be ancient classical Greek comedy, Aristophanes, which I would translate with a Classical Greek scholar, direct and possibly perform. This would take us into the seventh year of the company, when we would have our first hit show. It would transfer to a 299 seat Off-Broadway theater, the only venue that could make money, which was the only way we could afford to produce art.

This was an ambitious plan, especially considering my lack of negotiable currency. My assets were my skills, abilities and experience, and my brother, Robert, a highly skilled techie with many other abilities. At this time, Off-Off Broadway was flooded with a few serious theater practitioners, and hordes of college graduates with degrees in theater, gained in a hothouse protective environment. Young enthusiasts who worked in state of the art theaters in college, left the comforting confines of school with their talented fellow students, determined to stay together and build their own theater company. Of course none of their instructors informed them that almost all post-collegial ventures lasted less than three months. The necessity for fund raising, rehearsal space, publicity, promotion, the endless management tasks, were so far beyond the reach of these eager youth, who just wanted to do a show, that it was almost criminal negligence that the institutions that churned them out didn’t prepare them for harsh reality. You really have to wonder about the mentalities of their professors, launching their unprepared fledglings in a harsh world.

 If these offspring of the arts managed to get past the endless arguments and debates that they went through in college while preparing to do a show, without the nurturing professors to move the herd along, or a prosperous institution that provided a theater, scripts, costumes, in short, the necessities of production, they found themselves in the wilderness of Off-Off Broadway, ratty store fronts, filthy lofts, dingy apartments, unless Mommy and Daddy owned a barn.

 

In retrospect, there were many reasons for my decision to form a classical company. I loved the classics, especially on the grand scale like Hamlet and Agamemnon. Yet the translations of the Greek plays were ponderous, stilted and almost as difficult to read as to produce on the stage. I visualized performances that would thrill the audience with the heightened passion of great tragedy. This was what I wanted to work for. But I knew that theater tragedy, especially with young actors lacking the requisite skills, would not reach audiences that no longer brought a willingness to actively respond to the play. They have been conditioned to sit back, relax and spectate, just the way they go to a movie. Theater is an emotional transaction between actors and audience, mandating participation between both sides. Nevertheless, my ambition was to involve audiences in the passion of the play.

Even while starting this Quixotic quest, part of me knew the chances of attaining my goals were not high. I neglected to bring an appropriate gift to the Oracle of Delphi, and did not perceive unfavorable omens. The irony was I never directed a classic. My experience, in several countries, was invariably social issue drama. I had an inherent prejudice against comedy, considering it crude, vulgar or too clever. So I opted to build the company doing comedy first, so the pain of early failure would not be a personal anguish. The thought of inflicting tragedy on the audience with an unprepared company was abhorrent, but somehow making the audience suffer through the learning process of comedy was more tolerable.

 

I realized I had to master many new skills to do classical comedy, so I decided to recruit a number of small performing groups once we got a theater, including a modern ballet co., a modern dance co., a clown co., a mime co., a recent group of graduates who wanted to do a show together, and some scruffy musicians I named the Dehydrated Band. ( I think they could read and write, but they lacked many cognitive skills. One of them asked why they were the Dehydrated Band and I replied,’ you just add water and mix’. I named them as a joke and didn’t think it meant anything, but he seemed to get it. Rock musicians and classical musicians come from different planets). The idea of these disparate groups congealing in one place considering the vast gulf between the sensitive ballerinas and the unwashed musicians, was perhaps a bit perverse, but definitely amusing. I planned to do some writing, directing and choreography with all of them, except the band from another planet, whose only redeeming value would be if I could get them to play…What?…for the other groups. This had to be one of the strangest undertakings in what had so far been my strange life.

Now that the ‘Great Leap Forward’ was underway, I felt like a commissar, presiding over a revolutionary movement. I had no doubts, no apprehensions, despite what could be technically described as a case of clinical insanity. It was illogical for an unknown, unestablished  director to start a classical theater company in a rock and roll culture, in a consumer country that never even had a national theater. Yet I had no misgivings.

What I did have was an urgent need to better understand the nature of theater in America, not from a scholarly perspective, but as a pragmatic assessment of where I was coming from and where I had to go to build an appreciative audience.

The history of theater in America is hardly awe inspiring. Unlike other cultures that produced great playwrights, our brief flare with O’Neill, followed by Miller and Williams, will probably not resonate through the ages. How can we expect these fine writers to last, when our greatest playwright, O’Neill, is dismissed by critics for his obsolete language? This from the same pettifoggers who revere Shakespeare, but don’t understand 20 to 30% of Elizabethan English, yet don’t call him dated.

Theater is the most accessible of the performing arts in America, demonstrated by the numbers of Broadway theaters that attract hundreds of thousands annually. Opera, ballet and classical music appeal to limited audiences of refined taste. They cannot become mainstream without an educational process that makes the music, singing or dance familiar enough to understand and feel. Then they have to learn to appreciate what is not a common core in our texting society. This is a diminishing activity, revealed by smaller and older audiences.

Despite the dim future of theater as audiences age and new audiences don’t emerge to take their place, escalating ticket prices prevent exposure to younger populations who could participate someday, if encouraged. Glamorous hi-tech film, tv and video games are far more accessible and more visually appealing, yet there is still an experience of live theater that attracts people. Even as the classics fade from the repertory, musical theater still attracts huge audiences. There is no equivalent alternate, or less demanding form of opera, or ballet. Musical theater could flourish for another ten years, then the cost of production will mean fewer and fewer shows. Technical advances in tv will be rapid, and home entertainment will erode the economic base that nourishes dozens of Broadway houses that are not suitable for other applications, except demolishment and replacement with condo-hotels.

 

An interesting phenomenon of the 1970s was the byproduct of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the culture war. We sent them rock and roll groups and Hollywood films. They sent us the Kirov Ballet and the Moscow Art Theater. Culture in the United States exists on many levels. Except for middle class adventurers who will seek the new, the experimental, the classics, wealth dominates all arenas, save theater. Opera, ballet, classical music, are funded by government and private donors. They are invariably not-fot-profit endeavors, whose mission is to provide the highest quality of performance achievable.

The peculiar nature of fine art is so removed from performance requirements that it exists in its own unique plane. Only the rich can afford to buy masterworks, though the public can visit well stocked art museums and see fine art. The problem is that most of the public have no idea what they’re looking at, evinced by their rapid transit through display galleries. The public is invariably too intimidated to go into commercial art galleries, a condition encouraged by pretentious art gallery personnel, who assume the public are not customers, ergo of no interest. It’s even more difficult for the artists. Once it took a long time to become an old master. Warhol, Lichtenstein and a few others did it in record time, their paintings commanding multi-millions, pressuring art students, who may not be taught that there is room at the top for only a fortunate few.

Theater is by far the strangest artistic endeavor. Broadway productions are a financial venture that are only incidentally exercises in art. The cost of a Broadway production is so high that the goal is to produce a hit that will run a long time, repay the investors, then make a profit. Obviously this is not an arena for experimentation. Production values are generally high, but content, designed to reach mass audiences, tends to become safer and safer, the more production costs soar. The bread, butter and entrées of Broadway are musical theater. The most successful productions are revivals and formula stories.

Off-Broadway production costs are becoming increasingly expensive, so a capital investment is required to present a play that must earn money, or suffer a financial loss that ends the show. Regional theater must cater to its subscription audience, a graying group, not readily replaceable, less and less susceptible to challenging drama.. Off-Off Broadway is usually a yell-in, or so sloppy that only Mommas love their actor sons and daughters. There are a few good small theaters that try their best to produce entertaining work, but their audience is also aging rapidly. At a recent Saturday night performance of a classic, at a respectable small theater, the house was only ¾s full and the average age was 65. American theater suborned by middle of the road university theater department mentalities, correlated by the deleterious products of the superficial showcase system, has further fallen victim to increasingly visual innovation in tvs, nourished by cable and the internet, all these formats combining to obsolete theater.

 

Despite all unfavorable omens, I was committed to starting a theater company. Then came the intelligent questions. How do you get a theater and rehearsal space when you have no money, no patrons, no well-connected friends? You delegate authority. While I was preparing an artistic plan for a classical company, organizing a theater business, an audition and rehearsal plan, a performance schedule, (actors wanted to perform and if they were going to sign up for a long cruise on the good ship…) We got our name when I was asked where we’d perform if we didn’t have a theater.  I replied on the sidewalks. Thus was born Sidewalks of New York Productions, aka Sidewalks Theater. Actors need to know there is a show somewhere over the horizon.

I also had six performance groups, all of whom needed rehearsal space and a performance schedule. I needed to study elements from all these groups to acquire what I wanted to incorporate into the classical company. I didn’t know how long they’d last, but while they were with us they had to be nurtured.

 

 I told Robert to get us a theater and rehearsal space. He worked his magic on an agreeable headmaster of a posh private school on the East Side, and we were invited in. We invaded the refined precincts, a barbarian horde that immediately threatened the sensibilities of their theater department, hitherto snug and safe in a secure cultural nest.

The headmaster gave us use of the auditorium and a storage closet weekdays after 3pm, and all weekend, except for special school events that took priority. Free. Gratis. No cost. This gave us instant life and we began to multiply, to the horror of the theater instructors, who were appalled at some of the unwashed bodies that appeared. They and the theater students observed my audition process with fascination and disdain. I needed actors to work together and perform beautiful theater. This was an alien concept to most actors, though the college kiddies all claimed that’s what they did in school. Right! 

At this time, the showcase system, an abortion sponsored by Actors Equity Association, the union with a membership with only 3%  that worked! was the primary venue for non-commercial theater. A showcase allowed three weeks of rehearsal, approximately 15 to 20 hours, (including arguments, debates, and lofty artistic statements) and 12 performances, 4 each weekend, for three weeks. The purpose of this superficial system was to allow actors to display their talent for agents and producers. The display was invariably amateurish, loud and emotive, with the actors often not knowing their lines. The most ironic feature of the showcase system was that an actor could leave the show anytime if he/she got paid work. So if a producer put his savings into a showcase in hope of moving a play to a commercial venue, the leading actor could walk out on opening night, if he/she got paid work, wrecking the producer’s show, with the approval of his/her union. This debilitative system is one of the many contributors to the demise of serious theater.

So while still working with the various groups, I started my own classical theater company in the mid-1970s and quickly learned the talent pool for Off-Off Broadway was limited. The few with high abilities wanted to be paid union scale. No one seemed cognizant that 97% of the union membership never worked in theater, and were mostly waiters and bartenders. What will they all do someday when they’ll be replaced by robot waiters and bartenders? It’s a contradiction to presume that talent doesn’t want to be paid. (Musicians’ catechism: musicians always get paid.) My ambition to profoundly move audiences compelled me to conceive of an ensemble training process. It was so demanding that I could expect only a few capable performers to persevere. The rest would have to be peculiar misfits who were never appreciated before. 

Unless you’ve worked with the actors before, auditions are the standard recruiting process. To a director obsessed with creating stage beauty, this is an excruciating experience. Off-Off Broadway auditioners include recent college graduates with B.A.s in theater arts, though they have no idea what they spent 4 years doing. They don’t know plays, or theater history, have minimal skills and fervently believe they worked hard in college. They are mostly middle class ,with no concept of the original nature of the actor, a low life with upper class mobility. These hot house blossoms do not understand that performing serious theater is done with life and death like intensity, but the audience should only see the result, not the struggle. I often felt that if I sent out a press-gang, the recruiting method of the British Empire in the 18th century, to fill the army and navy ranks by snatching people up on the street, I had as much chance of finding capable bodies,

Then there were the retreads, the ex-insurance company executives who retired and suddenly wanted to be actors, after 20 years of misleading the public about their benefits. A few were suitable for institutional tv ads, but classical theater? It takes a long time for the true actor to develop his/her craft. These characters who last week were conning joe client on the golf course, now want to do Shakespeare. It’s ironic that many of them were bright, competent people in their earlier incarnations, but they’re attempting to practice a profession that though undisciplined compared to ballet, or classical music, nevertheless has requirements that take years to master. Their redeeming virtue is unlike the middle class kiddies, they seldom snivel.

The most promising pool of talent is the misfits, the neglected, the rejected, all the types that don’t fit in with the college trained directors, who mostly seek the college trained actors they were exposed to at good old Shelter U. But these oddballs are the most deceptive, since many of them have been justifiably rejected due to unacceptable qualities. Yet this is where I hoped to find the born actor who hadn’t fit in anywhere else.

 

I had to consider the nature of theater historically, to get a better concept of what I intended to do. The Ancient Greek drama wasn’t really theater at all, but a socio-religious, poetic-mythological enactment more similar to the Christian mass, then Hamlet. The playwrights were distinguished Athenian citizens, in a slave holding society. Aeschylus fought at the battle of Marathon, that saved Greece from the Persian invasion. But the actors were unknown amateurs, who performed once a year at the Thesmophoriazeusae, a 4 day festival, with 3 days of tragedy, 1 day of comedy.

The Roman theater was generally performed by upper class amateurs for the amusement of their peers. It wasn’t until the Commedia actors earned their living by their craft, in 16th century Italy and France, that professional theater evolved. Commedia actors did low comedy in the public square, but performed high comedy, tragedy, dance, for the wealthy. They delighted the audience, or they didn’t get paid, didn’t eat. Mommy and Daddy didn’t subsidize them. They didn’t work as waiters. It was a mystery in the television age how to find actors willing to exert the effort to ultimately produce stage beauty by the sweat of their brows. Did these people still exist in an era of low cultural values, but high cultural pretensions?

 The great plan called for us to begin a long term company process doing Italian Commedia del’ Arte, using scenarios I translated and adapted from the I Gelosi, the first professional theater company. They traveled Italy and France in the 16th century, with many wild adventures, and presented low and high theater, opera, ballet, not the stereotypical low comedy, with actors playing the same roles for life, as asserted by college theater departments. Do the comfortable, tenure aspiring professors think a fossilized actor could convince an audience 5 feet away that he was a young lover? This troupe earned a living with their art, or starved. 

Of course I couldn’t demand that type of commitment from mostly over indulged, middle-class amateurs, especially when I couldn’t pay them. My rehearsal procedure would be rigorous and diverse, using physical, mental and emotional techniques to develop a capable working ensemble, the only logical way to present a play that depicts a world. It should be obvious to all theater practitioners that the actors must live in that world for the duration of the play, to sustain the interest and attention of the audience. Somehow theater departments forget to teach that.

 

My audition process consisted of an initial audition and 2 callbacks, if they got that far. Most actors never work in their profession, but they audition to claim to be actors, an affliction on serious directors. Despite no intention of joining if accepted, they are understandably nervous at facing a judge. I needed actors with nerve, so I would ask politely: ‘Ready?’ Then say ‘Sing’. If they squirmed, protested they weren’t singers, panicked, I said ‘Thank you for coming’. If they asked what did I want them to sing, I said ‘Anything’. If they sang, however horribly, we went on. I wasn’t looking for singers, but actors who weren’t afraid of taking chances. If they made excuses… ‘Thank you for coming.’

 It’s very difficult for a college graduate in theater to grasp the difference between the fear and tension at performance time in school, with a grade to follow, which is more important to the student than reaching the audience. In the television age, the professional actor must satisfy an increasingly detached audience, more and more removed from the urgency of performance that dilutes the impact of visually challenged theater. It is only the magic performed by the actor that can take the audience out of a spectacle conditioned mentality and compel their emotional involvement in the play. That involvement is the distinguishing characteristic between theater and the non-personal, but visually grander cinema and television. Most of the college kiddies may be reasonably bright, but they haven’t learned that controlled energy and passion are what moves audiences, not casual conversation or shouting.


 

About the Author

Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn’t earn a living in the theater. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and his published books include 31 poetry collections, 14 novels, 3 short story collections, 1 collection of essays and 4 books of plays.  Gary lives in New York City.