American Conservatory Theater, the Magic Theatre, and Marin Theatre Company all turn 40 this year. Accordingly, these three regionally and nationally preeminent Bay Area companies are rolling out ambitious celebratory seasons. But despite all the satisfaction rightfully implied by this triple birthday, theater finds itself in a significant and uncertain period of transition.
Relevance and sustainability were prominent themes when artistic directors Carey Perloff (ACT), Lee Sankowich (MTC), and Chris Smith (Magic) sat down with the Guardian to share their thoughts on the trajectories of their respective organizations as well as theater’s past, present, and future in the culture at large.
CHRIS SMITH There is a lot of looking back and celebration of legacies and all that a significant landmark — turning 40 — suggests. But organic to the Magic’s mission is seeding the future, because we really are about new work. And to be committed to new work is really to have a perspective on the horizon.
We can talk about it from a number of different points of view, including the way most people want to talk about theater and art making these days, which is from the consumer model. We’re all completely obsessed with audiences and consumers. And that’s one of the critical differences [between] now and 40 years ago. In a weird way we’re a 40-year-old teenager. Suddenly we’re saying we have to be more concerned now than in the past about making sure people are having a good experience and getting them in.
But if you stop thinking for one split second about the financial success of the theater or the relevancy of the theater within a country that is arguably celebrating the dumbing down of the political spectrum, the health of the theater as an art form is very, very good. The best thing to cite on that front is the proliferation of high-quality MFA writing programs contributing to the number of committed, intelligent, craft-oriented, theatrically vibrant artists coming into our field.
So I actually have a great deal of optimism about the value that theater will have in the next decade in our society. That’s very distinct from numbers. The audiences that will be attending challenging, literate, smart work I expect are going to shrink. But I think it brings us back to a kind of churchlike sensibility.
The theater as a church for a thinking person is increasingly at value in our digital age, where we’re being separated from liveness, we’re being separated from the communal, separated from contact. We are in a moment between a fundamental impulse to look backwards and an impulse to look forwards. And the artists are the ones that live in that cusp.
CAREY PERLOFF Of course, this is exactly what [Tom Stoppard’s] Travesties is about. There’s a great moment where [Tristan] Tzara says, “As a Dadaist I’m a natural ally of the political left, but the paradox is the further left you go politically, the more bourgeois they like their art.” On the other hand, obviously what Stoppard believes — and what we all have to believe or we wouldn’t be doing this — is that in the long run, when everything else goes, the thing that lasts is art.
The real fight for us in the field right now is to have our own barometers of value. You have to try to take the long view. The only external measures of value [now] are box office sales and critical response. But there are many plays that had miserable box office returns and disastrous critical responses and have come to be the plays we treasure. As I get older, what I most admire in certain artists is their willingness to stay the course and keep their own exploration, their own voice, their own particular artistic journey going, whether or not it seems to be popular or viable.
We wrestle with it here all the time, because I wish people were writing bigger plays. We’re doing [Philip Kan Gotanda’s After the War] at the Geary. Now this may be the most foolhardy choice I’ve ever made, but it’s such a big, meaty play that it deserves to be on the Geary stage. We do Lillian Hellman, we do August Wilson, we do Stoppard. Who’s the next generation of writers writing 10-character plays that can fit in the Geary? No wonder nobody’s doing it, because who’s producing it? Nobody! Of course everyone’s writing four-character plays. They’re not idiots.
You have to say to a writer, “Have the courage to think big. Learn the Chekhovian skill of writing for 10 actors,” which is extremely difficult. To sustain complex character over a canvas that size is a totally different challenge. We don’t ask our writers to do that anymore.
LEE SANKOWICH Well, it comes down to support. To be able to do what both of you are talking about, it comes down to corporate funding and grants.
CP But the grant ethos right now — the word that is used more than anything else — is outcomes, right? We’re all being asked to demonstrate measurable outcomes. To me this is so hilarious. It’s like saying, “I’m going to be raising my children, and the measurable outcomes are what?”
CS We need to — as artists and as leaders of artistic institutions — stand up and say, “No, we need cultural metrics. We need the enlightenment-o-meter for measurable outcomes.” Did I walk out of this performance of Orson’s Shadow knowing more about the peculiar nature of these tremendous stars and their relationships and how that impulse really created art? Did I leave there somehow changed? And can we measure that? Can we say, instead, there was a 20 percent increase in enlightenment — what a remarkable outcome! — although the attendance figures stayed flat?
LS It’s interesting, [when] you walk out of Orson’s Shadow, if nothing else, you realize that the big struggle, especially for Welles and Olivier, [is that] they’re known for what they did 30 years earlier. And their big thing is they’re trying to become modern.
CS The opening of our seasons is really emblematic. MTC is working with these great artists in a very literate, funny, interesting perspective. ACT is working on this very big social canvas in a really smart way with Stoppard. The Magic Theatre is getting to work with Sam Shepard and his most recent play [The God of Hell], likewise his most passionate play, written in a moment specifically with the intention to affect the outcome of an election! SFBG
For the complete interview with Perloff, Sankowich, and Smith, see www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.