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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: September ::
Re: Lincoln Center TN
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0813  Tuesday, 8 September 1998.

From:           Tom Dale Keever <
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Date:           Monday, 7 Sep 1998 17:21:28 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Lincoln Center TN: It could have been worse!

I missed the live performance of TWELFTH NIGHT.  Though I stage managed
for Lincoln Center Festival this summer that was the one show management
wouldn't comp us into.  I was so annoyed at their tight-fisted policy I
refused to pony up the ticket price.  Even pre-opening scuttlebutt said
the best thing about it was the set.  Now that I've seen the video I
disagree - the set came in a close second to Max Wright's delightful Sir
Andrew.  I saw Wright play a masterful Government Inspector to Theo
Bikel's Mayor over twenty years ago and have been a devoted fan every
since.

New Yorkers who have suffered through years of "star-studded"
Shakespeare are almost inured to the agony of watching thoroughly
unqualified large and small screen celebrities cast in classic roles
they are painfully unprepared to play.  As such fiascoes go the Lincoln
Center TWELFTH NIGHT, Helen Hunt and all, was far from the worst.  Even
otherwise terrific stagings here can be nearly ruined by an inadequate
"star" in the lead, and I say this fresh from seeing the spunky, but
vocally hopeless, Jennifer Jason Leigh's Sally Bowles.  My introduction
to this frequent Broadway hazard was the James Earl Jones / Christopher
Plummer OTHELLO which was saddled with a pitifully inadequate Desdemona
cast in her first classic role only because she was the TV soaps' flavor
of the month and might attract tourists.

Veterans of this Gotham genre can tell you that the Public Theater's
TWELFTH NIGHT, c. 1990, was, perhaps, the most abysmal instance in
modern memory.  That disaster featured Michelle Pfeifer's cute but
painfully wooden Olivia, Gregory Hines trying to soft-shoe around the
obvious fact that he hadn't a clue what half of Feste's lines meant, and
Jeff Goldblum's Malvolio proving once and for all that NO role is
actor-proof.  Among the leads only Maria Mastrantonio's (sp?) Viola
deserved Equity scale.  I suspect word that she's a reasonably talented
stage actress got back to Hollywood and explains why she's gotten so few
good film roles since.  The rest of the leads and most of the supporting
cast only occasionally rose to the level of lack-luster.

The sole memorable performance was delivered by Andre Braugher, fresh
out of Juilliard, as Antonio.  His denunciation of Viola in III, iv
brought many of us to our feet as if he'd hit a homer in the bottom of
the ninth (Terence, read "...scored a century,..."), thinking, "A
trained stage actor!  How'd HE get up there!"  I hope his subsequent
years in HOMICIDE and on film locations have not harmed his technique.

That production's problems were compounded by the installation as
director, at the insistence of the leads, of a celebrity Hollywood
"Acting Coach to the Stars" with little or no stage experience.  He
proved he didn't know the first thing about moving actors about on a
stage.  The ability of big name film personalities to bully producers
and dictate their directors is a recurrent peril in this genre.  Denzel
Washington nixed the brilliant American director Robert Falls when he
was hired to play Richard III at the Delacorte.  Since he was doing his
first Shakespeare he demanded a British director.  The NYSF scared one
up for him and the result was a stodgy, leaden staging from which I took
advantage of Terence's merciful "prospect of the interval" (or
"intermission" as we call it here) to flee.

These abominations do not occur by accident, but are dictated by the
economics of the American stage and its relationship to the rest of the
entertainment industry.  It would be wonderful if we, like the Brits,
had TV producers who drew on the stage for their actors.  Our's instead
use the stage to showcase their "talent" (that, for the uninitiated, is
what production staffers call actors on a TV or film set, and it is
pronounced with an inflection similar to that used by ranch foremen
referring to cattle, e.g. "OK, now send the talent over to that holding
area.").  Despite their huge salaries, film and TV stars have little
more real power in their industry than sports stars have in theirs.  The
power centers that orchestrate the star-hobbled stage productions we
suffer here in New York are not the big name stars, but the increasingly
centralized and intertwined talent agencies and producing organizations
who manage and employ them to create film and television product.
Considering the huge disparity between the profits to be made by film
and tv and those realized by theater it is not surprising that the
former industry treats the latter much as major league teams treat their
farm clubs.  If New York and Los Angeles get more of these productions
than the rest of the country it is because appearances here serve as
"showcases" for the major agents, casting directors, and producers in
the two entertainment capitols.

A friend who worked for one of the major Broadway producers complained
to me once that when she was negotiating with agencies even for a
"major" stage star for an important Broadway show she typically found
herself dealing with their lowest echelon flunkies.  Sadly, the example
she cited was Phil Bosco, whose Malvolio was one of the few bright spots
of the TN under discussion.  Ambitious young agents strive to get out of
the basement of mere stage actors and start handling the agency's
profitable TV and film properties.  Sadly the non-profits like the New
York Shakespeare Festival, Lincoln Center, and The Mark Taper Forum have
proven incapable of developing casting departments that resist the
pressures of the major agencies to use performers the agencies hope to
promote into profitable TV and film careers.

I learned the power of the TV star, and the concomitant disparity in
salary, when I managed a tour of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES in 1988.  The
producer in Flint insisted that at least one lead had to be a TV name
and replaced a talented and experienced actor with Peter Marshall.  I
had to be told that this newcomer was not even a dramatic or comic TV
star, but a game show host!  Nevertheless, he was paid five times what
the veteran stage actor he replaced was getting.

The power of the talent agencies, and their contempt for the low-profit
world of stage production, will do increasing harm as the commercial
stage becomes more thoroughly entangled with entertainment conglomerates
like Disney.  What little protection the unions afford their members
against cut-throat labor pricing is endangered by Disney's demonstrated
determination to break the power of Equity and the other performers' and
technicians' unions.  They almost forced a strike by pit musicians
before the opening of THE LION KING and they promise to play more
hardball in the future.

The non-profit theater responds to the commercial stage with productions
cast from the same pool of high profile media talent because it is
increasingly subjected to the same market forces.  As long as these
companies rely on marketing their productions to TV viewers and film
goers rather than tackle the harder work of building a theater-going
audience that does not need to be lured by their favorite screen stars
we will see fewer and fewer Max Wrights and Phil Boscos on our main
stages and more and more Helen Hunts and Denzel Washingtons.  I am not
saying that more healthily subsidized resident stage companies will
guarantee first rate stagings - there will always be shows at Stratford
Terence will rightly walk out on - but without a retreat from the
"privatization" of non-profit theater the Hollywoodization of our
classic stage is all but guaranteed.

Tom Dale Keever
Graduate Fellow
Columbia University
 

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