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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: November ::
DC Free-for-All Moves Inside
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0618  Sunday, 2 November 2008

From:       Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:       Sunday, November 02, 2008
Subject:    DC Free-for-All Moves Inside

[Editor's Note: The following online blog contains links to stories surrounding 
change of venue for Free-For-All and raises in my mind interesting issues 
regarding performances one pays for and ones seen for free. Since my 
dissertation was cross-disciplinary, I was required to take a course in the 
Theatre Department -- I did not need to take a course in film since I had 
experience as a graduate assistant in literature to film class. My professor in 
theatre aesthetics was the chair of the department and a reviewer for the 
suburban newspaper chain. Once he noted that one of the reasons that theatre 
reviewers and those who pay for their tickets often have different reaction to 
the same production is that reviewers get their tickets for free while the 
typical theatergoers pay and by paying have an investment, often a substantial 
investment, in wanting to feel they have gotten their money's worth. I might add 
that the more one pays for a ticket the higher the expectation. Thus, when a 
company with a reputation for charging a great deal for tickets offers a free 
production, the implication would be that there would be many, subscribers and 
non-subscribers alike, who would be eager to attend. {Time does not permit me to 
explore these thought any further today.} --HMCook]

 From Online Washington Post Blog

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/rawfisher/2008/10/midsummer_nights_end_no_more_s.html

Raw Fisher
By Marc Fisher
A Cold Splash of Reality, with a Side of Sizzle

Midsummer Night's End: No More Shakespeare in the Park

The Shakespeare Theatre Company is one of Washington's most extraordinary 
success stories, growing from one intimate space on Capitol Hill to a major 
downtown institution with a national reputation, all in just a couple of 
decades. Hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors have been introduced to 
the Shakespeare Theatre's world-class productions through its annual series of 
free shows at the Carter Barron amphitheater 
<http://www.nps.gov/archive/rocr/cbarron/history/history.htm> in Rock Creek 
Park. But those Free for All productions are now history, scrapped in a sad, 
budget-driven decision that slams the brakes on the city's development into a 
year-round cultural capital.

Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Michael Kahn announced that starting in 
2009, the free shows will move from summer to September and from the park to the 
Harman Center 
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/26/AR2008102602207.html?hpid=moreheadlineslocal>, 
the new downtown theater that his company built across the street from Abe 
Pollin's sports arena.

The Shakespeare company contends that the move downtown 
<http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/about/ffa/index.aspx> will open one 
production a year to more people than the park venue has been able to 
accommodate, but that's pure spin. The bottom line is the bottom line, and that 
is that the theater company concluded that the shows in the park were not 
translating to new audiences arriving-and paying-to see shows at the company's 
Lansburgh and Harman stages downtown.

But it's hard to see how putting those same free shows inside the very theater 
where paying customers ordinarily plunk down $50 or $60 per ticket will serve as 
an incentive. Why pay if I can get the exact same thing for free, some in the 
audience will figure.

More important, the move will eliminate a key ingredient in the pitch that is 
made to many new residents of the region-summer interns, students, newly-arrived 
professionals-about how Washington is much more than politics and bureaucrats. 
Those folks who come here first for a summer may not be the most popular people 
in town, but a great many of them end up staying here for many years, if not 
forever, and Shakespeare in the park has been a delicious lure, a first step 
toward sinking roots in a new place.

Shakespeare in the park, a tradition that goes back to early England, became a 
mainstay of summertime in big American cities when New York's Public Theater 
started staging shows in Central Park in 1954 
<http://www.publictheater.org/content/view/126/219/>. Director Joseph Papp 
turned those glorious productions into a signature event of a New York summer, 
and when Kahn brought the tradition to Washington in 1991, with a big financial 
boost from The Washington Post and its owners, the quality of the shows and the 
lure of great theater under the stars more than made up for the regularity of 
the thunderstorms and the heaviness of the midsummer humidity. (The tradition 
was not entirely new to Washington; in the 1960s and 70s, the D.C. Recreation 
Department and the National Park Service had staged summer Shakespeare festivals 
at the Sylvan Theater near the Washington Monument.)

A key question raised by the Shakespeare Theatre's decision is whether the 
company has expanded too far, too quickly. Shows at the new 774-seat Harman 
facility often play to less than full audiences, whereas the older 441-seat 
Lansburgh around the corner on Seventh Street almost always seems packed to the 
gills.

With the explosion of gorgeous new theaters all around the city and in close-in 
suburbs in the last few years, it may be that the stage scene has to go through 
some of the same shakeout phase that much of the rest of the economy is 
suffering through. But while it may be unfortunate to see that facilities such 
as, say, the National Theatre remain dark for long stretches of time, that 
disappointment is nothing compared to the loss of an experience that defines 
summer in Washington for many thousands.

As lovely as the new Harman theater is, a series of free shows there in 
September-a month that is already perhaps the busiest in the city's cultural 
calendar-will be just one more bit of programming. In contrast, a picnic in the 
park and an evening of smartly-produced Shakespeare performed by top-shelf 
actors in a lush setting just off 16th Street is the kind of distinctive 
tradition that makes people feel like they have found a thriving, inviting, 
stimulating home.

As the shocks of this economic shakeup keep coming over the next months, we're 
likely to see many traditions and institutions fall away. That this one is among 
the first to die only makes that prospect the more frightening.

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