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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

NECESSARY THEATRE by Peter Hall

So, last night instead of reading another play in the book – I’m way ahead of schedule for reading them all by St Valentine’s Day – I decided to read a book Scott mentioned recently: Necessary Theatre by Peter Hall.

I’ve been a big fan of Sir Peter’s work since he ran the National in London. During the 1980s my day job was associate publisher and exec vp for an art (coffee table) book publisher in NYC. I was young and it was a really great job in many ways. We did several co-publishing deals with the Victoria and Albert Museum and other institutions in London, and maintained a sweet apartment on Gunter Grove. So, I got to see lots of Brit productions and Hall’s work at the National was superior. I also read his diaries when they came out.

Then, as happens sometimes, he fell off my radar. What a delightful way to re-discover him this little pamphlet is. Reading it sent me off to dreamland.

Necessary Theatre” makes the case for subsidy as the means and avenue for the establishment of a theatre culture that is company-based. Now, Hall is in the UK, where they already spend a billion $ a year on the arts.

It would be frustrating for an American playwright (or actor or director) to consider this scenario if it were anywhere within reach. However, with the US government about to freeze domestic spending for the foreseeable future, so we can continue to bomb rocks and seize oil fields abroad and carry out a failed prohibition policy at home, the idea of an entire round of huge subsidies to underwrite the establishment a new theatre culture is too far-fetched to raise any ire or angst. We spend a tenth of what Britain does on the arts, and are five times the size.

So, it was off to dreamland. I won a 9 figure lottery prize. After taxes and setting up reasonable-size trusts for my wife and two children, I had $30 or $40 million left. I bought the Cherry Lane Theater. I hired a company of actors who were willing to work at other tasks within the theater when they weren’t on stage.

Everybody got paid a living wage. I mounted 4 of my shows in rep right off the bat – two musicals on the main stage and two straight plays in the black box. I lived above the theater. Tickets were $10 in the black box and the musicals were $15. In the summer we all went to the mountains. In the winter, the troupe was independent enough of me that I could spend a couple months writing in south Florida.

Eventually all the money was gone but it didn’t matter. It was all about the ride.

5 comments:

  1. It's a good fantasy Uke, not far from some of my own.

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  2. Thanks, Kevin. I left out the "good parts".

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  3. Did you read the second part? About his work with the Young Vic? THAT'S the good part. The first part is boilerplate. By the way, Bill Ivey, in "Arts, Inc" devotes some space to saying that the subsidy for the arts in the US is not as bad as some make it look, it is just that it is being spent in different agencies. He also includes the subsidy for the arts that is provided by the tax deductibility, which is not the case in many countries, and which produces a considerable amount of private funds. It was an interesting perspective I hadn't encountered before.

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  4. I did read the Young Vic part, Scott. Indeed, I read the whole thing (all 60 or so pages) in one sitting.

    The problem with private giving is that it comes from corporations and is basically hush money for institutions. Imagine an audience at Lincoln Center rushing out into the streets and rioting after a provocative night at the theater. Hah!

    The professional milquetoasts who serve as admins at these institutions are adepts at not ruffling feathers in the boardrooms. I hear they swallow, too.

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  5. Yeah -- I tend to be unimpressed by Hall's argument for subsidy. He was really into sucking up as much of the arts budget as possible for whatever theatre he was running at the time. When I went back and revisited the section on the Old Vic, I was surprised at how short it was (at least the section that grabbed me). It was the first couple pages of the second part about the open stage at the Old Vic. The rest was forgettable...

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