Yesterday--in the midst of responding to my post on the Innovative Theatre Awards, specifically my characterization of the Tonys as increasingly "irrelevant" artistically--David Cote goaded me in Comments with a question:
I'm curious, though, Playgoer: What could you envision as a televised event that could significantly represent the hugely varied, multidisciplinary and inherently local/far-flung multiverse of American theater to the public?This may not really address David's question, but the answer, I'd say, is not yet another awards show. The best thing television could do for theatre is simply to show plays.
Remember PBS's American Playhouse? Imagine a weekly (or even monthly) broadcast of a good production of either a new or old American play. Or, now, theatre piece, from a collaborative ensemble like the Wooster Group.(American Playhouse featured classics like All My Sons as well as then-new plays like "Blue Window" and "Painting Churches.")
PBS has retained some theatre programming with their "Stage on Screen" series, but it's very infrequent and if it's not importing (the UK "Beckett on Film" series) it's serving as a commercial for Roundabout Theatre Company, televising popular productions like The Women and Man Who Came to Dinner. Yet PBS has maintained much more regular schedules of opera, classical music and dance. (Most of it on another promotional series, "Live from Lincoln Center"--which has included theatre presentations like "Light in the Piazza.")
It's interesting that HBO has taken up the mantle in recent years, often enlisting Mike Nichols to do so (Angels in America, Wit). But these are clearly films based on plays. For all the drawbacks evident in seeing a theatrical performance on video (with or without an audience, on a stage or in a studio) there's something very valuable about capturing it. Especially in plays and theatre pieces that may not "open up" well and are tailor made for the real-time and unit-set space of the stage. Plus, it is a way to record for posterity some of the fine performances by American stage actors who otherwise don't work much in film. (Note, for instance, that Emma Thompson's "Wit" is the performance of record now, not Kathleen Chalfant's.)
Next February, ABC will air the P.Diddy "Raisin in the Sun"in a production more or less derived from the Broadway one. (Phylicia Rashad is repeating her role and Kenny Leon is directing.) I bet it will be huge. Note ABC has also rolled out a series of old musicals over the last decade from Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella" to "Annie."
So will theatre ultimately find a home in the wider-access world of network tv (or what's left of it)? Or will it be cable that comes to the rescue? Whether HBO--who has the money and creative ambition to throw at it . Or will the ever-multiplying "niche channels" finally result in a whole theatre station, if not a really good arts network?
Or will we just have to wait for that day when everything is broadcast over our tv screens? Whan websites can store digitized videos of entire performances. BBC already does it for their Complete Shakespeare series. So--as the old saying goes--we have the technology.