Ok, since no other bloggers (or none that I've noticed) have taken notice this week of Charles Isherwood's latest love letter to downtown theatre, I guess I'll have to.
By love letter, of course, I mean it in the sense of the immortal Frank Booth: "You know what a love letter is? It's a bullet from a fucking gun, fucker!" (See here.)
In an otherwise informative piece on some of the collaboration going on between Off and Off-Off Broadway (or, as I prefer to say, smallish theatres and even smaller ones). Co-productions, transfers, that stuff. Interesting topic. But Ish has to ruin it with this opening:
Casual theatergoers may have little or no idea of the difference between Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway. So here’s a quick primer.
If you are paying $65 or $75 for a full-price ticket, you are seeing an Off Broadway show. If you are fanning yourself with your program and wondering about fire-code violations, it’s definitely a double-Off experience.
Actor you recognize from television: Off. Actor you recognize because he’s your son’s second-grade teacher and he invited you (well, actually implored you) to see the show: Off Off.
Engulfed by the sound of uncrinkling candy wrappers: Off. Surrounded by tattoos and Obama buttons: Off Off.
Thanks for setting this huge swath of NY theatre back thirty years, Charles.I know, can't I take a joke? Yes, when you write a New York Times Sunday Arts & Leisure piece I guess it can't be all "spinach" and your job is to entertain your affluent readers as they read you over their Zabar's-catered brunch.
But these opening lines just give so much away at the biases still at work at the arts paper of record, and explain why...well, why they still just don't get it.
The beginning premise is exactly what pains me about this schtick. NY Times reader really do need a primer. An intelligent one. Not one relying on obsolete cliches.
For instance: If there is a "2nd grade teacher" starring in it, it's an Actors Equity member with a dayjob--and willing to work for free when he can't get hired for any of the 2-character star-fucking plays Off-B'way is doing. True, some of what you'll find in the OOB listings on a given week are essentially vanity projects with press agents. And, yes, it can be hard for the uninitiated to separate one from the other. But experienced playgoers (and critics!) should be able to tell.
Once and for all...say it with me....Off Off Broadway is not community theatre. In this city, it's where a lot of really good, professional artists do the shows no one will pay them to do.
Likewise Off Off is not (or no longer) defined by the rattiness of the venue. Or even really the number of seats. It's the contract, stupid.
And hence what's missing from Isherwood's entire piece--the economics. Nowhere, for instance, are the words "showcase code" mentioned (indeed never in the Times at all, as far as I know). But that, if anything, comes closest to defining, in objective terms, the difference between a show you see at, say, Playwrights Horizons and one you see at PS122.
Again, it need not have anything to do with the talent, training, or pedigree of the artists. Instead it's mostly about who's paying for the space, how big is the budget, and how much are the actors getting paid.
I guess if the actors aren't getting paid, many just assume they're not "professional." What they don't realize is that most (as in, the norm) AEA actors have day-jobs, since you probably only act for a salary, at best, twenty weeks a year, and at a couple of hundred a week at that.
Ah, but if you knew about the Showcase Code, you would understand that, wouldn't you. Or if you just bothered to find out. This is why I did aim to find out last summer and learn whatever I could. (Resulting in this article.)
Anyway, I know I'm taking this way more seriously than Isherwood intended. Clearly he'd rather indulge the old cultural stereotypes that Off-Off is just an environment too filthy, too idealistic, and--yes--too liberal (the Obama buttons) for well-heeled "culture lovers" to be caught dead in.
Notice, by the way, however tongue in cheek this may be, he is not just setting up these stereotypes to debunk them in the rest of the article. If anything, the trajectory of his story implies these plays are improving by upgrading one "Off" level.
This all reminds me, by the way, of something I heard a downtown producer once say--that the whole "Off/Off-Off" nomenclature has to go, since too many people think of "off" as in bad milk.
What's so unfortunate about this is that Isherwood blows a valuable opportunity to educate the NYT readership on what really is the difference between Broadway/ Off/ and Off-Off.
In other words, the story that needs to be written is: You may think Off-Off B'way means smelly spaces and amateur acting. But this ain't your father's Off-Off anymore. In fact, most of the best and exciting theatre going on in town is happening technically "Off-Off." That's because that's where artists go when they want to make theatre that isn't necessarily commercial and star-driven and doesn't require a huge overhead.
Or something like that.
Call it cheerleading, but at least it's more accurate than what Isherwood wrote.
Again the full article itself is worth reading, and contains some interesting info on God's Ear, Sound and the Fury and other shows making "the move."
But for all the good will Isherwood intends, after that intro how can I take him seriously when he pleads: "in general the wilderness of unruly and unknown troupes is a place where many regular theatergoers fear to tread, out of sheer bewilderment." Gee, Charles, why do you think that is? Maybe because the Times keeps telling them such theatres are filthy amateur-hour firetraps?
Finally--if I may put on my own "Obama pin" for a sec--we can all laugh about bad Off-Off experiences, and there are many of them. But right now is not the time. The stakes for non-commercial, "poor theatre" (poor materially, not artistically) are too high, the future of the artform too important, to encourage this kind of unenlightened misinformation at this moment.
In short, let's be part of the solution, not the problem.