Charles Isherwood to Off-Off-Broadway: Drop Dead? Berger Says Yes.

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The second-string theater critic of the New York Times, Charles Isherwood, had to know when he wrote “Envisioning Shakespeare at Home in New York” — examining how the Royal Shakespeare Company’s upcoming residence at the Park Avenue Armory inspires “gratitude and chagrin” — he would chasten and infuriate the Off-Off-Broadway community. And scores of comparatively well-financed Off-Broadway companies that also produce classical work.

The chagrin “derives from the dispiriting reflection that the chance to see five Shakespeare plays in rep is virtually unheard of in this, the country’s theatrical capital,” Isherwood mused. “Sometimes we don’t see that many major Shakespeare productions here in a year.”

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But that, of course, depends on how one defines “major.” It presumes “a classical repertory company of international stature” in New York City does not or could not exist within Gotham’s massive mosaic of nonprofit theater groups.

Isherwood did not opine without providing examples. The National Actors Theater, founded and run by the late Tony Randall, “gradually fizzled,” he wrote. The ambitious scheme to reinvent Castle Williams on Governors Island as a house for the Bard “hasn’t gotten much traction.” And when in doubt, raise the legacy of Joseph Papp, who forged the New York Shakespeare Festival, now the Public Theater, on “a passion and a dream.” Trouble is, Papp represents the type of inspired theatrical pioneer who “does not emerge as necessity demands.”

Plus, Isherwood observes,

The city already has a handful of well-established not-for-profit theater companies – including the Public – that produce full seasons of work on Broadway and off, and probably aren’t looking for any competition for fundraising dollars.

But classical work is represented only rarely in their seasons. The Roundabout Theater Company produces Shaw with some regularity, and 20th-century American classics, but no Shakespeare. Lincoln Center Theater hasdone just three Shakespeare productions in the last decade. And while the Public still produces Shakespeare plays in Central Park — though not exclusively — under the artistic director Oskar Eustis the company has staged only a single Shakespeare play at its Astor Place site. (The Public also produced the Philip Seymour Hoffman Othello off-site, and hosted a Wooster Group riff on Hamlet.)

Fair enough — if these are the only companies, using whatever standard one may wish, that can be classified as “major.”

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But it does raise the question of how mid-size Off-Broadway organizations, such as the Pearl Theater Company, are to be classified. Is Theater for a New Audience a hack house? Forget about the scores of Off-Off-Broadway nonprofits that offer Shakespeare each year, too.

This, beyond matters of taste, is a matter of numbers. Estimates vary, but something on the order of 500 professional productions are mounted in New York City annually. Isherwood may not see them, hear of them or care for them, nor can the Times be expected to cover them all, or even a small percentage of them, especially in our nation’s presence state of arts-journalism decay.

But that does not mean they are not there.

Refusing to acknowledge even the existence of such companies and productions is tantamount to homeowners in an all-white neighborhood pretending that nice family of color isn’t living just down the block. It plays the class card.

Tom Berger, a board member of the League of Independent Theater, a 501(c)(6) advocacy group and artistic director of the modest, productive and scrappy (re:) Directions Theatre Company, has written a letter to the editor railing at Isherwood’s piece. He is also promoting it heavily through social media, such as Facebook. (Full disclosure: I also sit on the board.) The letter reads:

To the Editor:

I find Mr. Isherwood’s article regarding the state of Classical Theatre in New York insulting, condescending and tone-deaf to the vibrant artistic community around him. How can Mr. Isherwood claim there is no institutional and quality Classical Theatre in New York if he does not attend the opportunities available to him? Even if one ludicrously ignores amazing NY companies like CSC, Red Bull, Theatre for a New Audience, Shakespeare Theatre of Harlem, Inwood Shakespeare and our own New York Shakespeare Festival, how can one ignore the bounty of Independent Theatre productions that take place in the dozens (probably hundreds) of venues south of Times Square?

Granted, Indie Theatre can be a crap shoot, especially when it comes to classics, but as the Times rarely reviews or attends performances below the off-Broadway level, it can be apparent how Mr. Isherwood could lose perspective. I challenge both Mr. Isherwood and the Times as an institution to take a chance on the exciting, versatile and creative world that is Independent/off-off-Broadway Theatre, not just in the realm of classics. In addition to the aforementioned esteemed companies, one might be surprised at the kaleidoscope of exciting theatre being created in New York City by artists of every stripe. Perhaps Mr. Isherwood can take time out of his busy schedule to appreciate the world’s most wide-reaching theatre community; he’s welcome at my shows anytime.

Tom Berger
Artistic Director
(re:) Directions Theatre Company

Here is the question: To what degree can the Off-Off-Broadway community hold Isherwood personally responsible for his own, necessarily subjective definition of the word “major”?

And what is reasonable for non-“major” companies to expect of the second-string critic of the New York Times?