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.”

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.

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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?

  • As is so often the case with OOB, people make pronouncements without looking at the numbers first. And if I’m not mistaken, there are some pretty distinguished sources of those numbers out there. What they say is that, added all together, OOB has a very “major” impact indeed.

    By the way, does an Arts Section front-page feature and 16 New York Times reviews over 18 years make my company’s Shakespeare work “major?” How about the Times review trashing Kelsey Grammer’s production of “Macbeth” in the Times suggesting that people head up to Ft. Tryon to see mine instead – is that “major?” His was on Browadway, mine was in the park, and the Times itself suggested that mine was the better show.

    OK, never mind. If someone will give me 5 Mil to tattoo my arm, I’ll show you a year of “major” Shakespeare, as in fine productions of all 41 plays, and I’ll take my best shot at it if they don’t, too.

    Maybe the Tucker Max on Broadway project will pay for it… we’ve got the better part of two years. Bring it!

    Christopher Carter Sanderson

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  • Leonard,

    thank you for the article; anytime we’re talking about it, we gain strength.

    Christopher,

    thanks for your thoughts. look me up on RTC’s website; i may have a project that could be of interest to you.

    ~t

  • Thomas Garvey

    Has New York really lost so much perspective on itself that it thinks a “mid-size Off-Broadway company” can compare to the RSC? I think it’s quite possible that most of this “outrage” derives from an uncomfortable awareness – sparked by that really shocking statistic that some 40% of the RSC’s support comes from America – that outside of New York, New York Shakespeare isn’t held in such high regard.

    • The point is more than midsize companies can indeed compare to the RSC — and can only grow if people like Charles Isherwood actually see their work and encourage them along. Ignoring them and pretending they’re there doesn’t make them better. It oppresses. As for the regard in which Shakespeare is held, that’s actually a big canard, my friend. Go to Oregon Shakespeare or Utah Shakes. Those numbers don’t lie.

  • Thomas Garvey

    Oh, sorry – I didn’t realize Oregon and Utah now counted as outer boroughs . . .

    As for Charles Isherwood – I’m sure he should indeed see more of their work, but count me skeptical that if he did, he’d consider them the equal of the RSC. I’ve never seen any New York Shakespeare that I thought was as strong as the RSC at its best, so I’m excited about the visit.

  • Thomas Garvey

    And at any rate, I’m sure Isherwood didn’t intend to malign companies like the Pearl so much as he hoped to pressure larger companies like the Public into producing more Shakespeare . . .

  • Martin

    Mr Isherwood was referring to world class classical repertoire. We don’t have that in New York, and haven’t had in recent memory. No theatre company operating on a high level in NY is committed to the classics. One certainly can’t compare the Pearl and Red Bull with the RSC or National; or for that matter even with the Donmar or the Almeida, 4 UK theatres where leading actors, directors, and designers regularly produce stimulating, major productions of the classics – not to mention new plays, and forgotten plays. Oh yeah – and there’s also Shakespeare’s Globe that regularly does Shakespeare and classics. The Public has left its Shakespeare roots to languish in 1 or 2 mezzo mezzo Park productions a year. Everyone else either cranks out like sausages starry revivals with an occasional new play; or is looking for a crossover to commercial hit. Small companies in NYC eke out an existence – but their shows are usually under=designed and under cast, if one is comparing to the highest standards of classical theatre. And CSC – Classic Stage Company – doesnt seem too devoted to the classics. David Ives?

  • Tim

    Thomas-
    the point isnt that he was pushing the Public to produce more Shakespeare; the point is that, apparently to Mr. Isherwood, if the Public doesn’t produce Shakespeare, he doesn’t see it happening at all. And as he is published in a major NYC newspaper, people believe what he says. But it isn’t true. There’s more classical theatre being produced in this town than ever, and the majority of it very high quality.

    As for comparing it to the RSC…many of these productions compare to the best Shakespeare in the world, let alone the RSC. Come check them out and see for yourself. I’ll buy you a drink and discuss.

    Tim Errickson
    Artistic Director
    Boomerang Theatre Company

    President
    the Off-Off Broadway Community Dish

  • Stanley

    How can you view Isherwood’s call to arms to have a full time Shakespeare Theater in New York insulting? This sounds like a lame protest to me- any call to build (and keep) a new theater should be supported by the off-off b’way community community since it means more paying work. And regarding the use of “major”-I spent a year studying theatre in London and the disparity in quality between Shakespeare there and in New York would be comical if it was not so depressing. Get behind the new theater and maybe one day you’ll be employed there.

  • Will Ditterline

    I agree with Tom Garvey’s summation of my outrage – I am outraged that 40% of the RSC’s support comes from America. I think of it as unpatriotic and a huge slap in the face to those of us actors here in America stuck in service jobs. Yes, you can file this and serve me that, but I’ll be going to the RSC for my Shakespeare thank you very much. It’s like sending donations to a foreign team in the Olympics because you like their outfits.

    And thanks to the OSU for being too lazy to create a quality program of their own that doesn’t rely on gimmicky internships with the brand name RSC stamped on them. Go Buck yourself.

    Oh, and thanks to Lincoln Center for outsourcing our American jobs to Brits. Lincoln would have loved that. (BTW – Lincoln died HATING the theatre, but that’s another story.)

    And Stanley, we don’t have to get behind Charlie’s call for a Shakespeare Theatre in NY in order to support there being one. This is America. If the right producer is out there with the right vision then it will happen. If you or Charlie are that producer, then make it happen. Sh*t or get off the pot. His “call to arms” is typical of would be urban planners and Victorian gentlemen – get a degree and compain that no one is doing the work.

    Thanks Leonard, I feel better. I’ve been pissed at this story since it ran. I should have known you would pick up the discussion here but didn’t pop over until I saw the link on the Guardian’s theatre blog.

  • Martin

    And … The Park Avenue Aromoury is one of the most dynamic new performance venues in NYC. From the Mnouchkine show last summer, to Die Soldaten, to the Heiner Goebbels piano piece – we have no place like it. It shoulkdnt ever be a permanent anything.

    And in response to Tim above – its nice to be supportive of the small companies in the city – but from Red Bull’s execrable but well reviewed (in NY) verse speaking, to Shakespeare in The Park’s one good performance for every bad one in every stodgy production, we have no one producing classics in NYC to rank with any of the major UK companies, or European companies for that matter.

    The Bridge project hasnt helped as yet.

  • Tim

    Martin, I would argue that claim quite strongly. From Classic Stage, to Theatre for a New Audience, to the Public, to Lincoln Center to Red Bull to smaller companies like Folding Chair and Boomerang, there is a lot of very good Shakespeare and Classical theatre happening in the town, in my opinion. And I too have spent time in London and would compare this to anything that is happening there.

    As to Stanley’s comment…no one will argue against a new theatre building or company that provides jobs and roles and performances for this city and this country. But Isherwood’s rationale is that we need one because there’s no theatres doing classiscal work in NYC, and that is extremely misguided. And he, as one voice of a major publication, needs to be corrected on that.

  • i would also posit to some that if we are to want truly “quality” (if by quality, you mean large-scale, which doesn’t necessarily need to be synonymous) classical theatre in NYC, aren’t we better off devoting our time, money and resources to all of these smaller to mid-sized companies (i’m going to selfishly toss (re:)Directions in there too, Tim) that have been in the trenches for years? Americans interpret Shakespeare in a different way than the Brits, much the same way that the Brits interpret Chekov differently than the Russians. we should, by all means, support American companies that have been producing excellent classical theatre (large and small) here in New York for decades. and yes, i’ve seen great theatre from RSC; i’ve also seen some mediocre stuff there. i’ve seen great shows in the Park and i’ve seen great shows in a dingy, 75-seat hole in the wall. i’ve seen horrible shows in those venues too (and worked on a few of them). my initial letter to Mr. Isherwood was to underscore that the Times (which i read every day, full disclosure) should be using their gigantic megaphone to blast a call to arms to support extant, quality theatre, no matter its size, Equity contract or production values.

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  • Call me a cynic but it’s economics: the RSC’s temporary sojourn will supplement the RSC’s grant (cut or at a standstill) from the UK government, and which Mayor Bloomberg would be unlikely match were the institution there en permanence. Nevertheless, lucky RSC. And lucky NYC.

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