American Repertory Theater: Finding the Profit in Nonprofit?

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By Thomas Garvey
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

Did Weiner and Paulus get a swift kick in the ass? The Donkey Show photo by Marcus Stern

This week, the American Repertory Theater, Harvard’s 30-year-old bridge to the boho theater circuit, announced its coming season. And longtime A.R.T. watchers noticed immediately that The Donkey Show, the Shakespearean disco mashup (and commercial smash) that had been playing for months on the company’s second stage, was no longer in the lineup; it was, apparently, closing up shop. Come September, for the first time in nearly a year, the A.R.T.’s Zero Arrow Theater in Cambridge will open a new production: Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret.

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And thereby hangs a tale — or tail — but not one we’ll probably ever hear. Harvard’s code of omerta means a cone of silence has descended over The Donkey Show, despite the fact that the hour-long “play” (and attendant dance party) has packed them in since opening last fall. (There are reports that some young fans have seen it upward of 25 times.) The sudden quiet is all the more striking in that, for months, the production was riding high: Harvard seemed happy to believe that it counted as a production of Shakespeare, as its lip-synched disco hits roughly matched the fairyland intrigues of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And the Boston press, heavy with pop critics and fans, was overjoyed to see the Zero Arrow Theater transformed into “Oberon,” complete with bar, state-of-the-art sound system and glittering go-go boys. Meanwhile, the reference to Tijuana-style sex in the title (and final image) of The Donkey Show gave the whole thing a tang of millennial skank, plus a hint of the deconstructed “edge” that the academic set loves to take to Shakespeare. So what if there wasn’t a single syllable of Midsummer in its sketchy “script”? The Donkey Show still counted as a crude approximation of Camille Paglia-style academic thinking about Shakespeare’s comedy. Thus it seemed like a perfect melding of the market and the ivory tower.

Then it all started falling apart, and many fans of The Donkey Show began to feel like asses.

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On March 28, Boston Globe reporter Geoff Edgers revealed surprising details about The Donkey Show‘s financial arrangements. It turned out that Harvard had licensed the “concept” of Oberon from Paulus’ husband, Randy Weiner, a theatrical entrepreneur involved in several productions presented during his wife’s inaugural A.R.T. season. In New York, Weiner is also a part owner of The Box (as in “vagina,” I think), a controversial, high-end burlesque club, as well as the writer-producer of Caligula Maximus, a burlesque extravaganza that played at New York’s La MaMa until last month (“It simply feels underrehearsed,” sniffed the Back Stage critic.)

When pressed by Edgers on these and other connections, Weiner (whose name, yes, really is that close to “randy wiener”) came off like a classic Harvard dork at the Playboy Mansion, shrugging off the presence of a Penthouse pet in Caligula Maximus riding a nine-foot penis and bubbling thoughtless lines like “I just want to have a good time!” Less thoughtless, however, was the deal Weiner struck with the world’s greatest university. In Boston, not only was he pulling in a royalty fee for the Oberon “concept,” he was raking in a percentage of the bar tab. “I’m winning on the promotion and I’m winning on the drink,” he foolishly told the Globe.

Meanwhile, behind closed doors, Harvard was turning crimson. Suddenly, my sources tell me, Paulus became not “edgy” but controversial; her personal enrichment from what was, after all, supposed to be a nonprofit theater space run by a nonprofit university was now being discussed in polite code: “inappropriate commercialization.” Which, of course, was exactly what Paulus & Co. had effected as they consolidated their political position within the A.R.T. For example, Edgers noted that the couple brought in Diane Borger, mother-in-law of Weiner’s business partner at The Box, Simon Hammerstein (the one accused of keeping house prostitutes), as an A.R.T. producer.

Some of the outrage surrounding “inappropriate commercialization” stemmed, no doubt, from another kind of indignation, which could perhaps be summed up as “Nobody pulls a fast one on Harvard!” But earlier justifications for The Donkey Show began to sound like so much b.s. when you could hear the ka-ching! of the cash register ringing for Paulus and Weiner in the background. As it was also ringing, it must be noted, for Harvard itself. The Zero Arrow space had been gifted to the university by dotcom millionaire Greg Carr and the A.R.T. is a constant recipient of tax dollars, yet for a full season it produced nothing in the space but The Donkey Show — which, given the constant influx of college kids into the Boston area, could potentially run for years. Even A.R.T. staff, I’ve heard, began to chafe at the arrangement when they realized students at the famed A.R.T. Institute would be forced to work around the standing set of “Oberon” when mounting their own shows in the space. Meanwhile Harvard’s insistence, in the Globe and elsewhere, that Paulus had nothing to do with her husband’s hiring or contract was becoming even more embarrassing than the whole arrangement. How else could a fringe cultural figure like Weiner skim a tidy profit off of Harvard’s nonprofit theater?

But weren’t Paulus and Weiner merely living the dream they’d conjured onstage — and with Harvard’s approval? It’s hard to pretend these Harvard grads aren’t avatars of precisely the cultural trends that have swept through the academy during the past few decades. Aside from Paulus’ Tony-nominated direction of the Broadway revival of Hair (a smash hit, thus proving Paulus had a commercial touch) and The Donkey Show‘s six-year run in New York, neither Paulus nor Weiner have any real national artistic profile of their own. Their true artistry lies in the way they have woven their careerism into the woof and warp of the academic chatter of the day – with Paulus playing the bright-eyed and pretty post-graduate front for the operation and Weiner playing, shall we say, the business end. Ironically, the very success of their careerism, their brand, is now coming back to haunt them. After all, it’s fine to play at being Baudelaire if you’re drug addicted and die young. It’s quite another thing if you embody bourgeois stereotypes and send your daughter, as Weiner told the Globe, “to a fancy nursery school” in Manhattan. In that frame, The Donkey Show no longer looked like a transgressive cross-pollination of Tijuana and Stratford-on-Avon. It looked instead like a cheap excuse for a bachelorette party.

Paulus and Co. seem to have gotten the message, what with The Donkey Show set to boogie its last in August. Or will it? After all, it’s being supplanted not by King Lear but by Cabaret — a musical which, I think it’s worth noting, can be produced in a club setting. And Weiner will once again be present for the rest of A.R.T.’s season. Paulus also has a fresh slogan for what she does — “populist art with integrity” — and she’s opening a new musical about the Red Sox, which she insists is about racism more than the home team. But can careerists really change their spots? And what precisely is the balance a nonprofit should strike with the remuneration of its staff? To ask a deeper question, is there such a balance still to be struck? Or are Paulus and Weiner merely harbingers of a new alignment in which the term “nonprofit” is all but meaningless?

More on those questions in the second part of this story.

Thomas Garvey has at various points in his checkered career impersonated a director, screenwriter, architect, strategic analyst, and Boston Globe theater critic. He’s still impersonating a critic at www.hubreview.blogspot.com, where you can read his “cantankerous, but brilliant” reviews of theater, music, art, film and dance.