By Thomas Garvey
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report
What’s perhaps most depressing about the recent revelations regarding Diane Paulus, husband Randy Weiner and the American Repertory Theater is that there’s been so little overt reaction to them. The news that the A.R.T.’s artistic director had commandeered one of its theater spaces for private profit was greeted with a shrug by some, and with silence by most. At Harvard, the debate behind closed doors about the situation has reportedly been intense — but publicly, the university has uttered nary a peep. And how could it? Harvard itself was a seeming accomplice to the whole scam. Clearly the only way to save face was to act like nothing was wrong. Meanwhile, Paulus has felt confident enough to extend her private moneymaker, The Donkey Show, into her next season — allowing new productions to share its space, but also forcing those shows to work around its set.
So imagine, for a moment, that the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s James Levine had opened his own bistro just off the stage of Symphony Hall. Or that Malcolm Rogers had a “private” gallery operating at the Museum of Fine Arts, with ticket revenue going directly to him. Unthinkable, you say? Well, that’s not so different from what Harvard is doing at A.R.T. And the fact that the university continues to do so while staring down any would-be critics may tell us indirectly just how little it thinks of theater. Or rather, how much more it thinks of the tidy profit The Donkey Show is making. Indeed, one of Harvard’s supposed reasons for trading the far-more-talented Robert Woodruff for Diane Paulus as artistic director was that Woodruff’s dark visions weren’t putting enough butts in seats. They required too much subsidy. That’s right. The nonprofit theater artist required a subsidy.
You can see the problem. Harvard’s been tiptoeing toward its current quandary for a long, long time. And everybody else has been tiptoeing right along with it, mouthing pseudo-libertarian canards about sustainability and “populist art.” In fact, “populist art with integrity” is Paulus’ current slogan. But unfortunately, “wet T-shirt contests and single girls get in free” is her husband’s. So at A.R.T., it seems money talks and art — or at least art that requires too much subsidy — can walk.
Given that situation, how are we to parse Harvard’s true attitude toward its resident theater — and thus, to be honest, its attitude toward theater itself? And how does that reflect the current zeitgeist?
Well, first it seems clear that Harvard doesn’t really care that much about A.R.T. If it did, it would fix it. Or rather, it would pay for it. The university likes the idea of being praised for presenting arty stuff on stage quite a bit, that seems clear. And make no mistake — Harvard could pay for a real repertory theater. Of course it could. As the New York Review of Books recently quipped, over the past few years Harvard has transformed itself into a hedge fund with a college attached — and that hedge fund has recently fallen on hard times. But Harvard is still the richest school in the country, with a Mafia-like reach into the wallets of leaders in finance, law and medicine, not just in America but all over the world. It could probably fund a space program if it wanted to, or invade a Central American country. Yet somehow it claims it can’t fund a dozen actors for a season.
The fact is that it simply doesn’t want to. Because it feels it doesn’t have to — and because its artistic directors are happy to play along. Things weren’t always quite this way — A.R.T. opened its doors with a repertory company, even though founder Robert Brustein was soon hard up for cash because Harvard wasn’t exactly crazy about funding his baby even then. The university has never had a real school for the arts, of course, and even as Brustein was setting up a training program and trying to make the canon “come alive,” the academic talking heads were chattering not about a reinvigorated cultural consensus but instead about atomized pop, and mediated experience, and virtual reality and simulations. And Harvard students were graduating without ever taking a Great Books course or an Intro to Western Civ; the ones I’ve talked to in the past few years have never seen a movie older than The Godfather, and most couldn’t recognize any but the most famous quotes from Shakespeare, much less anything at all from Chekhov or Shaw. Indeed, one Harvard graduate recently insisted to me that William the Conqueror invaded Angleterre in 1086, not 1066.
Brustein’s original idea, of course, was to make the classics “come alive” for this kind of smart (but ignorant) Ivy League undergrad via a strange, catalytic mix of Brecht, Artaud and, well, Asian stuff. But after a striking start, A.R.T. slowly devolved into an experiment that failed over and over again — partly because all that Brecht and Artaud was rooted in a Columbia-class-of-’68 vision of revolution that was declining in relevance faster than the classics were.
Luckily, a knuckle-headed new cultural meme — that great art is popular, thus pays for itself — came to the rescue. In a way, of course, this was merely a co-opted version of that Columbia University mantra of “revolution,” only this time the revolution was individualized, virtualized and downsized. And the market would be the judge of its success. Thus the Boston critics can’t really say why Paulus’ productions are great; they just are because they sell out, in both senses of the word. The Donkey Show may be empty and Punchdrunk’s “immersive” Sleep No More may have proved to be a conceptual mess, but both were handed accolades because they became hot tickets. And now, A.R.T. has opened Johnny Baseball, a new musical about the Boston Red Sox that has been widely reviewed as a “corny” crowd-pleaser designed to pack ’em in — in short, the antithesis of the kind of show A.R.T. was founded to produce.
Johnny does have one tie to the college campus, however, in its politics: its conceit is that racism, not Babe Ruth, was behind the infamous Red Sox “curse.” Likewise, Sleep No More and even The Donkey Show were embedded with academic content — it’s just concealed academic content, grinding away in parallel with the go-go boys. Tellingly, a leading Boston critic quoted scraps of Sleep No More without even realizing they were from Woyzeck: the actual content of the performance sailed right over his head. But then again, these days the Boston critics are expected to profile their audience rather than enlighten it. Just like the shows at A.R.T.! If Brustein’s mission was to reinvigorate popular culture with ideas from the academy, then Paulus’ template is to create commercial hits that accommodate both the academic and pop P.O.V.’s without any actual cross-pollination occurring between the two. The kids can dance away at The Donkey Show without hearing a word of Shakespeare or they can chase after the members of Punchdrunk without realizing they’re listening to Woyzeck. Considered this way, it becomes clear that Paulus hasn’t actually pulled together pop culture and the ivory tower — in fact, she’s driven them further apart. At the same time, her own role has become a blurred, double-headed kind of construction — she’s both an academic figure and a commercial one. Indeed, Johnny Baseball was in development before she came to Harvard; its current university run is really just an out-of-town tryout. So if Paulus is both a commercial and academic director, why shouldn’t she be remunerated as a commercial one?
Well, that’s probably her attitude — and apparently, judging from the comments on my last post, at least some people agree with her. But what’s to stop us from simply flipping the equation the other way — since, unlike other commercial producers, her work is publicly supported? Even if Harvard wants to pay her according to the burlesque-club model, as her husband would like, there’s still the question of tying up one of its nonprofit spaces with one show for two seasons. Let’s at least admit the fact that, in so doing, Harvard has abandoned the whole idea of what a “second space” is for: to explore work that’s so genuinely edgy, or so obscure, or just so unusual, that it has little hope of being popular. In Boston, the old framework of nonprofit theater has been precisely reversed. Harvard and BU now present work with a relentlessly commercial slant; to hear the theater’s newest, rawest voices — or even its greatest established voices — you have to seek out the tiny basement spaces around town.
I know, I know, the Pauluses counter all this with the claim that bringing in local burlesque acts counts as a kind of theatrical “season.” And, of course, the performers of those acts tend to agree. They’re more than happy to abandon “text” for “sext” — after all, it’s only the next step in our ongoing “revolution,” you know. This year, Paulus’ slogan was “Shakespeare Exploded!”; next year, we’ll no doubt get “Shakespeare Sodomized!” Meanwhile, if you want to, you can tell yourself that the “new burlesque” is just as interesting as the latest from Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Don DeLillo or Naomi Wallace, that it’s just as ambitious, just as subversive, just as deeply realized. Yet one can’t help but notice that the “new burlesque,” though often fun, often feels flimsily decorated with borrowed intellectual ideas and rarely generates any new ideas of its own. There’s the simple question of its repetitious nature. Having sat through a few of these shows, I’m afraid I have to say that one gender-bending rock-‘n’-roll stripper really is a lot like another. The pasties and the props and the riding crops may change, but the song remains much the same.
Yes, I know — that’s just my opinion. And everybody’s opinion is equally valid! But are everybody’s perceptions equally valid? Somehow I don’t think so. And is nonprofit theater really a libertarian project, anyway? It feels more like a communal project. It’s funded, after all, as a hedge against the market; it’s supposed to function not as a market, in fact, but as an agora (look it up, damnit). And if an academic nonprofit theater is an agora, then it’s about the academy’s connection to its community, rather than its parallel coexistence with, and commercial exploitation of, said community. For make no mistake about The Donkey Show: its “exploitation” may be in air-quotes, but it’s exploitation all the same. So if Diane Paulus wants to be remunerated as a commercial producer, then she should produce her show in a commercial space. In short, if you follow the money, and the justifications for that money, you realize quite quickly that the case for The Donkey Show is a fraud. And so is Diane Paulus. For some reason, Harvard thinks that entitles her to a cut of the bar tab. Let’s hope that decision changes sometime soon.
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.
Hub Hubbub does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.