The Legacy Project of a Theatrical Producer

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"...for all the struggling and fundraising and budget-crunching I've had to do in my three seasons here, we are very fortunate compared to a lot of our peers."

His name is mostly unknown today, but William Lyon Phelps was a legendary Yale professor, critic, author and public speaker whose Essays on Modern Dramatists was published in 1921. The namesake of this site, Clyde Fitch, was already dead 12 years by that date, but Phelps, who was schooled with Fitch, spends the first of 35 pages on the playwright offering colorful memories, including one of him “writing notes on perfumed paper and tossing them to the girls.” Then Phelps turns to Fitch’s career and writes this:

When he began to write, American drama scarcely existed; when he died, it was a reality.

Eric Krebs
Eric Krebs

No one in the theatre debates anymore whether there is such a thing as American drama. Yet we also know that it’s not just the American drama that’s important, but that we are part of a world canon of great classic dramatic literature that begins, of course, with the Greeks and the Romans. We can almost freestyle a list: Shakespeare and Marlowe; Corneille, Racine and Moliere; Sardou and Feydeau; Genet and Ionesco; Kabuki and Noh. Shaw, Ibsen, Miller and Williams. Chekhov, Beckett and Albee. Behn, Centlivre once; Parks and Kane now. Reza and Rostand. O’Neill, O’Casey. Caryl Churchill. August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Amiri Baraka. Tony Kushner, Harold Pinter. Young Jean Lee. Gorky and Gogol. de Vega and de Cervantes. Soyinka and Fugard. Odets, Hellman, Kushner, Ruhl. And lest we forget the American musical theater.

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Yes, yes: too many white men, too many dead white men, not enough women, too much West, too little East. The bottom line, though, remains that even if we could make the perfect list all the playwrights, all the plays, that all of us can agree should be a part of any child’s drama education, plays are not meant to be read, but performed. Even armed with that perfect list, shouldn’t any child be able to witness those classics live? And who’s going to make that happen?

Eric Krebs.

A few weeks ago, the veteran New York theater owner and commercial producer — whose production of Joe Assadourian’s 18-character play The Bullpen was recently featured in The New York Times and is now in its 10th month at the Playroom Theatre — contacted The Clyde Fitch Report with an announcement:

 The Masterworks Theater Company (MTCo) is a not-for-profit (501c3) producing company that will choose great plays and musicals that every young person should have an opportunity to see and present them in high-quality productions at reasonable ticket prices for schools, colleges and families to kindle the passion for live theater. The five-year vision is to have a Broadway season of 30-40 weeks every year.

He added:

Our first season will run for 8 weeks in May and June of 2015, presenting two plays in 4 week runs at the Off-Broadway 47th Street Theater with a multicultural, professional (Equity) theater company. …There will be early (10:30am) matinees several days a week to accommodate school trip schedules.

And then he asked:

…Please pass this information on to any teachers, professors, administrators, parents and grandparents who you think might want to introduce young people to live theater…

PrintMasterworks’ first production will be The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. Staged by artistic director Christopher Scott, whose take will be race-conscious as well as multicultural, the cast features Saundra Santiago (The Sopranos) as Amanda Wingfield, Richard Prioleau (HBO’s The Normal Heart) as Tom, Olivia Washington (Lee Daniels’ The Butler and daughter of Denzel) as Laura, and Doug Harris (The Found Dog Ribbon Dance) as Jim. The play begins previews on May 8, opens May 14 and runs through May 30 at the 47th Street Theatre (304 W. 47th St.). For tickets, click here or call 212-279-4200. (Side note: Krebs also founded the popular Studentrush.org.)

Our first question was why Krebs wanted to create, of all things, a new nonprofit theater company in the heart of New York City. They do sprout up, after all, like weeds in the asphalt jungle. And Krebs, who readily admits to being 70, has been through it all — several times. He founded and managed two fondly remembered Off-Broadway theaters — the John Houseman Theater Center and the Douglas Fairbanks — for over 20 years. He has produced commercially on Broadway (Bill Maher: Victory Begins at Home, Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party) as well as extensively Off-Broadway, and also worked in the regions, including a 14-year stint as founder and producing director of New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse. Since 1998 he has served as the chair of Amas Musical Theater. And he began his concurrent career as an academic back in 1969 at Rutgers — where he is a professor emeritus — even as he continues to teach at Baruch College, City University of New York.

Masterworks is a legacy project, plain and simple. And Krebs seems to feel that it’s not enough to bemoan the piss-poor state of arts education, let alone drama education, among young people if one has the means and the will to do something about it and chooses to look the other way. We can all agree that there are great, timeless, classic plays, plays that comprise a worldwide dramatic canon, plays that are very much the master works of this and every era, plays that every kid should see. What could ever be better than that?

And now, 5 questions — maybe a few more — that Eric Krebs has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Is this what you set out to do?”

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Do you get a lot of actresses?”

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What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?”

As a longtime academic and educator, you’re in a unique position to assess the lack of arts education (and drama education) in our schools. Is it merely a lack of money for teachers? Or something deeper in society that prefer kids to be ignorant?
I am a college teacher. The college answer is quite different than the high school answer. Colleges are turning into trade schools, and theater (and the arts in general) are all to often thought of as “not important” to job training. In high schools, the main part of the “teaching” takes place in actual productions that the students participate in. I think this aspect is as strong as ever in most middle and high schools.

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What big misconceptions about theater (not just Broadway) do young people have today? What does it stem from? How will Masterworks tackle it?
The biggest problem is that live theater is not highly cherished in our society of short-attention-span entertainment, electronic entertainment uber alles, and sports as the national obsession. I guess the biggest misconception is that theater is boring. Masterworks will tackle this through casting choices, color-blind casting, choice of materials to be presented and the conceptions behind each production — to make them lively and relevant to the contemporary student.

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How will you pick the plays Masterworks produces? Are there plays you have in mind to surprise us?
The choices will not be limited to the American canon, but to the “Masterworks” canon. We might surprise by linking Romeo and Juliet one season with West Side Story the next, because of their close interrelatedness. Also, since The Lion King is very long and tickets are very expensive, and because Aladdin is great fun but again, tickets are in the $100-$150 range, we’ve also been discussing, believe it or not, shows like Seussical. There is little theater out there for fourth to sixth grade school field trips, and Seussical might provide an entry point to hook youngsters on the idea that theatergoing is great. Three years later we can get them to Of Mice and Men.

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It’s 2020. Several seasons of Masterworks are “in the can.” Where do you see the company? What does the average student in the average high school think about theater? What’s your impact?
In 2020, we play 30 weeks a year in a Broadway house. We bring back The Glass Menagerie since it was so successful for our mission the first time, but this time, agents are suggesting young stars that wish to be seen in our productions. A reformed Justin Bieber is our Tom and Beyoncé is clamoring to be our Amanda. We are so successful that high school students automatically know they will go twice a year to the great Masterworks Theater Company productions.

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Which American playwright — if you could return him or her from the dead — would you most like to put before 100 high school kids for a Q&A that you’d moderate? What questions would you ask and why?
Perhaps Amiri Baraka — LeRoi Jones. I’d ask: “You often commented that theater at its best is revolution.  Explain what you mean. Did you really mean in The Dutchman that black people should go up to white people and ‘slit their throats’? What got you to this point and what did you really mean by it?”