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Getting out of town…

“If a play opens outside of New York, does it really exist? Don’t ask my colleagues—they wouldn’t know,” Terry Teachout, the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, “tweeted” yesterday, linking to a provocative blog he posted yesterday about the fact that his paper is, through his own efforts, “the only national general-interest publication that bothers to cover plays outside the New York area with any regularity.”

He points out that, while the current Broadway revival of The Norman Conquests had received rave reviews, no one mentioned that it had been revived by the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre a year and a half ago, and he was the only New York critic who had actually reviewed a production which he says, “was exactly comparable in quality to Matthew Warchus’ Broadway staging.”

The biggest news of all, he goes on to say, is “that equally great revivals of equally great plays are taking place from coast to coast, not once in a while but week after week. That’s the stop-press news about American theatre. You don’t have to go to New York to see first-rate shows. You can see them in the place where you live, or in a city not too far from your home town—but save on the rarest of occasions, you can’t read about them in Time or Newsweek or the New York Times. You’ve got to pick up a copy of the Friday Journal and see where I went last week.”

This summer, he tells us, he’ll be seeing shows in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin. He is lucky in having an indulgent employer (at least for now - he may not want to advertise this fact too extensively, now that the paper is in Murdoch cost-cutting hands), but he says, “I’m fiercely proud to be America’s drama critic, and no less proud that The Wall Street Journal is willing to put up the money to send me all over the country in search of great theatre. Without that commitment, I couldn’t do what I do.”

He’s lucky, too, that his Broadway commitments are timetabled around the Tony Awards - as he also ‘tweeted’ yesterday, “Countdown: 12 hours to the end of the Broadway season (for me, anyway)”, which ends with tomorrow’s double dose of opening nights for 9 to 5 and Waiting for Godot, since April 30 is the cut off date for eligibility for consideration for this year’s awards (the nominations will be announced on May 5). So the summer gives him time off from the Broadway rat-race to travel elsewhere.

But he also writes for a paper with national - and even international - aspirations, whereas outside of USA Today, what’s left of American papers is really a local industry; the New York Times may achieve national distribution, but it is still a paper whose locale and origins are identified in its very name. So no wonder, as Teachout identifies it, “Most American drama criticism is provincial, and New York City is every bit as provincial in that regard as the smallest town in America.”

And a similar thing happens in Britain. Most first-string national critics nowadays don’t leave London much, either, beyond the traditional excursions to Stratford and Chichester, occasionally Bath for the summer festival there, or a newsworthy occasion like Lenny Henry’s Othello in Leeds (which is now coming to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios). And I have to admit that I don’t even go to everything on this limited list.

Partly, it’s a question of time and logistics: there is so much theatre happening in so many places on every night of the week that not even the most diligent (or crazed) of us can possibly ever get to it all. We can fill our diaries several times over by staying put in London. And we can fill our columns several times over, too: there simply isn’t the space to cover everything I see as it is. But its increasingly a question of cost, too - arts desks need to justify the travel and hotel expenditures of sending critics outside London, and have come to rely more on local stringers, such as The Guardian’s Alfred Hickling or the Independent’s Lynn Walker, for their coverage in the north-west.

The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner is still a diligent traveller; but even she was wondering aloud only the other day about the changing structures, in every sense, of regional theatre. “The last few years have been a boom time for regional theatre buildings, but has it been a boom time for regional theatre itself?”, she asked; and goes on to say, “Behind the glossy new facades, there are growing concerns: resources are increasingly limited, and theatre-making has changed beyond recognition. A rising generation of artists and companies (Punchdrunk, Dreamthinkspeak, Kneehigh) have freed themselves from the constraints of formal theatre spaces, worked with new technologies, and built a relationship with audiences that is a world away from people sitting quietly in the stalls while actors command the stage. Where do today’s regional theatres fit into all this? New buildings take a long time to plan and build: is there a risk that some theatres will be obsolete by the time they open their doors?”

There sometimes seems to be less and less worth covering, at least in traditional theatre spaces. Lyn, and her Observer colleague Susannah Clapp, regularly push outside these boxes to find new work to review elsewhere. Most of us, however, then wait patiently for the best of it to arrive in London. Lyn previously put the point well when she spoke about casting her votes for this year’s Critics’ Circle Awards: “Past experience tells me that very few of my Critics’ Circle nominations actually get the gong because while many of my colleagues gaggle in the same places, I’m often in another part of the country or, indeed, theatrical universe.”

I wish I could follow Lyn’s lead and do the same; but the furthest afield I have recently been was to Hoxton Hall last weekend, as I reported here. Next week, however, I fully intend to get to Leicester’s Curve Theatre for the UK premiere of Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza, even if it means paying my own way to do so.

4 Comments

Lucky Terry Teachout has a travel budget. Wonder how many of his readers do? This new-fangled interweb thingy is a great way to get intelligent (as well as not so bright) commentary about theatre all over the world. I don't think the Wall Street Journal with one half-page column a week on the theatre is that big a commitment.

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I believe I'm in a position to query that use of "general-interest"... :-)

You're absolutely right, though. Before the dot-com bubble burst and led to an advertising recession just after the turn of the century, I as a then-number-two reviewer would spend 25-30 nights a year outside London (not counting August in Edinburgh); now, as a number one, the number of trips can be counted on the fingers of a leper's hand.

Lyn is also right (although a touch self-aggrandising with that use of "gaggle" about her colleagues) as regards awards, but what can we do? Well, we can at least allow consideration of London openings of shows that started in the regions. The current system means that, for instance, Michael Boyd's might "Histories" missed out on the Critics' Circle awards for 2007 because not enough people had seen it in Stratford, and on the awards for 2008 (presented at the beginning of this year) because its Roundhouse transfer didn't count as a new production. Similarly with NTS's "Black Watch". Surely the way to go is to maximise eligibility.

A production of The Norman Conquests at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre was just as good as the one in New York from London? Well, he can't prove it can he because we only have his word on it. Please forgive me for doubting him but Ayckborn is hard enough to do justice to for actors in the first place, let alone American actors. I have to believe that part of what Mr Teachout is doing is justifying his expense account. If he hadn't liked it his editor would say - wait a minute I spent a thousand bucks to send you to Wisconsin to see a play and you thought it was crap?
There are fine productions throughout the country to be sure , but I simply don't believe that the sparkling ensemble that we were treated to in London and currently in New York was bested by the group in Milwaukee.

I had thought to rebut "Jack's" elitist and callow assessment of Terry Teachout's review of Milwaukee Repertory Theater's sterling production of "The Norman Conquests". Rather than waste time debunking a cynic, I rather choose to exhort all to cast a trusting eye to the stellar work being performed at The Rep, and no doubt at other fine theaters nation-wide.

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