There’s a lot of fix-ups, re-freshening and upgrades going on at Connecticut theaters in the last few years and this summer but is it simply putting the best face forward on a more serious infrastructure issue?
And even if it is, in a still-sluggish economy, what else is there to do? Without the bucks, go building Botox.
It’s great that Hartford Stage and the presenting house the Shubert Theater in New Haven are renovating their spaces, fixing roofs, making things handicap-accessible and modernizing their mechanicals. Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven spiffed itself up two years ago. My butt is still saying thank you for those wider seats.
Indeed the audience experience is high on the list of features in these make-overs and we know that transforming theaters into more inviting, open and lively places for the public is key to their future. Cushier seats, more bathrooms, cool facades, brighter, warmer and more interactive lobbies are all important features for a post-Millennium theater. (Institutional arts fortresses are so 20th Century, or in the case of the Wadsworth Atheneum, 19th.)
But ask any of the theater leaders if they could design a new place from scratch would it remotely be like the ones they have now, I suspect the answer would be an almost unanimous “No.”
And their responses would be widely different to the needs of their markets and missions.
In some cases, size does matter. But bigger is not always better. Take Hartford Stage, which has a near 500-seat capacity. The large size makes it often difficult to fill, especially when you’re producing new work or an unfamiliar title. Look at “Water By the Spoonful,” a brilliant new play that was commissioned, nurtured and premiered here. It won the Pulitzer Prize and later was produced in New York and elsewhere.
But the unknown title and lack of stars (or any high-profile names) — not to mention the misfortune of having a run during disastrous weather (remember the freak snowstorm in October, 2011?) resulted in a terrible box office.
Even the theater’s celebrated musical comedy “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” — though it did well when it premiered in 2012 — was not a complete sell-out. That show is now the best-reviewed musical of the Broadway season, and boasts the most Tony Award nominations.
But new and exciting works like “Spoonful” and “Guide” (as well as bold interpretations of classics) is where Hartford Stage made its mark — and earned its own Tony. But will the need to fill the house with more familiar titles or audience-pleasing shows trump this aspect of the theater’s mission and reputation? It’s a question Hartford Stage and other theaters ask themselves, probably more frequently than they like.
New works often benefit from smaller theaters where they can modestly “find” their audiences, one that crave such fresh and sometimes challenging work, one that perhaps attract a young audience, without the fear of losing an older and more conservative one.
A storefront theater may be the best hope — and downtown Hartford has plenty of unused real estate. But even a modest “pop-up” theater costs dough, not only to be pulled together but to operate. And while donors — particularly individuals and a handful of corporate supporters — have been generous in their giving, this is not a big buck community. (But now for the right price, perhaps you can have a “pop up” theater named after you, one that produces the type of work that truly will have an impact.)
But then again, there are theaters that want to be bigger — but can’t. Take Goodspeed Opera House In East Haddam. We all know it’s a gem of a theater on the beautiful banks of the Connecticut River yada-yada-yada, but it only seats about 380 or so. When you have 20-plus performers and musicians on stage and in the pit (and sometimes performers in the pit), the production costs are considerable and right now the gross potential is grossly limited.
Without a larger theater to bring in more income the choice is to either raise ticket prices or get the revenue from increased contributions. Plans for a new theater percolated for a while a few years ago and I’m told are updated but nothing seems to be looming on that horizon any time soon.
And can we take a moment here to recognize the actors of regional theater. Through all the building booms and busts — and while some administrator’s salaries have climbed considerably, sometimes dramatically — their pay has gone up minutely, if at all. The fact is, as Charles Isherwood of The New York Times pointed out several years ago, the artists are subsidizing the not-for-profit American theater. Their salary should at least be partly tax deductable.
One could go on about other theater’s infrastructure needs: There’s Long Wharf’s limited flexibility of its stage space (at least it has a Stage II); And then there’s Yale’s antiquated theaters and school facilities, an increasing embarrassment for its renown School of Drama when every other college there has received infrastructure largess. But that’s another column.
The renovations that are taking place now are welcome and needed. But when it comes time to ahhh over spiffy unveilings coming up, we shouldn’t forget that significant needs remain, especially if Connecticut wants to retain its state-of-the-arts brand.