Coming soon to a theatre near you.

In 2010 Barrington Stage Company, in Pittsfield, MA, presented The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez. It was staged in the smaller of two theaters now known as the Mark St. Germain after its board member and associate playwright.

Last week, as part of a meeting of American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), I saw another production of The Whipping Man at the Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis. Both productions were excellent, with the Indy one far more elaborate in a larger venue (more like Barrington’s main stage).

This year there are 15 productions of Whipping Man in regional theatres all over America. And from September 26-October 13, Barrington Stage will present Clybourne Park in a co-production with Vermont’s Dorset Theater Festival. where it will run from August 15-31. There is an assumption that the geography is such that audiences will not overlap.

Berkshire Fine Arts will soon be posting its third review of a Clybourne Park production. I covered it on Broadway, while Mark Favermann reviewed it in Boston. Had the timing been different we might have had a review of an Indianapolis production where it opens soon.

The Barrington production of Clybourne Park is scheduled for the fall shoulder season when the company program works with outreach to regional schools. (Last year, that meant Lord of the Flies, while other productions included The Crucible and The Laramie Project.)

A short list of popular shows begs the question of the current status of regional theater in America and the performing arts in general. A part of the dialogue is the role of state and federal funding of the arts which in these hard times, and consistent pressure from the likes of Paul Ryan, The Tea Party and conservatives in general, has eroded to the bare minimum.

The argument was often made in the past that the combined NEA and NEH funding amounted to less than the budget for military bands. Now even those marching bands are likely to have cutbacks.

The conservative mantra is opposition to tax dollars being spent on the arts. That is the responsibility of the private sector and corporations. This varies from city to city and community to community. For example, in the city of Carmel, Indiana (pop. 80,000), we were astonished to visit the $125 million performing arts complex which opened in 2011. The visionary mayor, Jim Brainard, presented a compelling argument to the ATCA group that the arts are a good long-term investment for a community which is vital and expanding.

Across-the-board budget tightening has led to arts education in public schools being cut back or eliminated. Sports programs have been retained with parents expected to pay some of the costs for their children to participate.

Since kids are the future audiences that are vital to sustaining culture in America, what happens when they don’t grow up with broad exposure to the arts?

In order to survive, arts organizations are mandated to seek public support from an over-tapped resource of private donors and corporations. Before a performance of Dance Kaleidoscope in Indianapolis, we were surprised when the artistic director, David Hochoy, thanked the company’s major corporate sponsor, The Indianapolis Colts. Mind boggling!

A consequence of economic pressures on the arts is a sameness of programming. Is the enormous effort to stay afloat worth it when every dance company depends on an annual run of The Nutcracker and every symphony orchestra performs its chestnuts season after season? The result is the graying of audiences which are dying off. Looking about in The Shed at Tanglewood, for example, the median age is about 70. During the Holiday season, the grandparents delight in taking the kids to see The Nutcracker.

The defense on the part of arts presenters is that The Nutcracker, Beethoven, or Clybourne Park makes it possible to sustain a season. But what happens when The Nutcracker is followed by Swan Lake, Clybourne Park by Whipping Man and Beethoven by Mahler?

Some years ago, I spent a week in Copenhagen. Visiting the Royal Danish Ballet, I enjoyed a performance of Swan Lake. The following night our group was scheduled for a “Live Sex Show,” with an extra charge to see a couple copulate in a storefront. I informed the organizer that I wasn’t interested. Concerned that I would be alone for the evening, they offered me a free ticket to see the Royal Danish Ballet. I informed the kind person that I had been to the ballet the night before. “They are doing something quite different which I think you will enjoy” she responded. Indeed. It proved to be a nude ballet based on the novel, “On the Beach.” So I got my live sex show after all for free.

During the season of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, we experience cutting-edge companies from all over the world. From France we have enjoyed superb companies from Lyons and Avignon and not just Paris. For several years the Mark Morris company was resident in Belgium. In general there is more experimental performing arts in Europe than in America. That is a direct function of government support.

Not to say that it does not exist in The United States. Through a New York theater bloggers group, we receive, on average, a dozen invitations a week. When visiting Chicago with ATCA, last June, we were astonished to learn that in addition to established companies – The Goodman, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Lookingglass and Chicago Shakespeare Theater – some 200 other companies produce work.

The Wall Street Journal critic, Terry Teachout, aka America’s Theater Critic, often states that there is superb theater being presented all over the country; on the same level as what he reviews on and off Broadway in New York. Arguably, Teachout does not fly around the country reviewing productions of Clybourne Park and Whipping Man.

Of course, it is entirely unfair to draw broad conclusions about the arts in Indianapolis based on a visit of just five days. But a good portion of what we saw was readily available elsewhere: The Whipping Man, the musical 9 to 5 at the dinner theater Beef and Boards, and The Lyons at Phoenix Theater. But you guessed it: Clybourne Park (April 4 through May 5) follows The Lyons at Phoenix. To be honest, the rest of the Phoenix season includes Dos Fallopia, 4000 Miles and Love, Loss and What I Wore.

Had we more time to spend in Indianapolis, or returned more often, we may well have gotten a very different impression of the arts community. Also, it was refreshing to attend a program hosted by IndyFringe Theater. On the panel were representatives from fringes in Indy, Saint Louis and Cincinnati. It was insightful to learn of their commitment, experimentation and struggles. Particularly trenchant was a comment on the brain drain in Saint Louis and the problem of retaining talent when there is so little work. The artistic directors discussed how they give a chunk of their box office to the performers, many of whom work two and three jobs to sustain their lives in the arts.

Of course there is another side to this discussion. If there are 15 productions running of The Whipping Man that means that, at least for now, playwright Matthew Lopez is paying his rent. In the past few years we have had an ongoing dialogue with Mark Saint Germain who has had a good run with national and global productions of Freud’s Last Session. His Best of Enemies is gaining momentum with regional theaters, and there are plans for his Dr. Ruth show.

While Barrington Stage is presenting Clybourne Park, artistic director Julianne Boyd always provides a compelling mix of old and new, popular and experimental works, as do the other major Berkshire companies – Shakespeare & Company, Berkshire Theater Group and Williamstown Theatre Festival.

There are an enormous number of talented, committed and hard-working individuals all over America sustaining the arts through their blood, sweat and tears. If they are earning a living rehashing Broadway well, mazel tov. The caveat is a jaundiced eye to the future. The bottom line that everyone talks about is audience development. Just how do we lure the next generation to participate in the arts? It’s the old argument of guns vs. butter. Still, particularly during hard times, the arts are the food that feeds our souls; a necessity rather than a luxury. And so my argument about the rehash and conservative tendencies of regional theater has come full circle: the king is dead; long live the king.

Key Subjects: 
Clybourne Park, The Whipping Man, Regional Theater, Barrington Stage.
Writer: 
Charles Giuliano
Date: 
March 2013
Subtitle: 
How Many Clybournes are We Parking?