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Send in the Clowns
By Kathy Ceceri

While recycled pop songs and singing nuns are good box office, theaters have trouble filling seats when the play is serious

Carol Max is fed up. The producer of Curtain Call Theatre in Latham is practically tearing out her hair as she talks about the frustration of trying to make a schedule that balances the plays she wants to do with what her audience likes to see.

This season, Curtain Call’s lineup included two Pulitzer Prize winners, The Gin Game and Talley’s Folly, one a bittersweet portrait of old age, the other a romance between two complicated people. Both plays featured humor and mature characters. But the audience just wasn’t there.

“I’ve been year-round as a theater for six years now, and every year we’ve done at least one, and sometimes two, serious plays,” Max says. “They’re nowhere near as well-attended as a comedy or a farce. I used to think maybe they’d seen it already, so I called 40 patrons, just to get some feedback. Unanimously, they all said the same thing:

“ ‘Carol, there’s too much stress in the world today. If I want to be depressed, I’ll put on the six o’clock news. We need escape.’ ”

Max is seeing what a lot of other regional theater managers are noticing as well: Audiences are just not as willing to come out for serious plays as they used to be. Those who got into the field to move or enlighten people are being faced with a growing population that just wants to be entertained. Some, like Max, are having to rethink what shows they can do each season in the face of changing tastes. Others are looking for different ways to attract the next generation of theatergoers, and the one after that. But all of them agree that, no matter what, they won’t give up the kind of work they feel is important, both for individuals and for the community at large.

As the old show biz saw goes: “If the people won’t come, nothing will stop them.” But Max is trying her best to fill the 100 seats in her small theater, which puts on an ambitious eight shows a year.

“I can produce anything I want to produce for my own satisfaction. But the theater can’t be just about me, because last time I looked I wasn’t buying any seats. That’s why you have to listen to the customer. They still have to want your product. They’re the boss.”

And so Curtain Call is slowly shifting the balance toward lighter fare.

“We used to do two comedies, now we do four,” Max says. “We used to do one mystery or thriller, now we do two.”

Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill has seen the same kind of decline at Capital Repertory Theatre, where she is producing artistic director. Based in downtown Albany, the venerable professional company will present seven shows this year, two of them musicals. That ratio isn’t going to change, says Mancinelli-Cahill. But she admits ticket sales to the company’s more serious plays “are significantly down.”

“In this year,” she notes, “if we take Woman in Black, A Walk in the Woods, Times Like These and The Syringa Tree”—a Victorian ghost tale, a Cold War “dramedy,” a story about a Jewish actress in Nazi Germany, and a one-woman show about South Africa—“all of them together didn’t equal the single ticket sales to Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” (the Fats Waller musical).

Up in Saratoga, Stacie Mayette, general manager of Home Made Theater, has noticed that often the risky choice in the company’s four-play season will be the drama. While a familiar title can help draw audiences in—“This year, the phone is ringing” for a stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird—shows like Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Shirley Valentine, and Dancing at Lughnasa have proved to be less popular.

“Something like The Lion in Winter was really down there (in sales),” Mayette says.

The problem isn’t unique to this area, says Max.

“I’ve talked to 15 or 20 regional theaters across the country. If they do dramas, it will be something new. But they will do a lot of comedy, a lot of musicals, because they’ve got to pay the bills.”

Even Broadway is shying away from serious drama, relying on TV and movie stars and revivals and screen-to-stage adaptations to sell tickets—Spamalot, the new musical based on the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, being just the latest example of a trend that includes Mamma Mia!, a musical built around the disco hits of ABBA.

Most theater managers say they have no problem doing comedies or musicals, but the dwindling interest in serious plays troubles them.

“What about the classics?” asks Max. “Will 35-year-olds never see Long Day’s Journey Into Night, never see Death of a Salesman? That worries me. Yet these are the plays that are hard to maintain.”

One company that still performs the classics—the Greek tragedy Agamemnon was on last year’s schedule—is Main Street Stage in North Adams, Mass. With barely 50 seats in its tiny storefront theater, Main Street has an advantage over bigger venues with higher production costs. Even so, it’s been a struggle carving out a niche for the company. Although home to MASS MoCA and surrounded by cultural institutions throughout the Berkshires, this economically depressed, blue-collar city is still wary of serious art.

“We’ve been in North Adams for a few years, but I still feel like we’re missionaries up there,” adds Spencer Trova, Main Street’s executive director.

Main Street’s latest production, The Unexpected Man by the French author Yasmina Reza, a series of alternating monologues that demands the audience’s full attention, is hardly the type of light entertainment audiences seem to be asking for. But, Trova insists, “These pieces are important to do.”

“We’re just fortunate that we’re this small little theater,” McDonald says. “It allows us to take chances.”

Jonathan Whitton’s company the Objective also has managed to break even by thinking small. The 2002 Skidmore College graduate has chosen to target a specific audience: the college crowd. Theater’s core constituency has always been older, and local companies keep that in mind when choosing material. Whitton knows younger audiences crave edgier writing.

“Neil Simon feels dated to them,” he says.

Last summer, the Objective scored with Phaedra’s Love, a modern reworking of another Greek tragedy involving murder and incest. Ads cautioned, “Not intended for the faint of heart or weak of stomach!” and performances at Caffe Lena, in the heart of Saratoga’s bar and restaurant district, started at 11 or 11:30 PM.

“We marketed it as blood-and-sex, off-the-wall, Jerry Springer-type show,” Whitton explains. “It was a weird little event they could see when they got off waiting tables at night.”

Whitton, who also sits on the artistic board of Home Made Theater, knows larger companies just don’t have the luxury of offering the kind of controversial material he can produce.

“You will never see Torch Song Trilogy, sadly, at Home Made Theater,” he says.

It costs at least $300,000 for the nonprofit professional resident theater Capital Rep to mount a production. Even shows that sell out all 286 seats recoup only 65 percent of those expenses.

“We lose money on all of our plays,” Mancinelli-Cahill says.

With almost 500 seats, filling the WPA-era Spa Little Theater building in the Saratoga Spa State Park is an even bigger challenge for Home Made Theater.

“When we sit down to choose a season, it’s more and more difficult,” says HMT’s Mayette. “There’s more and more pressure to make the ‘right’ choices. If we could make 200 seats go away, we would.”

For Carol Max, Curtain Call Theatre is a business that has to pay its own way. Lately, that’s been a struggle.

“I could have packed houses and expand the theater if I did a season of farce. But do I want to? Is that my mission?” she asks. “I didn’t go into owning a theater just to do fluff. I want them to leave the theater and have something to think about.”

Why are audiences so reluctant to see a play that will make them think? Theater people have their own theories.

“There’s a dumbing down of the American populace, much to the glee of a lot of people who hold power in the country,” says Main Street’s artistic director and cofounder, Bruce T. McDonald.

Mancinelli-Cahill believes this new attitude is a lingering remnant of the changes that swept Americans four years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Our lives shifted on 9/11,” says. “How we think about our leisure time, how far in advance we plan to spend that very precious discretionary money is changed. They’re skittish. They wait before they decide to do something.”

For theaters, that means fewer subscribers to help companies stay afloat with an influx of cash at the start of the season. But nowadays even the single-ticket buyers have been hard to attract. Competition from other media, coupled with less free time, may be part of the problem.

“Cutting through the entertainment clutter is very difficult for independent theater,” says Mancinelli-Cahill. “How many cable stations do you have access to when you’re home? How many more hours are you working or shuttling children around? People are busier than they used to be. For some people, going out feels like work.”

And the traditional ways of bringing in new audiences aren’t working, either. High-school and college students no longer want to stand on line for discount “rush” seats—and they’re more likely to spend money for a concert than for Ibsen. One way Capital Rep is trying to counteract that is by inviting public schools to shows like A Raisin in the Sun, with the goal of grooming future drama lovers. Theaters have also stepped up their presence on the Internet: Capital Rep recently added online ticketing to its website.

But the most sweeping change may be in what patrons see on stage.

“There are different philosophies about what live theater needs to be,” Mancinelli-Cahill explains. “Theater now needs to be an event. It has to have an ‘aura’ around it.”

What works for big musicals and avant-garde productions like Phaedra’s Love can work for serious plays, when they have an attention-grabbing gimmick.

“We had very high ticket sales for The Blue Room,” Mancinelli-Cahill says. “But you can’t do every play with nude people. A thoughtful play like A Walk in the Woods is not going to be an event. But is it as worthwhile? Absolutely.”

Carol Max agrees, even though plays like last year’s Taking Leave, which deals with Alzheimer’s, cut too close to the bone for some of her audience.

“A lot of people walked out at intermission,” Max recalls. “But I would do it again. It educated people and it brought out awareness.”

Main Street’s McDonald says, “Theater is the key to a better place for us all. We work on the presumption that the audiences are intelligent enough to handle these plays. We have to hope people are going to walk into the theater and say, ‘Oh wow, what have I been missing?’”

Ultimately, Capital Rep’s Mancinelli-Cahill says that if it takes a musical to get ’em in the door, she’ll accept it.

“It’s a heartbreaker for an artistic director not to have lines out the door for a play like The Syringa Tree,” says. “It’s ephemeral, you won’t see it on television, there won’t be a DVD. It’ll be one time and never again.

“I don’t care if people love musicals, if they come to my theater.”

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