Safe and Sorry

Dennis Brown has a question about the Rep's Off-Ramp series: Why?

Why such caution when it comes to selecting plays? Here's one reason: The stakes are high. Next time you're at the Rep, open your playbill to the "Theatre Staff" page. There are nearly 100 names; surely that entails a sizable payroll. The Rep has grown from a theater into a bureaucracy. How does any company meet a large payroll? Not by taking risks. So the Rep has settled into a safe establishment mentality that serves up comfy shows that it has persuaded itself the mainstage subscribers want — prune theater — and then everyone on staff privately moans and groans about how old the audience has grown. When Woolf stated in the March 2005 press release that he wanted to explore "challenging, exciting work" at the Grandel, it was a confirmation that challenging, exciting work is no longer a priority for the mainstage.

And don't think that mainstage audiences aren't aware of that. Consider this conversation that I overheard last March when two women sitting next to me at Witness for the Prosecution discovered renewal forms in their playbills.

Woman One: "Are we subscribing next year?"

Edgy, schmedgy: The Pillowman was one  of four 
ballyhooed shows from the Big Apple.
Jerry Naunheim Jr
Edgy, schmedgy: The Pillowman was one of four ballyhooed shows from the Big Apple.

Woman Two: "No!"

Woman One: "Why not?"

Woman Two: "We never come."

Woman One: "We're here now."

Woman Two: "But we never stay."

Woman One: "I'm saying right now I think we should stay to the end of this one." [pause] "Unless it's not good."

Audiences of all ages know when something's not good. Vital theater offers the potential of transcending age. But the Rep isn't selling vital theater today, at least not on its mainstage. Nor does it help that the mainstage season is hampered by a long-running relationship with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The notion of sharing productions does not extend to "share and share alike." Last season, for instance, Cincinnati sent us a lame staging of Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forumwhile their version of Sondheim's Company went straight to Broadway. Talk about getting the short end of the treble clef.

Any theater that becomes too dependent on a subscription audience runs the risk of allowing the tail to wag the dog, because no theater repertory can be all things to all people. But you also shouldn't pander to viewers simply because they're older. Just because someone walks with a cane doesn't mean his mind is mush. I refuse to believe that subscribers to the Rep mainstage would not have enjoyed the irreverent Urinetown at least as much, if not infinitely more, than the postage-stamp revue Musical of Musicals: The Musical. And I continue to believe that most mainstage subscribers would prefer bold productions over museum theater. But so long as Off-Ramp continues to siphon off anything remotely interesting, we'll never know.

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