The Dramatic Response 

Theater Year in Review

It's interesting how the answers to one simple question can lend immediate insight into people's character and their perception of the world. The question begins: "Do you remember where you were...?" Depending on the person's age, the end of the question might be "...when Kennedy was shot?" or "...when space shuttle Challenger exploded?" In striving to understand and mark history-with-a-capital-H as it connects to our own lives, we often hang our personal history on the pegs provided by tragic events familiar to everyone. This year provided all of us with one hell of a peg, an event whose aftershocks are often proving as mind-numbing as the event itself, a moment in time that will reverberate through American history and that of the world for years to come.

This is particularly true for artists and arts organizations of all kinds. If we look to art as a way to understand and appreciate the world, if we rely on the arts to console and invigorate us, it becomes clear that now more than ever, we need artists to step forward and help us integrate 9-11 and its aftermath. But art is not produced in a vacuum -- artists have been as affected by the tragedy and the war as anyone else, and there have been and will continue to be serious impacts that will influence how (and whether) arts organizations will operate in the future. The trajectory of local theater companies, in particular, offer valuable lessons as they move from shock, fear, and uncertainty to an evolving determination to do better work, to be more involved with community, and to champion the preciousness of human experience -- even as they face the daunting logistical challenges brought on by recent events.

Like everyone else, actors and theater staffers were in shock on September 11, and faced the same decisions: Can I go in to work? As professionals in a field that is sadly often perceived as superfluous, they had another question: What is the meaning of my work in such a difficult time? As Transparent Theater's managing director Coley Lally rather baldly puts it, "Who gives a fuck about art when it comes to war? There's not a parallel -- you can't compare art to saving starving people." Many companies were either rehearsing or opening shows in September, and on the 11th, faced the immediate question: Should we go on? Though some directors made rehearsals optional, most found that almost all of the actors showed up anyway, anxious to connect. Sabrina Klein, the executive director of the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, had scheduled a conversation with local dancers for that evening. She says that a surprising number of people showed up, and that "it was a good meeting -- we actually got a lot of business done." At Transparent Theater, artistic director Tom Clyde sat down with his Swanwhite cast and told the story of the play again, describing its relevance to the day's events. Subterranean Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors was too close to opening for the cast to skip a rehearsal; artistic director Stan Spenger notes that while none of the cast seemed inclined to talk about the day's events, they all expressed hope that the show they were readying would be a gift to a community in need of some laughter.

In the ensuing days, theater professionals took the opportunity to help however they could. The California Shakespeare Festival, for instance, not only donated box-office proceeds to the relief effort, the actors of Twelfth Night took to passing the hat after performances, garnering thousands of dollars a performance. And if actors were dedicating themselves to making theater as a way of healing and supporting audiences, the audiences were responding in kind. Spenger remembers a group of thirty Cal students who came to see Comedy of Errors on September 12. "Those kids refused to cave," Spenger says, "and their energy helped the actors get back up on the horse." "The actors started to believe that there was something they could do," says Cal Shakes' Moscone, "just by doing their jobs as actors, that their work was important."

Still, it's impossible to talk about the health of local theater without talking about money and audience attendance, and the combination of the bombing, the war, and the recession is presenting a powerful challenge to East Bay companies, one that has their managers worried. Even the seemingly invulnerable Berkeley Rep has been battening down the hatches; aware that circumstances are going to get tight, the company has laid off two staff members and rolled back salaries. "What we've lost [post 9-11]," says managing director Susan Medak plainly, "we won't be getting back." Melissa Hillman says that while Impact Theater was pleased to have been able to present the highly relevant Lost Cause, the company "took a bath-ola" on it. Like other theater managing directors, Hillman worries that small companies like hers will fall through the cracks. All revenues are down -- single ticket sales, grants, and individual support. Even regular donors are sometimes finding that they can't always give what they had pledged.

On the other hand, after an initial period in which people appeared to be staying home eating takeout and watching videos, attendance seems to be showing signs of bouncing back. Some companies aren't in a position to gauge how much of an impact the current situation has had on their numbers -- Aurora, for example, just moved into a new, larger space. Moreover, as Klein notes, "small companies with a community focus are doing better than the large touring shows that don't have [that connection]." And audiences are really responding to what theaters are offering, taking what they need from it. "We've been astonished at how relevant some of the stuff we've already programmed would appear to be, but I'm beginning to think that any really good play is going to be relevant somewhere down the line," says Aurora's artistic director Barbara Oliver, fresh off the very germane St. Joan.

Not surprisingly, there also have been political repercussions. Certainly the most striking example comes from the Rep, whose 2001-2002 season will include Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul. Written well before 9-11, Homebody tells the story of a frustrated Englishwoman who runs off to Afghanistan. In the aftermath of 9-11, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) froze a grant intended to help the Rep stage the play. The action was highly unusual -- ordinarily grant proposals that have passed a peer-review process are funded without question. Nor has the NEA ever given the Rep a satisfactory answer for the holdup. As I write this, the NEA has announced that it will okay the grant -- but only for $60,000 of the $100,000 dollars requested; the Rep will have to do extra fund-raising to cover artist salaries. Susan Medak is diplomatic about the situation ("We are grateful that the NEA has honored the peer-review process"), but others in the community have some choice words for what they see as the NEA's cowardice. Transparent's Lally refers to the NEA's action as "atrocious. The terrorists have succeeded in that we're acting more like we're from the Stone Age ourselves. If we are being censored, they are taking away part of the American Dream. Once you start acting like the other side, you are the other side."

Many in the local theater community worry about what Klein refers to as "self- and community-imposed" censorship. Golden Thread Productions, which presents work with Middle Eastern themes, has heard from actors who are afraid to perform. "Under Bush and Ashcroft, there is a narrow scope of allowable debate," Klein says. "It seems that theater -- and the church -- are the only places certain issues can be raised." Fortunately, many are determined to keep those questions in front of local audiences. Artistic director Patrick Dooley took the drastic step of canceling a scheduled show for the Shotgun Players -- The Fairy's Tail -- so that he could stage Jean Giraudoux's There Will Be No Trojan War, a biting farce that questions the inevitability of war. Julia Morgan's Klein, who plays the lawyer Busiris in Trojan War, says she's grateful the Shotgunners chose to switch plays. "People have been coming up and thanking us," she says, for presenting theater that reflects their own feelings and misgivings.

While the impact of the events of 9-11 on the local theater community is still not clear, most companies are choosing to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. As the Rep's Medak explains, "Actors are eternal optimists. They have to be. It takes a lot of optimism to step out from the wings and try to make that connection, to believe that the audience is going to meet you halfway."

"The most important thing now is that artists make art that matters," says Lally. "We need it to feed our souls." Sabrina Klein concurs: "We know there has never been a society -- no matter how traumatized -- that hasn't made theater."

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