DC: Backstage at the Kennedy Center

June 19, 2008
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The latest in a serious of reports from the American Theatre Critics Association conference in Washington, D.C. 

It's past intermission, but I chose not to go back into the theater. Stomach issues, I claim. Truth is, I saw a much better directed, better cast and better act of the same play in Indianapolis not too long ago.

I can't tell you what the play is, first, because it's still in previews and, unless special permission is granted, it's a critical no-no to opine on anything that happens on stage before opening night.

Suffice it to say that it's good to be reminded once in a while that our theater artists sometimes do a more impactful job than theaters with greater means.

My time in the lobby also gives me a chance to empty my notebook on some items I didn't include in previous posts.

--On day one, we met briefly with Bill O'Brien, Theatre and Musical Theatre Director for the National Endowment for the Arts. He talked about the NEA's new play development program, which seeks to identify and raise awareness of the best new voices. Rather than just acknowledge these works and writers, though, he's committed to stimulate readings and workshops, helping them move toward audiences.

I'm a big fan of the development process, having witnessed its impact on others as well as on my own work. But I'm a bit at a loss to explain why so much development is needed these days. 

How could, for instance, "Death of a Salesman," "A Streetcar Named Desire," and just about every great or even good play written before 1965 or so manage to get by without years of workshops and readings? When and why did a playwright's mind and typewriter stop being enough?

--While Tim Russert's memorial service was being held at the Kennedy Center yesterday, I was in the same building, visiting backstage while a small army prepared for the return of "The Lion King." 

Mickey Berra, the head of the Kennedy Center's production department, spent most of the previous evening making last minute arrangements for a screen to show a Russert tribute video from Bruce Springsteen. Still, he didn't mind not being in that part of the hall at the time it was screened.

"It'll be in Wal-mart by next week, "Berra said of the Russert memorial, Virginia charm making the cynicism go down smoothly.  While stagehands watched Russert's son on a monitor, Berra shared  stories from his years on the job (He started here as a stagehand in 1971). Best tale: Elizabeth Taylor, recipient of a Kennedy Center Honors tribute, being told in the green room that she needed to take her seat because President Bush (1) was on his way from the White House. "I haven't finished my drink," she said to the handler. "Tell him to circle the block a few times."

--Every theater we've been to so far has added the same item to its no cell phones/no photographer/unwrap your candy now mantra: No text messaging.

The times they are, indeed, a' changing.

--Ray Cullom, executive director of the Bathesda Theatre told us this morning about an interesting development/experiment. His theater will be part of a small network of theaters across the country that will serve as a circuit for off-Broadway shows. Within three years, he hopes to be able to take on the road existing shows--or produce touring versions with the original talent--that would be too small for a traditional Broadway series.

An interesting prospect in a market dominated by large-scale musicals. Alas, Indianapolis is not on his short list, which includes Detroit, Atlanta, SF, and other cities with "enough education in theatergoing...with high exposure to higher-end theater."

More soon...

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