Tuesday, July 18, 2006

When "Art" = Box Office Poison

posted by Damaso Rodriguez at 2:02 PM

A couple of days ago in the Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones wrote a commentary about the soon-complete 35th anniversary season at Steppenwolf Theatre (see excerpt and link below). The season was particularly daring in that it featured a full slate of world premieres of challenging new plays. Apparently, they suffered for it at the box office.

I found this to be both inspiring and troubling. Steppenwolf has always been our greatest influence. Their very existence, the fact that an ensemble of actors built a powerful and influencial theatre company from the ground up, on some level underscores our own existence. The fact that 'they did it' seems to suggest to idealists like us that 'we certainly can too .... there's a reward at the end of this if we just stick to it'. So, hearing that they struggle in their effort to produce new work can be sobering.

This year, we're presenting a darkly comic, but ultimately disturbing, look at ramifications of 9/11 followed by a play that examines a double-murder suicide in reverse (it's also quite funny by the way). We know these are hard sells, but this type of material is at the very core of what we do. It's the kind of theatre we're most passionate about. And, we think there's an audience out there for plays like these. People who want a visceral experience. People who want to see something they haven't seen before. People comfortable with getting a little uncomfortable for a couple hours.

Steppenwolf at 35

By Chris Jones
Tribune theater critic
Published July 16, 2006

"Anniversary seasons typically deliver self-serving, festive retrospectives. But in honor of its 35th birthday, the uncompromising Steppenwolf Theatre Company gave Chicago audiences seven difficult and brand-new plays of varying quality but considerable substance, picked without regard for commercial appeal, the delivery of spiritual balm on troubled times, or even, given the ample representation of postmodern novelists, previous playwriting experience.

The sobriety and weight of the themes on offer, the level of the works' overall intellectual sophistication, and the shows' pounding, relentless criticism of liberal, urban, overeducated Baby Boomers made the jaw drop -- and, at times, ache.

Richard Greenberg's "The Well-Appointed Room" dealt with the aftermath of 9/11. Don DeLillo's "Love-Lies-Bleeding" pondered euthanasia. Cormac McCarthy's "Sunset Limited" articulated a strong case for suicide. Bruce Norris' "The Unmentionables," which opened last weekend, features torture in its second act. American hypocrisy was on view all year long.

Most regional theaters would have hesitated to produce a single one of the works in the current Steppenwolf season (which can now be viewed as a whole). Steppenwolf willingly took seven doses of box office poison in the name of its art. Back to back. Especially because it took an inevitable and fiscally sobering toll on subscription levels, it's an accomplishment worthy of note and admiration."

To read the rest you'll have to go to the Trib's site and register for free: Chicago Tribune Commentary by Chris Jones.

Jones, who writes so passionately about the Chicago theatre scene, goes on to analyze the season in depth. His writing makes the theatre seem so important and relevant and vital and exciting that I long for a voice from L.A. that can tout our scene with as much conviction.


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