So I headed up to Austin to catch Annie Baker’s The Aliens at the Hyde Park Theater, a trip that surprised even me. From the reviews, I figured it’d be the sort of play I normally loathe: heavy on the talk, light on the dramatic action. And indeed, The Aliens turned out to be practically plot-less: just three stoners shooting the shit around a picnic table in the back of a coffeehouse, with the aimlessness of the conversation generally symbolizing the aimlessness of their own lives.
So the form exactly mirrored content – or so I thought until the head-spinning second act, in which the inventive Ms. Baker managed to turn the very shape of a three-hander on its ear, including a wild second act monologue about, well, the idea of ladders. (It’s sort of hard to explain, and I don’t wish to ruin the surprise; but you’ll know it when you hear it. And the scene will be scrutinized in acting classes all over the US next year.) And suddenly, I understood the method to Baker’s madness: sometimes life is all about the pauses—in fact, relationships are all about the pauses—and Ken Webster’s production simply rings true, filled with patches of exquisite emptiness. Webster is blessed with three crack actors—Jude Hickey, Joey Hood, and Jon Cook—and a suitably ramshackle set by Ia Enstera. It was a beautiful evening at a beautiful, if unconventional, play.
The Aliens won the OBIE Award for Best New American Play in 2010; Austin—like many other cities—has now produced all three plays in Baker’s so-called Shirley, Vermont trilogy (along with Circle Mirror Transformation and Body Awareness).
San Antonio has yet to produce a single play by Annie Baker.
Which leads us to this week’s mail bag, in which two readers remind me of the virtues of the San Pedro Playhouse’s My Fair Lady, the programming of which I lamented in a printed column here. (A brief recap: A Streetcar Named Desire was bumped from the main stage schedule for considerations of finance, and “family-friendliness.” I argued that the SPP was already plenty family-friendly and that they should explore more innovative programming to lure new patrons, particularly if they wish to make the leap to an Equity theater.)
One letter, from “Gilda,” seems to mis-understand my article. She writes, “I am a 65-year-old theatergoer and a fan of the San Pedro Playhouse. Going to see My Fair Lady next Friday, however, and will be very excited to see some of the new shows mentioned by Mr. Jenkins.” I share Gilda’s excitement, but she’s certainly not seeing any of those shows at the San Pedro Playhouse. (She can look forward to e.g., Annie next year.) Two of my proposed shows—August: Osage County and Next to Normal—have been subsequently picked up by theatrical competitors (the Vexler and Woodlawn), which is exactly what I said would happen in my article.
Roy Bumgarner—who plays Higgins in My Fair Lady—wrote to say that my financial critique of the programming at the Playhouse “may be a bit premature”; he reports that houses for My Fair Lady are between 70 percent and 100 percent full. He would like a review, and an acknowledgement that the executive committee knows its market.
Assuming these numbers are true—and I’ll concede them, for now—then, OK, I happily acknowledge it: the SPP is filling its seats with My Fair Lady on a three-day-a-week schedule. The executive committee thus knows how to keep a ship from sinking. But shouldn’t we be aiming for—and achieving—far more than that? Bumgarner sees the healthy run of My Fair Lady as a step towards “becom[ing] an Equity theater eventually,” with a “diverse” audience—but I’m afraid I don’t share his optimism. If My Fair Lady were running at capacity with five performances a week, then maybe the SPP is heading towards Equity with a broad-based audience; but with three shows a week, it seems, at best, to be maintaining the audience base of its last few decades. There’s been no growth at all, though (apparently) no slippage, either. I’d be happier to credit the SPP with audience development if it were actually expanding its performing schedule beyond just weekends; I don’t know of any Equity theater that can survive on just three performances a week. The (Equity) Zach Scott Theater in Austin—which could and should be a possible future model for the SPP—typically runs shows Wednesdays through Sundays.
Bumgarner worries about turning off the “bread’n’butter faithful of the San Pedro Playhouse”—but where has turning them on gotten us? (Answer: to the cancellation of Tennessee Williams—even as the competing Vexler Theater excitingly programs August: Osage County.) I continue to maintain that there’s an under-developed cadre of potential theater-goers in SA who don’t go to theater at the Playhouse because either they consider the quality to be inferior to the performing arts they typically enjoy (such as at the Broadway Series at the Majestic); or they aren’t particularly interested in the diet of chestnuts typically served up at the Playhouse. (That’s one reason why I think the Woodlawn Theater is going to do OK, at least in the short run: young people want to see shows like Next to Normal.) Now potential, reluctant theater-goers might be completely deluded about the quality of the productions and of the programming at the Playhouse—but the perception is real, and a true hindrance to the growth of the audience. I think we need far, far bolder strokes by the SPP if we are to convince more patrons to come to the mainstage there. Programming My Fair Lady (and Annie and Will Rogers Follies, etc.) isn’t, I think, the key.
So clearly, there’s room for a market study here (and it would be lovely if it’s already been done): among local theater-goers who don’t go to the theater at the Playhouse (or even in SA at all), why don’t they go to the theater? For some, I believe (in fact, I know) it’s the lack of Equity productions; for others, it’s the lack of innovative or compelling programming. I’ve tried to point out—in my overviews of theater in e.g., Dallas and Austin—some plays and playwrights (like Annie Baker!) that might find new and receptive audiences in SA, and I’m gratified and pleased when they eventually land in here. (Even though I’m not wild about, for example, Superior Donuts, I was glad to see it mounted in the Cellar.)
As for a review of My Fair Lady, well, maybe. There are a lot of companies in SA asking for reviews: we at the Current try to spread ’em around as best we can. And before I started reviewing in 2004, the Current didn’t publish theater reviews at all. (And we still don’t for the Symphony, which is sort of a scandal.) I’ve considered making a sort of on-line “readers’ corner” for readers’ reviews of shows, though I’m slightly worried about the potential for abuse by less-than-objective friends, family, cast members, and mortal enemies. Still, there’s clearly a need for greater discussion of shows and programming in SA: on that we can agree. (I thank Roy Bumgarner for his courteous and fact-filled letter. We clearly both want the SPP to be a stronger organization; we disagree on how best to get there.)