Friday, July 14, 2006

The Wooster Group vs. the Green Goblin

I'm excited to see that Frédéric Martel, author of Le Rose et le noir, an excellent history of the gay movement in France, has recently published Theater: Sur le déclin du théâtre en Amérique (et comment il peut résister en France). The title translates as "Theater: On the decline of theater in America (and how it can hold up in France)." I've ordered it from Amazon France, so more on the book later, I'm sure.

And based on the op-ed Martel (who was cultural attaché in the US for several years) just wrote in the French weekly Les Inrockuptibles, there will be plenty to talk about. Titled "How Mickey Stepped on American Theater" (a very French statement), it looks like a summary of the book's main arguments, including the fact that American theaters had to fight the decline in popularity of their artform by practicing "outreach"—grassroots creations and marketing, including engaging specific communities (gay, Latino, etc.) That's certainly one answer to the problem, though it is incomplete.

A few sweeping statements irritatingly creep in here and there. For instance, Martel writes, "Here's the era of The Lion King in theaters which yesterday hosted Arthur Miller and Peter Brook." While he's not on Broadway, Brook is still staged in NYC; as for Miller, he is very much still represented on the Great White Way.

An indication of a possible (again, typically French) misreading of the relation between art and commerce in the US is an aside stating, as an example of American theater's losing battle against mass culture, that the Wooster Group gave in to "the sirens of the cultural corporations" when Willem Dafoe played the Green Goblin in Spiderman. First of all, the Wooster Group had nothing to do with Spiderman; Dafoe acted (in both senses of the word) on his own behalf. In addition, not only did he appear in the Wooster's revival of Brace Up!, at about the same time (2002), but by then he had spent two decades appearing in both Wooster shows and Hollywood movies.

Dafoe's film career probably helped subsidize the downtown company, which in turn kept him engaged in the experimental world. In a country where there is little public funding for the arts, Hollywood is a de facto benefactor, the actors' fat film paychecks affording them to do theater. The responsibility then falls on the actors themselves to choose good stage material. Some play it safe, choosing staid vehicles; others are more daring: For years Elizabeth Marvel—one of NYC's top stage actors—funded her Off and Off-Off career with a regular gig on the TV drama The District. On the other hand, Allison Jeanney completely disappeared from the stage after becoming a regular on The West Wing.

Of course, this leads to the question of why actors can't make a decent living on stage and need to do film and TV work. Yes, a few people earn quite a decent buck on Broadway, but that's because the Broadway system is powered by $250 premium seats and $100 second-balcony seats, and of course no discounts for students and seniors. There has to be a way for people to make a living working Off and Off-Off full-time. NYC theater insiders may scoff, but the crisis of the American theater will never be resolved if the only way to make a living in theater is by being on Broadway.

But more on this later. I must prepare myself to finally see Emperor tonight. It's the equivalent of a Beatles reunion for black-metal fans.


Skrambles said...

You're right. Dafoe a sell-out? My guess is that his role as the Green Lantern was more stimulating (and way more fun--for him and for us) than his turn as J.C. in the "Last Temptation." Also, while it's true that W.D. has hit major Hollywood paydirt, Wooster Group members have long flirted with Hollywood. Ron Vawter had a role in "Philadelphia"--and before he performed "Roy Cohn/Jack Smith," a performance that hardly seemed corrupted by the taste of Hollywood.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Good point about Vawter. Him and Dafoe certainly aren't the only ones to straddle two worlds. In any case, I don't see why an actor couldn't have as much fun doing both The Hairy Ape and a Brett Ratner movie. (Okay, maybe not Brett Ratner…) The idea of "selling out" seems absurdly purist to me.

Anonymous said...

moreover, peter brook was hardly a frequent visitor to broadway and anyone who has seen a little bit of theater knows that The Lion King is much more daring than many Arthur Miller revivals. and what to make of the vaguely offensive criticism of outreach? theater's problem is that it reaches out to minority communities too much? if anything, it's the reverse. not to be an ugly american, but the better question for martel is what's wrong with french theater? Did he see any of the shows in the Act French festival?