Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Big Names Don't Stay Long in Regional Theater, If They Come at All

Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Big Names Don't Stay Long in Regional Theater, If They Come at All

Article excerpt

The three ungainly strippers in "Gypsy" had it right. "You gotta get a gimmick," sang burlesque strippers Tessie Tura, Electra and Mazeppa, individually and in chorus.

Author Jule Styne and composer Stephen Sondheim, like theatrical entrepreneurs throughout history, knew that talent wasn't always enough.

Mike Daisey has found one, either by coincidence or as a well-thought out tactic, but it's rare when a one-man show with a four-performance run, playing on Monday nights at Joe's Pub, a small space that is part of the Public Theater in New York's East Village, receives a major advance piece in the Sunday New York Times and a review that runs more than a column in length. The Times' review was mostly happy, as were those in Time Out New York and Variety.

But Daisey's show is called "How Theater Failed America," and theater types across the blogosphere reacted at warp speed.

I was alerted to it recently on one of the theater news-gossip-opinion sites on the Internet; it came from The Stranger, a weekly alternative newspaper in Seattle, and was called, "The Empty Spaces, or, How Theater Failed America."

I learned that it also was a performance piece, though I do not know which came first.

It's a powerful screed about Daisey's life and career, and it campaigns for a radical change in the way the Rep and many other theaters operate, whether in St. Louis or across the country.

Not really. It seeks a return to the American regional repertory theater tern of a half-century ago--a system that was tried for a decade in St. Louis and failed, as it failed just about everywhere else.

When David Frank came here in 1972 as artistic director of the Rep, his concept was for a permanent (or at least season-long) company that would do a season in which almost every actor would perform in every play. Frank, who grew up in England, was thinking of his home turf, though similar groups operated in this country. A good idea, as audiences came to have their favorites--Joneal Joplin, Arthur Rosenberg, Lewis Arlt, Bob Darnell, Brendan Burke among them--and enjoyed seeing them do different roles. Frank also scheduled a Shakespeare play for every season.

But after a few years, it became obvious that it did not work. Not every actor could perform in every style. Some were classically trained. Others were fine with American realism but had difficulty with Shakespeare or Moliere. Some out-of-town actors were hired for a production or two. Frank's company was weak in terms of women actors, and actors of color until John Cothran and Stephen McKinley Henderson came along.

Both men have gone on to (certainly) bigger and (perhaps) better things. …

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