Sunday, March 02, 2008

Berkeley Rep: Theatre's New Left Coast Guard?

Berkeley Rep: Theatre's New Left Coast Guard?

In recent years, it's seemed as though three primary West Coast not-for-profits lead the pack when it comes to producing future Broadway fare, and they're all in Southern California: the Old Globe (San Diego), La Jolla Playhouse (just to the north of San Diego) and Center Theatre Group (Los Angeles).

I've ventured to all three over the last few years to take in various shows in their pre-Broadway engagements and was struck by just how much they emulated big commercial theatres rather than the nonprofits they purport to be. And is it no surprise given some of the major Rialto hits they've produced? In late January, Isaac Butler at Parabasis had a great post on the double-edged sword this "enhancement" effect has on not-for-profits that's most definitely worth reading.

In part through Jack O'Brien's artistic leadership, the Old Globe helped shepherd Into the Woods, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Damn Yankees, The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, among other shows to the Great White Way.

At the nearby La Jolla Playhouse, under Des McAnuff's guiding hand, shows like Thoroughly Modern Millie, I Am My Own Wife, 700 Sundays, Jersey Boys and the upcoming Cry-Baby first came to life prior to Broadway.

And up in the city that's known more for its devotion to film than live theatre, Center Theatre Group has earned its stripes under Michael Ritchie's leadership by producing two highly successful Main Stem musicals: The Drowsy Chaperone and Curtains. It's also where the current Come Back, Little Sheba revival got its start.

I don't begrudge any of them the commercial success they've achieved, but given that success, are each of these theatres really completely deserving of their 501(c)(3) status?

Interestingly enough, as Joy Goodwin points out in this morning's The New York Times, the Bay Area's 40 year-old Tony Award-winning Berkeley Reperatory Theatre is slowly but surely staking its own claim in Manhattan, both on Broadway and Off-Broadway. The latest, perhaps greatest show it's had a major hand in producing is Passing Strange, which opened last week to major critical buzz.

While the other three theatres offer fare that's arguably more commercially viable, it's refreshing to see a nonprofit doing what you'd hope a nonprofit would do -- taking greater risks in stretching the boundaries of artistic expression. If the result continues to be shows like Passing Strange, I just may consider making a donation there as a way of demonstrating my solidarity and enthusiastic support for their vision and mission:
Berkeley Repertory Theatre seeks to set a national standard for ambitious programming, engagement with its audiences, and leadership within the community in which it resides. We endeavor to create a diverse body of work that expresses a rigorous, embracing aesthetic and reflects the highest artistic standards, and seek to maintain an environment in which talented artists can do their best work. We strive to engage our audiences in an ongoing dialogue of ideas, and encourage lifelong learning as a core community value. Through productions, outreach and education, Berkeley Rep aspires to use theatre as a means to challenge, thrill and galvanize what is best in the human spirit.
When it gets right down to it, isn't that really what live theatre is all about?

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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