Regional Theater Egos

Ideas about the regional theater’s conception of itself have been floating around my head recently, and this morning I read something in City Pages which is precisely the topic. I hope to expand this discussion further in future writing, but I want to begin while this is particular example is right in front of me.

As a part of the City Pages description of this Monday’s Minnesota Theater Awards, in its first year, Jay Gabler says, 

These were truly awards by, of, and for the theater community. No representatives of the event’s few sponsors appeared at the podium, there was no teleprompter, and there were no dinner-theater musical numbers. It felt more like a backyard afterparty than a glittery ceremony, and if that meant fewer people showed up (the Iveys were the best-attended theater awards in America outside the Tonys), those in attendance seemed perfectly fine with that.

I include the full paragraph for context, but it’s only four words therein that promted strong reactions from a local actor. Tony Vierling says in the comment section, 

I also attended the event on Monday evening and enjoyed celebrating the rich community of theatre artists here in Minnesota. As a professional actor and member of Actor’s Equity for 32 years, I am extremely disappointed in your dismissal of “dinner-theater musical numbers”. I can only assume you are referring to the Chanhassen Dinner Theater and their performances at various Ivey ceremonies thru the years. Here are a few things you may not know about this particular theater. First, it is celebrating it’s 50th Anniversary this year. 50 years of producing theater 52 weeks a year. It is the largest theater of it’s kind in the U.S. According to Actor’s Equity, while it is not the highest paying contract in the state, second to the Guthrie and Ordway, it is the most coveted contract due to the long runs. This means that an actor not only makes a living wage doing theater, but also gets health and pension benefits. At one time the theater had 4 stages, all employing union actors, musicians, and stage managers, and actually employed 1% of all working actors in the U.S. Many of it’s performers have worked all over the world, and some even have 5 Academy Award Nominations. It’s costume shop, wig shop, prop shop, and scene shop are all onsite and employ local artists. Many artists have been able to buy homes, cars, raise children, put children thru college, and retire on a very substantial pension. To say that I am disappointed in your choice of words is an understatement. We are a vital community, and we ALL deserve to be lifted up and recognized. I would ask for an apology to be printed to all of the artists who continue to work 8 shows a week, 52 weeks a year, doing “dinner-theater musical numbers”. Sincerely, Tony Vierling Proud member of Actor’s Equity for 32 years and Chanhassen Dinner Theater Veteran of 42 shows.

Isn’t it remarkable that one nonspecific, noncritical reference to a genre of theater, can elicit such a thoroughly defensive response for a specific theater? Thank you, genuinely, Tony Vierling, for the detailed information that I did not previously know. However, no one is questioning the legitimacy of your theater. Except, it seems, you. You are the only person to raise any question as to that theater’s respectability.

But it just so happens that everyone in Minnesota might not want to watch the shows at that theater, even—or especially—when excerpted for the sake of an out of context awards show performance. I certainly don’t, and, while Jay Gabler doesn’t make clear insinuations when he mentions “dinner-theater musical numbers,” I suspect, as you seem to, that his particular reference to them implies that he might not miss them either. Does that mean I disrespect your theater or the type of plays you do, or any of the artists and other professionals that make them happen? No! Just don’t look for me in the audience. 

I point out this single internet comment because it is so emblematic of regional theater’s tender egos. Any reference to a show must be coupled with lavish praise, or it is immediately taken as a slight. The regional theater proclaims over and over, “We are happy with this our life exempt from the national spotlight!” but only, it seems, when coupled with external validation. If anyone should hear a comment about “Making it in New York,” they jump to the defense of their chosen provincial lifestyle. If the regional theater really is to have its own integrity, it must be able to disregard all the fools who think good theater only exists in New York.

Does this all sound a bit harsh? In a way, I hope so. Because I think it matters deeply. Constantly comparing regional work to that on the coasts becomes a terrible artistic inhibitor for the regional theater as a whole.

Obviously there are myriad counter examples, and I am so glad that they exist, those bastions of creativity that couldn’t give a fuck about their potential lack of national attention (which can result in a good deal of national attention, it turns out). But the massive chip on the shoulder of so many regional theater makers is a huge inhibitor of their excellence. Everything from play selection to hiring artists from the coasts to demanding apologies from newspapers for an INFERRED opinion about a theater you “can only assume” they are referencing by way of listing facts–the fact is there was no musical number that had been originally staged at a dinner theater performed at the Minnesota Theater Awards on Monday.

Even if Jay Gabler, or anyone else, really, came out and said, “I was glad I didn’t have to sit through a Chanhassen musical number,” you would have no reasonable grounds to demand an apology. Ask for an apology for someone’s aesthetic preference? Come on. Maybe I should ask for an apology from Chanhassen because they never do Shakespeare. Well, that’s a nonsequitor. Yes, exactly! To conclude, my opinion of your play does not reflect on the integrity of that play. 

Next time, how my opinion of the regional theater does not reflect the integrity of the regional theater, and what that can mean for the artists.

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