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Theaters playing to bottom line

Times Staff Writer

When San Diego’s Old Globe announced last week that its co-artistic director Jerry Patch had accepted a position as director of artistic development at Manhattan Theatre Club, few may have registered the extent of the theatrical loss to Southern California.

For those on alert, the news also carried a faint yet detectable signal of what may be the most insidious problem facing American theater today -- the subtle and not-so-subtle blurring of commercial and nonprofit realms. The issue boils down to procedures, values and, most important, who’s in control.

The top guy at the Old Globe is Louis G. Spisto, an arts administrator who assumed the unusual title of CEO/executive producer after veteran artistic director Jack O’Brien stepped down at the start of this year. Spisto’s bio touts his having brought to the theater “A Catered Affair,” the touring production of “Avenue Q” and the Broadway transfers of “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” and the Twyla Tharp/Bob Dylan bomb “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” He has also produced scores of plays and musicals, including “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and the holiday show “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”

Spisto is a dedicated executive who has by all reports shored up the Old Globe’s institutional heath. But is this the sensibility that should be guiding the artistic mission of one of the country’s most important nonprofit theaters?

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Regional theaters such as the Old Globe were established through private donations and public money to provide not just live performance but the kinds of offerings that wouldn’t be held hostage to box office pressures. Ideally, the menu would feature groundbreaking dramas and innovative musicals rather than nutritionally empty extravaganzas. But these theaters have come to mark their success by the number of Tonys their splashiest shows go on to win.

The Old Globe has a laudable history. For all the hype and lucre it may have received for bringing such soda pop as “The Full Monty” to Broadway, it has consistently served a balanced diet of Shakespeare, significant revivals from the classic repertory and substantial world premieres.

In 2005, O’Brien lured Patch to become a key member of his team. Beefing up new-play development was clearly foremost on his mind, and he couldn’t have chosen more wisely.

Identifying new talent

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Patch had been a longstanding member of the artistic staff at South Coast Repertory. During his tenure there, he helped make this one of the most fertile regions of new play development in the nation, bringing forward 150 new dramas, including two Pulitzer winners. He also served as founding project director for the theater’s invaluable Pacific Playwrights Festival and sustained unusually fruitful relationships with such dramatists as Richard Greenberg, Donald Margulies and Amy Freed.

In a recent telephone conversation, SCR producing artistic director David Emmes praised Patch’s “extraordinary gift for identifying emerging talents.” The qualities Emmes singled out in his former colleague include “the perceptive way he reads plays, his overall knowledge of the theater, his championing of writers and his complete lack of ego in interacting with them.”

Patch continued this work at the Old Globe, first as resident artistic director, and later (after O’Brien went “emeritus”), co-artistic director with Darko Tresnjak, an auteur who had been at the helm of the Globe’s Shakespeare Festival.

In an unusual organizational setup, Patch and Tresnjak reported to Spisto, who has final say in artistic programming. The Old Globe’s press rep has compared the arrangement to a symphony leadership model (Spisto was formerly the executive director of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra in Orange County), and has also pointed to New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, whose artistic director, Todd Haimes, was formerly the managing director.

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But for all its flaws, the traditional regional-theater structure, which places an artistic director in charge of artistic decisions and a managing director in charge of the budget, shouldn’t be lightly relinquished.

Just as newspapers have struggled to preserve the firewall between editorial and advertising, nonprofit theaters have benefited from the productive tension between creative dreaming and economic safeguarding.

Patch is a dramaturge whose track record makes him worthy of leading a major theater. But the current environment, marked by diminishing arts funding and a new survival strategy of corporate branding through attention-grabbing hits, is more hospitable to white-collar professionals who are more apt to prioritize the bottom line.

The days when boards hired such literary types as Andre Bishop to run Lincoln Center Theatre are probably behind us. And even when the artistic director title is granted, as it was to Patch, its powers come at the sufferance of a CEO who wants it widely known that he’s unequivocally the boss.

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Business driving art

This unfortunate shift in the balance of power between art and commerce is evident in the way bragging rights for the largest theaters in our area derive from snagging Broadway tryouts and tours to their subscriber-based houses. What’s conspicuously missing isn’t just bold vision but the courage to buck the commercializing trend.

But the fault, dear theater-lovers, is as much our own as it is our mushy leaders’. After all, for many of us the words La Jolla Playhouse are synonymous with flashy products such as “Jersey Boys” and Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays” and what gets everyone’s mouth watering is the word that “9 to 5: The Musical” will premiere at the Ahmanson this fall.

Lately, artistic directors seem more intent on wooing consumers than cultivating audiences. The chief losers in all of this are artists. The notion that there is a pile of masterpieces being overlooked while resources are squandered on yet another movie-turned-musical may be a wishful myth. Yet there are playwrights with potential masterpieces in them who are not being given a chance to evolve in the current corporate climate. Patch has helped quite a few of them in his long career in Southern California.

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Before bidding him adieu, let’s thank him for enriching our stages. And then let’s all spend some time trying to figure out the secrets of his unbusiness-like legacy.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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