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Pasadena Playhouse: A time to rethink fundamentals

January 29, 2010 |  5:06 pm

Playhouse Pasadena Playhouse’s announcement that it will close on Feb. 7 after the final performance of “Camelot” while trying to find a way out of its current financial straits is sad news for its soon-to-be out-of-work employees, the surrounding business district that depends on it, the local cultural life of Pasadena and the greater theater community of Southern California, of which the playhouse is a long-standing pillar.

Artistic diminishment of this kind is a spiritual loss. I remember the actress Glenn Close remarking at the site of a prospective new theater in Princeton, N.J., that such an undertaking is comparable to the founding of a church. The idea was that theater serves an analogous function in our lives—for group reflection, confession, expiation and celebration. The South African playwright Athol Fugard echoed this sentiment in a more secular way, stressing “the central importance of theater to the psychic well-being and sanity of a society."

If the American theater lost sight of this broader purpose in the boom years of yesterday, perhaps the economic hardships of today will help us regain our bearings. The signs at the moment, however, are not auspicious. The New Year has arrived and many theaters remain dark; in others, revivals of box-office-wooing musicals and inconsequential dramedies dominate. The consumerist model continues its stranglehold.

This approach has left us with a glut of chestnuts that only those addicted to the familiar can get excited about, and the irony is that it's clearly not bringing in enough dough. Truth be told, theatergoers no longer find theatergoing indispensable. Subscriptions are a luxury too many are happy to do without when households start belt-tightening, and even single tickets can seem like a risky investment. Why spend 100 bucks (not counting parking) when you and your significant other can cut your entertainment expenditures by $75 without the fear of gratuitous boredom taking a chunk out of your weekly budget?

Ever since hearing the somber news about Pasadena Playhouse, I keep thinking of the title of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski's book “Towards a Poor Theatre.” This revolutionary text from the late 1960s was all about returning to fundamentals. For Grotowski, the essence of theater was in the communion between actors and audiences. Sublime things, in short, could occur in meager rooms, with limited technical capacity and a paucity of props, when performers were illuminated with radical purpose and spectators were receptive to having their paradigms budged.

I’m not advocating that actors live in communes and playgoers form cults. But I do wish that artistic directors would examine more honestly their reason for making theater. The art form relies on robust institutions, yet these institutions need to care more about the contributions of their artists than the décor of their lobbies. “Starchitecture” and other forms of what has been waggishly referred to as theater’s “edifice complex” have led us down an expensive cul-de-sac. No wonder patrons would rather stay home with Anderson Cooper than fight traffic for Neil Simon and intermission wine. When reality gets tough, tedious unreality is easily sacrificed, no matter how attractive the ambience. 

I’m not singling out the State Theater of California, Pasadena Playhouse’s special designation. The last thing I want to do is kick a theater when it’s down and desperate to reorganize. Artistic director Sheldon Epps deserves a round of applause for diversifying his theater’s offerings and audience to better reflect the face of Southern California, even if his taste has too often headed in an unchallenging commercial direction.

The situation I’m describing—one in which marketing has in effect become the mission—is a widespread ill. But perhaps the notion of finding opportunity in adversity can turn out to be more than a tired cliche. Give the people something that they really need and they’ll find a way to afford it. The challenge is getting them to sample what they might not know to be good for them. Once theatrically bitten, twice shy. But courage is contagious, and loyal support will follow when souls are nourished. 

--Charles McNulty

Related:

Pasadena Playhouse will close Feb. 7

Above: David Beringer of Pasadena bounds up the stairs to the box office at the Pasadena Playhouse to buy tickets for a performance of "Camelot." Photo credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times 
 

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