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Critic's Notebook: My apprenticeship in the regional theater

Working with Joseph Papp at New York's Public Theater and Emily Mann at Princeton's McCarter Theatre proves to be good training for a theater critic.

June 12, 2011|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • MEMENTOS: Two of the most influential theater people in the critic's life were, at top left, the Public Theater's Joseph Papp and the McCarter's Emily Mann.
MEMENTOS: Two of the most influential theater people in the critic's… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Regional theater wasn't a big turn-on for me when I was a theater student in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Off-Broadway was cool; off-off-Broadway was cooler. Those subscription-based behemoths scattered around the country like giant shopping malls sounded dorky to me.

My view of the world beyond the five boroughs of New York City was admittedly cramped back then. I didn't realize that the theater that gave me my start, the Public Theater, was part of the very same nonprofit network my callow ignorance was prepared to completely write off. As the Public's literary intern, reading scripts all day in the complex of offices shared by head honcho Joseph Papp and his wife, literary director Gail Merrifield Papp, I had a lot to learn. Had a fortune teller told me as I was plowing through the interminable slush pile that my professional values would be shaped in large part by my long apprenticeship in the "regionals," I probably would have laughed and replied in my best Cherie from "Bus Stop" impersonation, "I don't wanta go up to some Godforsaken ranch in Montana."

As members of Theater Communications Group (TCG), which supports professional not-for-profit theaters in the U.S., gather for their national conference in Los Angeles this week, I've been reflecting on my career in the theater before I went over to the dark side and became a full-time critic. Mostly I've been thinking about how lucky I was to have been in such excellent nonprofit company early on in my development. I went from the Public Theater to the Yale Rep to the McCarter Theatre in a 12-year span that laid the groundwork for my understanding of how the American theater works. These years were fraught with challenges, frustrations and even moments of disillusionment. But I was surrounded by people whose attitude toward the nonprofit mission was that of a sacred trust. They understood they were not just adding to the repertory but that they were also feeding souls — their audiences' and their own.

Memory has a tendency to gild the past, so let me acknowledge my longstanding problems with regional theater. Artists rely on institutions, but creativity loathes organizational prisons, even welcoming, money-granting ones. This conflict — between the essentially conservative nature of any institutional framework and the irrepressible waywardness of true originality — has bedeviled leaders with the most radical intentions. The situation is further complicated by a regional theater system that hasn't always been organic to communities. In some places, theaters and theater audiences have found themselves in the situation of a couple trying to make the best of an arranged marriage. Artistic directors must somehow negotiate the gap between their own vision and the taste of those whose cold shoulder can run them out of business.

Such concerns may seem quaint by the standards of today when far too many nonprofit theaters have given themselves a commercial makeover, content to present themselves as a Broadway tryout or touring stop. A competitive pragmatism has increasingly come to replace the guiding nonprofit idealism I took for granted. Good work continues to be done, don't get me wrong. But the thread connecting regional theaters to the movement from which they arose seems frayed. San Diego's Old Globe has a penchant for wobbly commercial musicals, the Mark Taper Forum has dwindled in stature as the Ahmanson swells with traveling extravaganzas, Pasadena Playhouse is hobbled and bewildered after its financial crisis and La Jolla Playhouse has yet to define its post-Des McAnuff identity. Like so much else in our culture, the nonprofit theater has been on a downsizing and corporatizing trend.

The Papp years

Joseph Papp demonstrated to me firsthand how much pugnacity it takes to hold fast to one's convictions. The big event of my time at the Public, beyond Kevin Kline's "Hamlet" in 1990, was Papp's war with the New York Times over David Hare's "The Secret Rapture." Frank Rich gave the play a positive review in London but was harshly critical of the Broadway production, and this slam from the Butcher of Broadway was seen to have undermined the show's chances of survival.

Papp, who was nearing the end of his reign but who remained as implacable as King Lear, was furious. He had shortened the play's run downtown so that Rich couldn't review it before its planned move to Broadway. Rich's power was formidable, and for Papp this quashing of serious work was the last straw. He treated his office as a war cabinet, storming in and out like a general gearing up for a great campaign. Hare wrote a stinging letter to Rich, and Papp, after releasing it to Variety, conscripted me to stand outside of the Public and hand deliver the screed to passersby.

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