Feature Soft-soaping hardcore theater 

Local directors want to push their audiences - but not out the door. Welcome to the season of the veiled reference.

"Sometimes in that production, we played to 14 people; there were more people on stage and in the crew than were in the house." San Pedro Playhouse Artistic Director Frank Latson is recalling last season's staging of Angels in America, parts one and two, in the 400-seat Russell Hill Rogers theater. "It's an amazing piece, and I was thrilled to get to do it," says Latson of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer- and Tony-winning opus. "It fed me all year."

But what feeds artists doesn't always fill seats, a truism that seems to be reflected in almost everyone's current season, a season that could be subtitled "Golden Oldies."

click to enlarge arts_latson_6918_330jpg
San Pedro Playhouse Artistic Director Frank Latson. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Despite the Broadway run of Chicago at the Majestic last year, Roxy Hart will aim her pipes at the audience from the Vexler's stage. Little Orphan Annie takes Roxy's place at the historic downtown venue, followed by her social-climber Argentinean cousin, Evita, and Billy Joel via the jukebox musical Movin' Out. Just the thing to get those '40-somethings to the theater. The Vexler kicked off its season with Neil Simon's comedy Plaza Suite, and even Trinity University, which ought to be somewhat immune to box-office pressure, is presenting Noel Coward's Hay Fever, Cole Porter's Anything Goes (which was co-scripted by P.G. Wodehouse), and Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in a schedule rumored to be described as a Season of Laughter. Like, so hard you could cry.

On its main stage, San Pedro Playhouse will present Meet Me in St. Louis, a turn-of-the-last-century love story with a fair as the backdrop, and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, whose moral must be excavated from Mona Stangley's cleavage. "This season is a bit different in that, very frankly, it's about dollars, it's about putting bodies in seats," says Latson. "My thinking was to do that without compromising my integrity."

Compromises designed to find a balance between offering gratification to artists and that portion of the audience that prefers edgier work and bringing fresh faces in the door can be spotted in many, if not most, theater schedules. In its 2005-06 season, Houston's the Alley theater, the nation's largest regional theater, includes an Agatha Christie mystery outside of its Summer Chills series, and Orson's Shadow, which imagines an episode in the lives of Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, and Vivien Leigh. And because it can afford to, it practices the time-honored audience-boosting tactic of hiring actors whose names can be recognized by the small- and silver-screen sets - this year Dixie Carter stars in the premiere of a new play, which may entice viewers to take a chance on an unknown quantity, and Marisa Tomei will headline Born Yesterday, a biting political satire by Garson Kanin, king of Hollywood's screwball-comedy era.

Latson and the Alley are not alone. Theater directors everywhere must compete for the attention of the comparatively small portion of the population that attends live stage productions while making overtures to new audiences. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, of the Americans who participate in cultural activities, all demographics are more likely to see a musical than a play, and the number of Americans who indulge in theater in their free time peaked at 14 percent in the early '90s, but has since settled back in at 12 percent. Locally, the Cultural Collaborative reported last year that among the individuals it surveyed who participated in arts activities in the previous 12-month period, between 40 and 50 percent attended a live theatrical performance, a more popular activity than literary events but well behind neighborhood festivals and live music. Nationally, of those who do attend plays, the average age range is mid-'40s to mid-'50s.

Accordingly, finding that avant-garde/avant-bills balance often leads to comedy, or music, or both. "I don't want to lose our long-term patrons," says Latson, "`but` I still think we've got some really edgy material upstairs." Latson is producing a play by Eugene O'Neill - whose work was featured in the Cellar last year but has yet to grace the big stage - but he's "soft-peddling" one of America's most controversial playwrights by selecting his only comedy, Ah, Wilderness. "It has all of O'Neill's themes that become darker in his later plays, but it has them from a lighter point of view," he says. Similiarly, he says, Gypsy, which is often referred to irreverently as an old war horse, raises timeless social issues because it is based on the memoirs of the famous burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and her tale of an overbearing stage mother who exploits her daughters. "It isn't your standard family musical," he says. "Thematically it has stuff going on that I hope will engage a sophisticated audience."

Ken Frazier, director of the Sheldon Vexler Theatre, says he walked the same line in scheduling his season, which features exclusively American playwrights. "Somewhere in wanting to choose an American theme I thought, I have yet to do a season in what I thought was stock or standard `productions`," says Frazier. "Going into our seventh year, maybe, I thought, it was time to do that, wanting to get some new faces into the Vex." But, he's quick to add, he wasn't willing to do the easy standards. For instance, he says, "I chose Plaza Suite because I knew we were going to be able to put our own stamp on it." Same thing goes for Chicago, Frazier says. "I know by the time it rolls around we won't be producing a carbon copy."

Venue size and institutional reputation also play a role in a director's willingness to take risks. Smaller, experimental organizations - some of which we've highlighted in this special Performing Arts Preview - often present edgier and untried work because their low overhead fits more comfortably with low ticket sales. Frazier believes his audience expects the Vex to present more challenging work in its 155-seat theater. Latson says that one of his biggest obstacles is figuring out how to grow the audience for the Cellar, the small, 30-plus-seat, black box theater in the Playhouse's basement and get them upstairs to the 400-seat main stage.

"The heavier things that we did in the Cellar last year were just jammed. We were turning people away from Santos y Santos," says Latson. But when it comes to filling the larger venue for a production such as Angels in America, Latson feels he runs up against a fundamental truth about San Antonio. "This is a very military, very conservative town generally." So, even though the Playhouse is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and the Cellar has been around for two decades, he says, "we're going to have to build an audience for that kind of theater here, and we know it. And it's gonna be wonderful."

By Elaine Wolff

At the San Pedro Playhouse, as in life, mischief happens in the basement

Clang! Clang! Clang! goes the trolley on the San Pedro Playhouse's main stage this season, but the Playhouse's smaller Cellar Theater offers, as usual, decidedly less mainstream fare. Those who don't want to Meet Me in St. Louis - or anywhere else - may want to take a gander at a season that includes a recent Pulitzer winner, a meditation on 9-11, and a play that concerns, among other things, race relations and underwear.

According to Di Ann Sneed, executive director of the Playhouse, the traditional division in programming between the Playhouse's two performing spaces is already transforming. Last year's Angels in America, Tony Kushner's fantastic fantasia on gay themes, surprisingly opened on the main stage, while this year Greetings, a sweet family play about a Christmas miracle, takes the Cellar. Still, Sneed sees the Cellar primarily as a space for new and interesting pieces: "We won't ever stop doing the work that we are able to do in the Cellar."

The highlight of the Cellar's season is probably next spring's Anna in the Tropics, Nilo Cruz's 2003 Pulitzer prize-winning play about Cuban-American factory workers in 1929 Florida. Bored by their labor at a cigar shop, the workers are serenaded by a lector-a paid reader-who recites to them Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. As the play continues, life and literature merge in unexpected ways.

Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, a recent New York City hit, chronicles the life of an African-American seamstress in fin de siècle Manhattan who makes the titular apparel for a variety of clients and social classes. Sneed promises that the show is as beautiful as its lingerie.

Last year's hit production of The Mikado in the Cellar has enabled a return performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta: this time of Patience, which Sneed says will be updated in Cellar-like fashion to the groovin' and hip 1960s. And the season opener of Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros' Omnium Gatherum - which lucky Austinites saw last year at the Zach Scott - offers a post-9-11 dinner party that's literally from Hell.

So if riskier theatrical fare is your bag, skip the trolley and hit the Cellar instead.

- Thomas Jenkins

Sometimes slow and steady wins the race, says the reborn 24th Street Experiment

One measure of wisdom might be learning to do an insane job in a sane way. Theatrical production in San Antonio is insanely demanding. "We were cannibalizing the company to keep it running," says Ric Slocum of the 24th Street Experiment. Slocum, who teaches theater at Our Lady of the Lake University, helped found the company more than 20 years ago and served as the co-artistic director with Steve Bailey until its untimely demise in the early '90s.

"We were exhausted," he says of the company's long hiatus. "You think, if I just push a little harder we can make this thing work, but then you realize you can't."

So the rebirth of the Experiment, though welcome to those who remember its excellent, experimental ensemble work, comes as a surprise. But Slocum quickly explains how he and co-artistic director Victor Trevino, who also teaches theater at OLLU, have built sanity into the process. They'll only do a couple of shows a year, during the summer, and under the auspices of the University.

"We won't be out raising money, won't be dealing with a board of directors," Slocum says. Most importantly, they won't have a mandate to produce a certain number of shows per year. "When we've got a group of people matched up with a script that we're really interested in doing, then we'll do it."

While he enjoys working with students, Slocum also misses working with professional actors, and wanted to revive the Experiment largely to give professionals a place to work. So how does he define "professional"?

"I'm talking about people who have substantial training, and who have worked in a professional context," he explains, such as his wife, Pam Slocum, Roger Alvarez, and Bryn Jameson, who starred in the reborn company's first offering, Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca. Slocum directed. "The payoff," he says, "is a very mature, collaborative process."

- Laurie Dietrich

The San Antonio Chamber Choir takes an
oft-tame art form up a notch

Judging from the number of top-notch chamber ensembles that are successfully programming riskier contemporary repertoire - on September 13, the Olmos Ensemble premiered San Antonio composer William James Ross' "Chromatic Fantasy" for flute and piano, for instance, while the Cactus Pear Music Festival incorporated the premiere of Miguel del Aguila's "Salon Buenos Aires" nto an entire program of 20th-century Latin-American compositions - San Antonio has achieved a certain degree of sophistication among classical audiences. But what about choral music? There's a common tendency to dismiss "choir practice" as something that happens in high school, college, and Sunday church services - more of a social outlet than a venue for serious music. Scott MacPherson is committed to changing that attitude.

Director of Choral Activities at Trinity University since 1993, MacPherson is the founding artistic director of the San Antonio Chamber Choir, a new professional chorus that debuts on September 25. MacPherson is quick to point out that while there are a few "really good choirs, some of them of professional caliber," most of them specialize in a certain repertoire and none of them, not even the Symphony Mastersingers, pay their vocalists.

San Antonio
Chamber Choir Debut


4pm Sun, Sep 25
$18 adult; $14 senior; $5 student

St. Mark's Episcopal Church
315 E. Pecan
sachamberchoir.org

MacPherson prefers a professional project-choir model: Conduct auditions for each performance, engage the best singers in town, present challenging and innovative repertoire, hire singers who can prepare the music on their own, and polish the repertoire in a few intensive rehearsals rather than the weekly commitment typical of community choruses. Singers are free to pursue other engagements, and MacPherson has the flexibility to select the number and character of voices he needs for each program.

Rather than limit the choir's repertoire to specific genres, MacPherson's vision for the ensemble is to perform challenging pieces from all realms of vocal repertoire with the utmost musical artistry. "I believe the city of San Antonio has a deep pool of professional caliber singers who will help make this a nationally recognized ensemble."

For its premiere performance, the 28-voice choir will perform William Byrd's "Mass for Five Voices," Brahms' "Neue Liebeslieder Walzer," Ernst Tochs' playful "Geographical Fugue" for spoken chorus from 1930 (re-written with a Texas twist), and the world premiere of "Graue Liebesschlange" (aka "Grey Love Snakes"), a newly commissioned work by internationally renowned, award-winning American composer Andrew Rindfleisch. A bit eccentric, perhaps, but not a bad start.

- Diana Lyn Roberts


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