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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Babylon Revisited: NYC as Cultural Capital

A TRIP TO NEW YORK CITY is, for me, a theater-going event. Because I work as a theater critic in the Albany area, I rarely pay for a ticket here. But my critical reach doesn’t make it to Manhattan.

“Gatz” is returning to the New York’s Public Theater, and I’d love to take my wife and daughter to the show. It’s a marathon reading/performance of The Great Gatsby by an innovative, Brooklyn-based theater company called Elevator Repair Service. During the course of the six-hour (plus intermissions) show, you hear every word of the book, and the framing device is such that you’re drawn, deeply and unexpectedly, into the action.

I saw it performed, closer to home, in 2008, at Troy’s EMPAC, a young performing arts center on the campus of RPI. I was comped in. I was dazzled. But for the three of us to see it in New York, I’d have to pony up close to $600. I’m afraid we’ll have to see what discounts TDF is offering or take potluck with the TKTS board.

And we’ll find no lack of other options. From the high-profile events profiled in the glossy mags to the handbill-listed one-offs, New York City can slake any thirst for the arts. As an audience member, it remains for me the cultural capital of the country. As an artist, I can’t shake the notion that a warm reception there has to be the pinnacle of public success.

I’m sure my belief is born of proximity. I grew up in its suburbs, and made the not-too-difficult sacrifice of many a schoolday to a furtive bus trip down and back to take in a concert or show. Had I been raised near Boston or Chicago, I’m sure I’d feel the appropriate partisanship – but those cities (and all other cities) lack the glorious cluster of theaters on 46th Street, the haphazard but promising array of theaters makeshift or otherwise south of 14th Street, the clamor of streetside performances, the astonishing energy of artists who have thrown themselves into this high-pressure, over-priced incubator.

An energy exemplified by a subway ride I took in the summer of 2009, when I lived for five weeks in the city to produce NY Fringe Festival performances of my play “Mr. Sensitivity.” I was returning to my sublet in Astoria after a day’s rehearsal. I’d stayed in town late to see a show. The car I rode was nearly empty, making it easy to eavesdrop on the conversation of the three people across from me, all looking to be in their mid 20s. It was a brainstorming session about a production of “Medea” they aspired to mount, and the ideas that flew back and forth were eager and exciting. They spoke of their great belief in the material and they considered a number of strategies with which to enhance it. Behind it, of course, lurks the city’s jackpot lure: Someone very influential is going to see this, and celebrate my genius.

Gatz,” for example, was born in Brooklyn, but traveled the world for a couple of years starting in 2006 while the company wrestled with the Fitzgerald estate. It played in Chicago in 2008 before stopping in Troy, and, after a trip to Australia, had a run of performances near Boston in early 2010. It first landed at New York’s Public Theater in late 2010, where it got the smash Ben Brantley review that assured its success. Following the current run at the Public, it moves to London’s West End.

During the welcome meeting at the NY Fringe Festival in which my play had its run, we were reminded over and over not to expect the kind of freak lightning that hit “Urinetown” nine years earlier, propelling it into Off-Broadway and then Broadway houses. But who among us wasn’t hoping? “Urinetown” creators Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann had plenty of trouble finding development venues for their play, and even getting the Fringe production together was an act of madness and will.

Creative development is taking place in communities across the country, wherever creative folks can gather. Here in the Albany area, there’s no shortage of people pooling their talents and taking advantage of performance spaces to share their creative visions. During a visit to Minneapolis some years ago, I was astonished at the number of outlets for music and theater and dance and, I’m sure, disciplines to which I don’t pay as much attention.

“It’s because of the way the colleges and the local businesses work together,” a friend who lived there explained. “The smarter businesses know it’s important to cultivate the arts, and the colleges are where it’s happening.” And, he pointed out, not everyone making art there aspired to hit New York.

Fair enough, although I noticed that most of the plays being presented there by LORT-level theaters had originated on or near Broadway. I’m sure that New York will continue to be the place where the Ultimate Artistic Blessings are bestowed, but I believe that ever-worsening economics, combined with the contempt for the arts (and for education) shown by so-called conservative politicians, are making it more crucial than ever to find or create your own incubator, to come up with your own “Gatz.” Celebrate yourself locally, where tickets also are generally cheaper. And if you make it to New York, please save me an aisle seat.

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