Interested in hot, experimental theater, but don't want to shell out cool, hard cash? Then get to CUNY's Graduate Center (365 Fifth Avenue), and more specifically the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, because this weekend (9/26-9/29), there's a festival of readings, performances, and panels that are all about the changing theater scene. Those of you questioning the limited scope of ethnic theater out there can talk with Jason Grote at a 4:00 9/28 panel about downtown theater and racial representation. Those of you interested in PS 122's '08 season can check out early drafts of Hello Failure (by Kristen Kosmas) and the Debate Society's The Untitled Auto Play. Or you can just pick random shows by interesting sounding theater companies--Lightbox, 31 Down--or by funky names--Sherri Zahad And Her Arabian Knights or Red Fly/Blue Bottle.
Of course, my goal isn't to advertise, but rather to hype up downtown theater, especially after attending today's prelude to the Prelude, a kick-off panel about Uptown/Downtown theater, and the struggle to change the mainstream, featuring comments from Sarah Benson, Jim Nicola, Alex Timbers, Adam Bock, and David Cote (that's the artistic directors of Soho Rep, NYTW, and Les Freres Corbusier, not to mention a fine playwright, and a fine critic). Panels do tend to be pessimistic, with larger institutions having to pander to their subscribers (Benson), the instability of an unfunded market for artists (Nicola), the condescension of certain critics (Benson), and a conservative audience (Cote, quoting Anne Bogart).
Timbers' valid question is: how do we get the younger, rock-concert going audiences to move from what's considered hip at UCB or Ars Nova, and to a theater out in Brooklyn doing some odd Radiohole event, or to a Clown Festival at The Brick, &c., &c. My main concern is that you can't: concerts--music in general--is a transportable conversation machine, something that you can pop in and share with everyone, and discuss at leisure around a water cooler, bong, &c. Theater doesn't really provide that, and there isn't any hub for young audiences, even though hip spaces like New World Stages or Theater Row could easily aspire to that. In other words, does Shakespeare in the Park get audiences to buy tickets to the Public's presentation of Wooster Group's Hamlet?
Things are commercial, and for every self-sustaining group doing good work, like Elevator Repair Service, there are plenty of groups that can't work outside of limited residencies, and who never get the budgets they need to fully realize their work. Under the Radar, Mark Russell's curated event at the Public, is one way of bringing attention to deserving groups (and the Public will be bringing back The Brothers Size), but there's only so much Mr. Russell can see, only so much that Soho Rep can host, or NYTW can develop. And these are just downtown theaters: what does it take to get MTC to really take more risks? (In this case, the success of Adam Bock's The Receptionist, though we can certainly be encouraged by modern Greeks like Ruhl's Eurydice and Mee's Iphigenia 2.0.) And even here, these aren't really company imports: they're built from the commercial model (when they go to Broadway), and don't foster the creative energies from both directors and writers that allows NYTW to keep reinventing the wheel.
Cote joked that in the next twenty or thirty years, a lot of theatergoers are going to have died. But nobody really laughed. Taste changes slowly, especially if conservative audiences are afraid to sample new wares (or worse yet, sleep through young works at Roundabout), and even more so if critics are steadfast in the works that they've been schooled in, the ones they are more fluent and conversant in. There's no need to get condescending: but there is a need to adapt, which may be where more bloggers come into the mix, bringing new sensibilities and a necessary balance to a jaundiced eye. I'll keep looking for the best in plays, and I'll keep trying to convince you all to go out to them, so keep reading: and check out Prelude if you've the time!