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Everything Goes! 50 Years of Social Change
By Elyse Sommer

Edward Albee by Sam Norkin (1994)
Fiftieth anniversaries are events that seed reflection and celebrations. On January 17th, the Drama Desk launched its 50th anniversary season with a panel featuring a group of theater professionals to address some of the changes wrought over the last half century.

The event, which filled Tony Di Napoli's intimate, yet spacious downstairs space on West 43rd Street to the brim, was ably co-hosted by Charles Wright (Drama Desk 2d vice president) and Ellis Nassour (Drama Desk board member) and featured past president and executive board member Sam Norkin's wonderful illustrations to lend an apt visual backdrop for the distinguished and witty panel. Panelists included playwright Edward Albee; actor Richard Thomas, who starred in a successful revival of Albee's Tiny Alice; producers Elizabeth McCann, who is reviving Albee's landmark play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Martin Richards, who has just brought La Cage aux Folles back to Broadway. Another scheduled guest La Cage star Gary Beach became ill the day before, but even short one invited guest, there was no shortage of trenchant and witty observations.

The discussion started with comments on how the fifty years have changed attitudes towards the subject matter of La Cage and Virginia Woolf. Mr. Richards recalled his father telling him to put on shows about "normal" people. As Mr. Albee quipped, "abnormal is now normal." While no longer shocking, La Cage remains timely enough for Mr. Richards to have opted for as faithful a new staging as possible and he said that the only "daring" new addition to the current La Cage -- a finale with a passionate kiss exchanged by Gary Beach and Daniel Davis -- didn't cause the slightest ripple.

As for Virginia Woolf, no Pulitzer Prize committee today would turn down John Houseman and one other committee member's recommendation as their fellow judges did on the grounds that the play brought an inappropriate treatment of a subject before Broadway audiences. That play's failure to meet the 1963 squeaky clean Pulitzer standards, didn't prevent Albee from collecting three Pulitzers in subsequent years (A Delicate Balance, 1966-67; Seascape, 1974-75, Three Tall Women, 1993-94). And Tiny Alice, which neither critics or its lead actor John Gielgud seemed to understand or appreciate originally, did far better when it was revived. Richard Thomas who played Gielgud's part in the revival (my review) said that "audiences now having a good time seeing this would not have been possible without years of involving work."

Given the title, one might expect the panelists to also explore the "everything goes " theme in terms of how common sexually explicit actions and language, nudity and color blind casting have become. McCann did note that the theater nowadays is "almost pristine" compared to television. However, the increasingly conservative economic climate that affects what can be put on and who can afford to see it hasn't exactly made for an "everything goes" Broadway. Thus, typical of any discussion about theater by people who care about it as an art form, the panel's focus (as well as audience questions) shifted to a concentration on what doesn't go because of economic considerations.

The shift to producing problems brought on the subject of backers who according to McCann want to hear " boy and girl", rather than words like "satire and social conscience" and the ever rising cost of tickets (Albee's early theater experiences were downtown where he got the impression that "theater was about taking chances, people not paying a lot for tickets."). The rather grim consensus was that we have an overall sensibility that advises playwrights only on making things more commercial. According to McCann this is what has made the catalogue musical the big new thing and the most interesting things being done on Broadway come from somewhere else..

The original Virginia Woolf production cost $42,000 to produce, the one coming up will cost a cool two million. As Albee wryly noted, "The only thing that hasn't gone up is the author's royalties" (they are, in fact, down from 10 to 5%).

Thomas, the panel's junior panel (and looking much younger than 53) admitted that he was lucky to have a childhood in the theater of the 60s. He did feel that while young people today may be less literate that they're "more able to deal with irony" such as Democracy. Ms. McCann also added an optimistic point about young audiences. She admitted that her heart sank when she went to a recent performance of Gem of the Ocean and saw that the house was packed with students. But the nightmare she expected, turned into a delightful surprise. This turned out to be the most receptive and enthusiastic audience she's seen in a while. She did caution that to build this kind of audience "you have to bring them in to good things."

The ticket price issue also came under scrutiny. To Albee's "I think $100 for seeing something you can't remember two hours after you've seen it is excessive." McCann added a comment on $71 prices for rear balcony seats. Richards, like Albee and McCann "got hooked on theater when tickets were $12 and you saw everything."

Clearly, smart and passionate about the theater as the panel members are, none had an answer to solving this high price of admission dilemma. Yet all agreed that the theater is and should be important, something best summed up in Albee's view on political theater. "All theater is political if it engages you. If more people took theater seriously (and were given serious, engaging theater) we'd have different election results. I've yet to meet a serious playwright who wasn't a liberal Democrat."

To close with my own variation on Albee's closing remark: I've yet to listen to a seriously committed, bright group of theater professionals like these panel members without being engaged and stimulated.

The next panel will deal with the role of the director during the Drama Desk's fifty-year life.

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