After an unprecedented sold-out run at the American Conservatory Theater, the new musical of Tales Of The City closed on Sunday July 31. As I was sitting in a packed and tearful house watching the final performance, my mind kept returning to a subject I have been wrestling with for some time now: the power of what I like to call “locavore theater.” Here’s the paradox. Because we have become such a global culture, and because the American media tends to value theatrical work primarily if it is connected to New York or to London, the term “local” has always been a derogatory one in the regional theater. Indeed, when Bill Ball founded his acclaimed company in 1968 and then brought it to San Francisco, he deliberately called it the “AMERICAN Conservatory Theater” rather than the “SAN FRANCISCO Conservatory Theater”, and made sure that his Board of Directors was incorporated in Delaware, not in the Bay Area. He felt strongly that his theater should be viewed through a national lens, with oversight from people outside of the city of San Francisco, because his goal was to create a significant artistic alternative to the Broadway commercial theater. Yet A.C.T. succeeded precisely because the creation of Ball’s work at A.C.T. was intensely “local”, performed by a remarkable standing company of actors who lived and worked fulltime in the Bay Area and had the opportunity to explore great classical plays as well as new plays in the attempt to both sustain the past and nurture the future. Over many decades, the audience in San Francisco came to view those actors as their own, watching them transform from role to role with dexterity and panache.
What’s happened to the American non-profit theater in the interim is interesting. In a desperate attempt to feel relevant in an increasingly digital universe and to remain solvent at a time of huge decreases in arts funding, the regional theater has all but abandoned its alternative stance (the whole notion of a permanent company of actors being one of the first ideas to go) and now actively pursues commercial success and a presence in New York. It has become standard operating procedure for regional theaters to accept significant “enhancement money” from commercial producers in exchange for the use of their theater and their subscription audience to try out Broadway-bound material. While this has allowed large-scale musicals to be developed and previewed across the country, it has also sapped the regional theater of its artistic muscle and its individuality. Since he who pays the piper plays the tune, it is inevitable that the artists working on an enhanced musical are far more likely to take direction from their Broadway producers than from the non-profit theater’s artistic team, with the result that the work is “local” in name only. Is this what an artistic pioneer like Bill Ball had in mind when he struggled to found the maverick theater that became A.C.T.?
For whom should this matter? Does an audience care who calls the shots in creating a show, as long as the show is good? And what impact does this “farmed out” procedure have on the vitality of arts communities across America? These are question I kept pondering as we worked on Tales. Contrary to all expectations, we decided to produce Tales completely on our own, without enhancement from or collaboration with commercial producers. We did this mostly because we wanted to be in control of how the story got told. It worried me that this most beloved of local stories would end up getting watered down and perhaps betrayed in the attempt to make it palatable for a Broadway audience. So we raised the considerable cost of the show (over $2 million) ourselves, and produced it on our own.
I was fascinated by how puzzled our theatrical colleagues were by this choice to “stay local” with Tales. Which led me to think about debates going on in the food industry. Here in the Bay Area, we have become obsessed with locally grown food. Not only does it taste better, it makes sense from an ecological perspective for us to partake of what is delicious and near to hand rather than flying in goods from across the globe whenever they strike our fancy. We don’t view this as a compromise but as a challenge and a gift: to creatively embrace that which is grown and nurtured in our own backyards. In a similar way, while Armistead Maupin’s stories belong to the world, they began here in San Francisco and in a sense they are part of our cultural DNA. Even people who never read the newspaper columns or the books have a deep-seated affinity for the wide-eyed outsider (Mary Anne from Cleveland) who arrives in the magical city by the Bay to try to create a new life for herself. Mary Anne strikes a nerve because she epitomizes the reason many people continue to relocate to San Francisco, a city that seems to promise a degree of release from, and experimentation with, the cultural norms of the rest of the country. So the fact that a local theater company decided to tell a story about its own local universe for a local audience who was part of that universe held great appeal. Yet over and over again in the press, the production was primarily viewed as a stepping-stone to New York. Despite the fact that it grossed $4.3 million (far surpassing any other show in A.C.T. history) and attracted a rapturous audience of over 70,000 people, in the eyes of many the success of the production will not be measured by the impact it had upon its own community but by whether it has commercial traction in the future.
Perhaps this is why audiences are less engaged with theater around the country than we would like them to be. Perhaps if we trusted our own standards of excellence and our own individual artistry enough, we would resist the media pull to evaluate our work through the fickle lens of commercial success. Perhaps in an era in which anyone can find their content of choice at the click of a mouse, the best way to get people to experience the collective joy of a live theatrical experience is to make them feel that what they are seeing is NOT easily replicable but has been created especially for their own communities by distinguished artists who are part of their world. If it’s brilliant locally, it will inevitably resonate more broadly. Just as foodies from around the world travel to San Francisco to sample the anchovies that Judy Rogers fishes out of Monterey Bay in order to make her perfect Caesar salad at Zuni Café, perhaps audiences can be encouraged to revel in vigorous and delicious work that is nurtured closer to home. It might be an experiment worth taking.