We've all been there.
This can be applied to the recent Sunday article featured in the Buffalo News Spotlight page written by local theater critic, Colin Dabkowski, mysteriously entitled "Theaters should pool resources to stay afloat."
It pains me to write a blog response to this article for two reasons.
Firstly, Mr. Dabkowski does a great job with his columns focusing on issues facing WNY Artists and Cultural Groups. Knowing that the only daily newspaper in Buffalo reserves space to follow the local arts is comforting as well as the weekly input of Mr. Dabkowski's articles reflects to the general public an outsider's opinion on a particular subject facing the Arts. This, in turn, offers a fresher (or newer) view on a subject as opposed to hearing the same old Cultural Group representative repeating the same old Cultural Group mantra.
The second reason is the inevitable damning of American Repertory Theater of WNY to a future of 1 1/2 star ratings if Mr. Dabkowski decides to start sending himself to review productions. Perhaps it may be a good time to look into taking out ads in The Buffalo News to soften the blow?
But to be frank, Mr. Dabkowski's article is perhaps one of the most irresponsible and misconceived journalistic pieces authored by this theater critic. If his work was to undergo the same scrutiny his newspaper places on theatrical productions, Mr. Dabkowski would get a 1 1/2 star rating.
Let's begin with Mr. Dabkowski's title that suggests the pooling of theater's resources could be a way of "staying afloat."
As indicated in his article, it is no stroke of brilliance to understand that local theaters should collaborate in order to save costs. Everyone from Herr County Executive Collins to an 60-year-old patron has suggested this mode of operation as a way of saving money. But what Dabkowski fully fails to recognize is that local theater companies shy-away from collaborating because, as recently said to me by a local theater's artistic director one evening at Founding Fathers, "You know that's impossible because everyone is doing their own thing."
The main reason Buffalo has "a sprawling theater scene" comes directly from the fact that individuals, not being able to practice their dramatic arts, became frustrated with a closed-in theater scene and set-out on their own. If one looks at the past 25-year history of Buffalo theater, there are several examples of this due to the clique-infested, artistically myopic-driven, entrenched feudal system of Buffalo theater.
As splinter groups emerged, the idea of collaboration became less and less appealing. This fostered the practice of these "newer" theatrical companies, who became increasingly established, to become insular, like their predecessors, and force a newer generation to seek establishment of their own companies because of the same reasons.
And so on.
Dabkowski fails to recognize this historical point and simply choses to lay claim that a majority of Buffalo theaters open shows that are half-baked and encourages the theater going patron to attend closing night because of the inability of the less-resourceful theater's production to "cohere before the curtain goes up."
The relevancy of this suggestion (besides driving patrons to closing weekend and creating box-office nightmares) and why theaters should pool resources because of this result is unclear. Perhaps Dabkowski could be sending some sort of plea to those theater companies who have rent-free space to grant rent-free (or a minimum fee of $10/night) rehearsal space with those "have nots" so they can come up with some sort of well-done grilled piece of Filet O' Steakspeare on opening night.
Akin to a pepper rub, Dabkowski throws around the term "resource" like some tire-gauge of what is good and mediocre theater. Further indicating that because of resources those who "have" can produce a 5 or 6 show season of fully baked theatrical presentations on opening night. Those with less "resources" who attempt to produce the same amount are doomed to mediocre Hades.
I agree with Dabkowski in that sometimes its a matter of quality as opposed to quantity.
The truth of the matter is that those more established theaters with "resources", because of arrangements or deals years ago, pay little to no rent unseen by most of Buffalo's contemporary theaters. In turn, these companies can conduct four to five weeks of rehearsals before the "curtain rises". That money saved on rent (and in some cases utilities) then can go towards talent and tech crews that expedites the rehearsal process.
With all this going, a company with "resources" should damn well have their shit together by opening.
In these economic times, the deals made to theater companies twenty years ago will not exist again. Any theater company attempting to start up in Buffalo will most likely have to rent or take out a lease on space they will have to modify into a performance room. When Dabkowski mentions that some theaters are "happy to put out six or seven (or more) under-baked productions a year" indicates he does not recognize the fact some companies are forced to pay rent or close up.
Now I can hear those Economic Darwinians from the back-row, but this survival game is the same one being played by Collins as it pertains to Cultural Groups who need public money to keep existing.
What's the difference?
Should these types of companies collaborate? Absolutely, and, in essences, reflect what Dabkowski is trying to express. The problem with this comes down to the simple economic fact that in order to pay rent and utilities, these companies would have to ask for numbers that could crush any startup theater companies' budget.
So the choice becomes whether a rent-paying theater should sub-lease to another company with faith that rent and utilities will be paid, actors and staff will be somewhat compensated and whatever resources are not depleted by this joint venture.
Or simply keep producing on their own piece and avoid this uncertainty.
It may be safe to assume that twenty-five years ago when folks were performing in living rooms, school auditoriums, cramped modified spaces, or on the Nietzsche's backstage, the question of being underbaked on opening night was not being raised. Instead the positive statement of "I'm doing my dramatic art and I love it" was being made.
And most likely, patrons and those enamored with the now defunct Studio Arena were making claims that these small, splinter theater groups were mediocre, underrehearsed, had poor production values and were overproducing.
With that, Mr. Dabkowski should be relieved and happy to see these small underfunded groups never listened to the criticism or he wouldn't have a reference point to deem what is good and mediocre theater.
Matthew LaChiusa is the Artistic/Executive Director for American Rep Theater of WNY. His own work, "Axeman's Jazz" and two other ART productions (Greater Tuna & Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia) have received 2 1/2 star reviews from Colin Dabkowski. And for the actors, EVERY night is opening night...