Monday, March 10, 2008

Enter the Boosters, Bearing Theaters

New York Times
March 9, 2008


IT isn’t every day that a busy portion of Philadelphia’s longest thoroughfare gets shut down, at least not on purpose. But one scorching morning in October, the block of Broad Street from Pine to Lombard, part of a stretch somewhat grandly called the Avenue of the Arts, was taped off, tented, festooned with mums and Mummers. While hundreds of guests sat wilting before the dais, awaiting words from Mayor John F. Street, Gov. Edward G. Rendell and Senator Arlen Specter, a clown on stilts entertained. It was all so quaint and civic, you’d have thought President Taft was coming to town.

But no, the worthies were there to cut the ribbon on the $25 million new home of the Philadelphia Theater Company, which for 25 years had rented a charming but dysfunctional theater a few blocks away. That 1912 building was called Plays and Players; it often seemed that the word audience was omitted deliberately. Sara Garonzik, the company’s producing artistic director, said that many of its 324 seats were broken, that the lobby was too small to shelter patrons, and that the two hideous little bathrooms were barely accessible even to people not in wheelchairs. “That facility was a very trying situation,” Mr. Street recalled.

And not the only one, apparently. In recent years many of the 75 companies that form the League of Resident Theaters have looked at their aging or unaesthetic homes and joined what amounts to a nonprofit theatrical building boom. Since 2000 they and other institutions coast to coast have initiated dozens of construction projects whose combined tab is approaching $1 billion. The size of the scrums of dignitaries and donors who inevitably attend the groundbreakings and galas (and whose names seem to serve as wallpaper inside) suggests what it takes to get these buildings up. What’s less evident is what it really means to operate them once they’re built.

For one day, at least, that was not the Philadelphians’ concern. It was a time for admiring the improvements and complimenting the architects, KieranTimberlake Associates, on the plush seats, roomy ground-floor bathrooms and lobby amenities reminiscent of a suburban bookstore. Backstage accommodations for the players are more modest, but the plays are well served with the latest technology.

Neither plays nor players, though, foot the bill, so the theater is named instead for its leading donor, Suzanne Roberts, a local actress and philanthropist whose husband, Ralph, is the founder of the Philadelphia-based cable giant Comcast. Ms. Roberts’s signature, blown up to Rushmore size as if on a very large check, forms the marquee on the building, which is part of a condominium development called Symphony House being marketed to lovers of the arts.

The politicians’ own marketing was of a different sort. They did not paint themselves as culturati by praising the company’s commitment to new American plays or its latest Terrence McNally premiere. Instead of art as an aesthetic endeavor, they spoke of it as a form of urban renewal and the new building as a weapon in the war of municipal competition: If Chicago can do it, so can we.

Mr. Rendell called the Roberts a worthy addition to the “sense of dynamism on the Avenue” and “a great civic achievement.” (Several other theaters — the Wilma, the Merriam, the Prince — have built or renovated spaces nearby.) Mr. Street said, “Arts and culture are at the heart of what makes a city work.” They might have been dedicating a shiny new stadium or water-treatment plant.

They were not wrong to take that boosterish approach; public culture is based on the put-something-in, get-something-out model. Because government had a financial stake in the Philadelphia project (the state contributed $5 million and the city $3 million), it made sense for its representatives to justify the investment in terms of the economic return promised by well-heeled new neighbors and liquor tax receipts. But art is different from culture — it is culture’s subtext, in a way — and one can’t help sensing, among the actual artists at events like this around the country, a plaintive question behind the platitudes: Who are these buildings for?
Others have been asking that question too, wondering if the regional theater movement, which began in the late 1940s, has lost sight of its founding mission. As described by the monologist Mike Daisey in a recent article for the alternative Seattle newspaper The Stranger (and in a new piece called “How Theater Failed America” to be performed at Joe’s Pub in New York next month), that mission was “to house repertory companies of artists, giving them job security, an honorable wage and health insurance.”

“In return,” he continued, “the theaters would receive the continuity of their work year after year — the building blocks of community.”

For Mr. Daisey that dream is dead. “When regional theaters need artists today, they outsource,” he wrote. “They ship the actors, designers and directors in from New York and slam them together to make the show.”

And it’s true that the building boom, particularly among the aging lions of the regional movement, is partly about creating whiz-bang “destination” theaters that will attract national talent. (Also, younger audiences.) But the companies say they are doing this to enhance or recapture their mission, not discard it.

At the same time they seem to be making pre-emptive statements about their centrality to the culture. In the last two years alone the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis moved into its new $125 million Jean Nouvel home overlooking the Mississippi River; Arena Stage in Washington broke ground on the $120 million Mead Center, designed by Bing Thom; and the Dallas Theater Center, in the city where the regional movement arguably began, started building Rem Koolhaas’s Wyly Theater, part of a cultural complex pegged at a Texas-size $338 million.
“You either grow or you die,” said Joe Dowling, the Guthrie’s artistic director.

If the choice was that stark for a giant like the Guthrie, it was even starker at the smaller end of the scale. Companies like the Signature, in Arlington, Va., which moved into a $16 million new home last year, simply couldn’t continue to function in their old spaces. The Signature was running at 97 percent of capacity in a 136-seat converted garage whose lobby also served as the main rehearsal hall. Patrons for hit shows were routinely turned away.

Ms. Garonzik, in Philadelphia, had the opposite problem: an aging core of subscribers who would not renew because of the physical discomfort of Plays and Players. “They told our telemarketers that they just couldn’t do it anymore,” she said.

Theaters like these are basically moving out of jury-rigged bachelor flats and (with the help of the folks) into their first real homes. They remain intimate. But some midsize institutions, like the Berkeley Repertory Theater, which in 2001 grew to 1,000 seats from 400, are expanding because their longtime homes no longer encompass their values and ambitions, if they ever did. The Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts made do for 48 summers with what looked like a high school auditorium on the campus of Williams College; even great work seemed dinky there. The $50 million new complex it has shared since 2005 with the college’s theater and dance departments is a more professional space than most of what you’d find on Broadway. But the surprising result has been too many productions that seem less professional by contrast: mediocre (but house-filling) musicals and mysteries starring television actors.

As a summer theater Williamstown has always depended on imported talent. The so-called resident theaters, as Mr. Daisey’s criticism and the word “resident” suggest, weren’t supposed to work that way. But the goal of increasing national presence has made attracting names a deliberate part of many new building programs.

Michael Kahn, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, said it was difficult enough to induce New York actors, afraid to be out of town for too long, to commit to the six-week rehearsal periods he favors, let alone the eight-week runs necessitated by the small size of the Lansburgh Theater, where the Shakespeare performed for 15 years. Longer runs also meant fewer productions. And like many retrofitted theaters, the Lansburgh, carved from the shell of a department store burned in the 1968 riots, placed unfortunate technical restrictions on designers and directors. A theater without trap space, Mr. Kahn pointed out, has no grave for Ophelia.

The company’s $89 million Sidney Harman Hall, which opened with Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine” in November, solves all those problems. Productions in its reconfigurable 775-seat auditorium can theoretically turn a profit in five weeks. Ophelia can have a grave, an aerie or a flying carpet if a director so desires. And because the company has kept the Lansburgh, it can now program two theaters in sync.

But such improvements do not come without a cost, even beyond that of construction. (The Shakespeare is still short of its capital goal by about $18 million.) There is also the hugely increased cost of running a new theater once it’s built.

Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of the Signature, said his staff had increased by 12 positions, including their first full-time custodian — and, of course, more people in marketing and development. Greater lighting capacity (the old theater had 88 electrical circuits, the new one almost 600) resulted in higher utility bills. A bigger and better-equipped stage meant doubling the cost of productions. (You can’t ask a set designer to put cardboard scenery in a platinum setting.) In the year the Signature moved, its annual operating budget ballooned to $5.5 million from $2 million.

That pattern holds universally. The Philadelphia Theater Company’s annual operating budget rose to $4.1 million in the new space from $2.1 million before its capital campaign began. The Shakespeare’s rose to $19.4 million from $10.2 million; the Guthrie’s to $26 million from $19.5 million. And as staff members at each theater pointed out, raising money to pay the janitor’s salary is an entirely different problem from raising money to erect an edifice.

“People love to build a sexy new building,” Ms. Garonzik said. “It’s an offering. It says yes to the future.” But donors who have put their names on the cloakroom or water fountain may be tapped out when it comes time for the boring old annual fund. And annual funds are distressingly annual.

“Will we have to beat the bushes more?” Mr. Kahn said. “Yes.”

The good news is that even without large increases in ticket prices (some have actually dropped), earned income at most of the new theaters has risen. There are more seats, of course, and people are curious to see what the spaces are like. Mr. Kahn said that was why he opened the Harman with “Tamburlaine,” a play unlikely to draw crowds otherwise.

“Tamburlaine” was also a successful test of the theater’s expensive acoustics and production capabilities. Leading a backstage tour, a staff member proudly pointed out the new prop kitchen, in which the requisite buckets of blood were made and stored. Previously such work was done in the same cramped kitchen where the actors kept their yogurt.

It’s also good news that the buildings, as objects of architecture, are more successful than those built 20 or 30 years ago. They abjure the industrial aesthetic of that generation of theaters and the smug grandeur of many newer cultural centers. These theaters are voluptuous, albeit sometimes in the manner of a blingy trophy wife. Several even feature a private intermission lounge for high rollers. The Shakespeare’s transparent cantilevered mezzanine lobby, like the Roberts’s undulating walls glowing with hidden halogens, means lucrative rentals for corporate events and nontraditional bar mitzvahs.

Providing party space and winning architecture prizes are not among the founding goals of the regional theater movement. In building their temples, theater companies risk losing some of the old-time religion — the reliance on local resources, the seat-of-the-pants aesthetic — that gained them adherents in the first place. But the companies are stuck in an economic bind. Reasonably enough, directors want the opportunity to stretch their imaginations with the latest technology, performers want dignified work conditions, and audiences want seats whose springs don’t threaten to give them tetanus. If the theaters don’t address these issues, they will stay small. If they stay small, they have to raise their prices; if they raise their prices, they risk losing new audiences; if they lose new audiences, they don’t have a future.

The new buildings are the only way out, even if they make tangible the institutions’ contradictions as well as their aspirations. With enough Harmans and Wylys and Robertses, though, those contradictions can be papered over almost inconspicuously. Mr. Kahn pointed out that he did not have to open his new theater with “Hello, Dolly!” in Elizabethan clothes or some other desperate attempt to pay the mortgage at the expense of the mission.

Similarly, at the Signature, Mr. Schaeffer has not scaled back his theater’s productions of difficult American musicals. Just the opposite. For “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which begins performances Tuesday, he has gone ahead with a three-story set more complicated than anything the theater has ever built.

The only problem is that they’ve run out of space to store it. “We need a bigger scene shop,” he said with a sigh.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Full Scholarships available for Saturday performing arts classes offered by new professional theatre company in Asbury Park Asbury Park, NJ

March 2008

Full Scholarships available for Saturday performing arts classes offered by new professional theatre company in Asbury Park Asbury Park, NJ -

Express your creativity, laugh, make friends and learn something new. The ReVision Theatre classes offer all that and more. Lou Liberatore, one of the ReVision Theatre instructors and Tony Award nominated Broadway actor adds “The ‘more’ includes increased communication skills, gained confidence in front of groups, aliveness, spontaneity and learning how to effectively work in a group.” “And did I mention how much fun it is!” “No matter what your performing experience or your age, there is a class for you.”

Classes begin in March and April and are taught by top theatre professionals, many with Broadway experience, like Lou. All classes culminate in a final fully staged performance for invited friends and family which brings the work full circle, from classroom learning through the rehearsal process right up to the opening of the show. Tuition ranges from $150 to $200 and meet weekly for 8 to 10 weeks. Full merit scholarships are available for elementary, middle school and high school age students. Our Work-study program to cover full and partial tuition is also available for the adult classes.

For scholarship applicants, teachers are encouraged to recommend students they feel would most benefit from our program, and to discuss our program with the student’s other teachers and guidance counselors and with the students themselves. “We are available, welcoming questions and meeting with teachers, parents and students at their request”, says David Leidholdt director of the ReVision Theatre educational programs and producing artistic director also an instructor in the program. David adds “It’s a very personalized approach.” “We want our classes to be the most beneficial for our students and offering scholarships such as these enables us to have well rounded classes that benefit everyone”. “If the students are excited and want to be there, then we can accomplish more and the rewards will be higher. Our active outreach raises the bar for everyone” he adds.

These are merit scholarships and are based on the following criteria:
  • Eager & enthusiastic towards the arts and performance
  • Dedicated and committed to learning
  • Demonstrates or indicates potential performing arts talent
  • Is committed to attending the classes and doing his/her best
  • Financial need will be considered for those students who otherwise would not be able to attend, although financial need is not a requirement.

Classes are held at the VFW Hall, located at 701 Lake Ave. just off Cookman, east of Main St. in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Prospective students, parents & teachers

Announcing ScholarshipsFor Elementary, Middle School and High School Ages

We are offering a limited number of full scholarships to students throughout Monmouth County who would be exemplary participants in our new performing arts classes.

Saturdays in Asbury Park beginning March 29, 2008.Our work-study program is available for adult students.

For scholarship application and guidelines call 732-775-0635 or email

Revision Theatre is a new non-profit professional regional theatre company dedicated to producing invigorating theatre with a fresh new perspective reaching the diverse community of Asbury Park and Monmouth County.

Broadway Bound: A Musical Play- For Kids and Teens CLASS STARTS SATURDAY MARCH 29th - Taught by David LeidholdtPutting together a musical is fun. Through these 10 sessions, young performers will learn the basics of acting, singing and dancing and how to put it all together into a cohesive and exciting show. Whether you are looking to a career in theatre or just want to have fun, theatre offers skills that last a lifetime. Broadway Bound promotes effective communication, teamwork, problem solving while at the same time learning how to let go and just have a good time. The 10 weekly culminate in a final Saturday performance for family and friends. 10 weekly sessions, Saturdays 1:00pm – 4:00pm for Grades 7th – 9th & Saturdays 1:00pm – 4:00pm for Grades 10th – 12th

Come to the Cabaret: Cabaret Performance - For Adults CLASS STARTS MONDAY MARCH 31st - Taught by Thomas MorrisseyNo matter what your or background, whether you’ve sung before an audience or not you can experience the freedom of singing and the joy of performing. Songs are chosen specifically for each participant based on their ability. Participants will learn; how to approach a song, proper vocal techniques and performance skills. At the end of the 8 sessions, participants perform their songs in a cabaret show at a local restaurant/club before invited friends and family. 8 weekly sessions, Mondays 6:30pm – 9:30pm

Adults Improv-A-Show- for Kids - CLASS STARTS APRIL 19th Through theatre games and improvisations children learn to combine fun with form in the creation of their very own show. This class is the perfect introduction into a lifelong love for the creative performing arts. Following the 8 weekly sessions a final Saturday performance will be scheduled for parents and friends to experience the final result. 8 weekly sessions, Saturdays 10:00am – 12:30pm - Grades 3rd-6th

Gotta Laugh! Improv & Comedy - For Adults - CLASS STARTS APRIL 21st – Taught by Lou LiberatoreExplore your creativity and laugh a lot in the process. If you’ve ever wanted to be a member of a comedy troupe or have admired the ability of a stand up comic but thought you could never do that…you’re wrong. Here’s your chance to shine and make people laugh, including yourself. Following the 8 sessions, participants perform in an improve/comedy show they created in class at a local restaurant/club for invited friends and family. 8 weekly sessions, Mondays 6:30pm – 9:30pm for Adults.

ReVision Theatre is a professional regional theatre company dedicated to producing invigorating theatre with a fresh new perspective reaching the diverse community of Asbury Park and Monmouth County. ReVision Theatre produces reinventions of previously produced classics, overlooked or forgotten work in a new way, and new work with a fresh voice. The company serves as a home for local artists and writers. ReVision Theatre also believes in the importance of theatre education and teaches children and adult theatre classes. ReVision Theatre produces readings, workshops, cabarets, concerts, and mainstage productions. For more information or to register for a class call 732-775-0635 or visit Card Accepted.

Tom Morrissey

ReVision Education Teaching Staff

Thomas Morrissey is one of the Producing Artistic Directors of the ReVision Theatre. RVT grew out of The Genesius Theatre Guild, which he founded in NYC in 1995 and served as its Artistic Director for 10 years. There he developed a critically acclaimed cabaret program, a nationally distributed CD, Our Heart Sings, featuring Kristen Chenoweth, Alice Ripley, and Emily Skinner. Tom has taught acting, musical theatre classes and workshops at The American Musical and Dramatic Academy, Wagner College, New York University and The Creative Acting Company in NYC. A member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and Actors’ Equity Association. Tom has directed regionally and in New York. Tom directed The Genesius Theatre Guild’s productions of The Glass Mendacity, Just Us Boys, Dalliance In Vienna. He has also worked as a director at Circle Repertory Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Naked Angels and is a founding member of the Professional Directors Company at New York University. Tom produced the Genesius premiere production of Jonathan Tolin’s The Last Sunday In June prior to its commercial New York run at the Century Center Theatre. His website can be found at

Stephen Bishop Seely attended both University of Texas in Austin and Michigan State University for his MFA in Acting He has served as an actor, singer, dancer and director in numerous local and regional productions throughout the United States. Some of his favorites include The Last Sunday in June written and directed by Jonathan Tolins, The Playboy Stories, Superfudge (National Tour w/John Tartaglia), KatsaroSongs, Peter Pan with Johnathan Freeman, King Lear with Robert Murray, Das Barbec├╝, Bent, He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, Lonely Planet, The Mikado, and working for Circus World Museum as the Singing Ringmaster Big Top circus performances. At the Genesius Theatre Guild, he served as Literary Liaison and Director of Play Development. He started the Revolutionary Writers Workshop, RAW Reading Series. Stephen has continued to be innovative in theatre by developing the first ever GTG Script Development Group (The Dramaturgical Coalition). Stephen is a proud member of Actors' Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild, and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

David E. Leidholdt has been teaching theatre for over 20 years. He is a founding Producer for ReVIsion Theatre and has taught acting at The Professional Performing Arts School, the Actors Institute in New York City. He most recently Directed Intervention for the Center Stage theatre in Westport, CT, which received New England’s Moss Hart Award and was presented at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He has also taught acting at Stagedoor Manor, Cranbrook Theatre School, Random Farms Kids Theatre, and Ohio Northern University. He is a member of Society of Stage Directors and Choreographer, Lincoln Center Directors Lab.

Lou Liberatore has been a professional American actor for over 25 years. A graduate of Fordham University at Lincoln Center in Theatre, Lou continued his studies with the renowned acting teacher William Esper after interning at the groundbreaking Circle Repertory Company in New York City. Lou made his New York City stage debut in the 1982 Circle Repertory Company production of Richard II. As a permanent member of the company he appeared in The Great Grandson of Jedediah Kohler, Black Angel, and As Is and Lanford Wilson’s, Burn This, both of which transferred to Broadway. Appearing alongside Joan Allen and John Malkovich, his performance in Burn This earned him Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Circle Award nominations for Best Featured Actor in a Play. Lou recreated the role on the London stage. Lou has created roles for Manhattan Theatre Club, Lark Theatre Company, Vineyard Theatre and Mark Taper Forum. Lou is the Founder / Artistic Director of the Jersey Shore Writer’s Studio based in Asbury Park. He is currently a member of the Black Box of Asbury Park, the Arts Coalition of Asbury Park and The Lark Theatre Company. Lou is a member of Actors’ Equity Association, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Screen Actor’s Guild. He is the Literary Director of the ReVision Theatre as well as a member of the Advisory Board and is proud to share his experience as a member of the teaching staff.

Email, call or visit our website for more information

Tom Morrissey