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event musings: jack viertel on today’s american theater

What: Harvardwood & the American Repertory Theatre Alumni Institute Present Jack Viertel (and Miriam Weisfeld)
When: Monday June 24, 2013, 7pm
Where: New York Institute of Technology, 16 West 61st Street, 11th floor penthouse
event web site

miriam weisfeld jack viertel (steketee)

(L-R) Miriam Weisfeld and Jack Viertel at Harvardwood/ARTIAA event 24 June 2013. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

[n.b. Various “theater” and “theatre” spellings pepper this entry following the word as used and spelled in referenced published books, theatre company names, event names, and my own bias. As noted here, I spell the word “theatre” unless directed to do so otherwise by publications or theatre companies — I follow stated preferences.]

Two theatre professionals from two different generations met in an interior conference room near Lincoln Center to lead an entrancing and enthused hour or so discussing: the future of the American Theatre, profit and not-for-profit theatre, Broadway and regional theatre, musical theatre structure, and their experiences of Harvard. Quite an articulate adventure — yet from a graduate of Harvard College (Jack Viertel, Class of 1971) and the Harvard American Repertory Theatre / MXAT Institute (Miriam Weisfeld), we’d expect nothing less.

in the intersection (2012)After introductions by Kaaron (Briscoe) Minefee of the ART Institute Alumni Association Board and Spence Porter of Harvardwood, the ensuing substantive and informed conversations inspired, provoked, perhaps aggravated (not the messengers but sometimes the themes), and always entertained. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Associate Artistic Director Weisfeld fruitfully set up her conversation with Jujamcyn Theaters Vice President Viertel as an exploration of the intersection between non-profit regional, residential theatre and commercial theatre in America. Citing a 2011 convening at DC’s Arena Stage that resulted in an analysis of the current status of institutional theatre in America (In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector published in 2012), Weisfeld referred to the ties that bind the two sectors: common goals and common challenges. Even Viertel’s short version of his own journey from Harvard undergrad (dabbling in theatre and radio production) through unpublished novelist and unproduced screen writer to L.A. theatre critic and dramaturg to producer at Jujamcyn since 1987 touched on these themes explored in more detail as the evening went on.

On the Role of Producer. Viertel reported that “I learned to produce at Harvard” at radio station WHRB. In the late 1960s politics and folk rock spoke to him more strongly than theatre. “Hello Dolly didn’t have a lot to say to me at that point in my life,” he summarized with a smile. When asked to define the role of a producer, Viertel mused that the producer can invent the idea for a show in both commercial and noncommercial theatre. For the commercial producer, the job does not end when a show opens — at that point the constant search for new venues and new advertising opportunities and new ways to sell the produce are essential, and of least interest to him personally. Weisfeld noted that his description of the roles played the commercial producer encompassed multiple jobs in the nonprofit sector: dramaturg, artistic director, and marketing departments, to name perhaps but a few.

On Viertel’s Varied Career. “Falling off a roof through a series of interesting awnings, without getting hurt” was Viertel’s admittedly oft-repeated summary of his own career in the arts. Undergrad in Cambridge travels to London to see theatre and back to Boston to write an unpublished (he describes as “unpublishable”) novel to L.A. to write theatre criticism for a free paper then for an established paper. When he realized that he wasn’t really a journalist (he was attracted to theatre criticism because he loved theatre), and “realized he was climbing up the wrong ladder,” he spoke to a colleague at the Mark Taper Forum about an opening he had heard about for a dramaturg. And while he didn’t really know at the time what that job entailed, he soon learned — in his case working directly with playwrights giving feedback on their plays. In this direct way he learned the effect of critical language. Writing not for an anonymous reading audience but speaking directly to the artist developing a new play, he reported that “you begin to understand what it’s like to talk to an artist.”

On Being an Artist. Weisfeld noted that Viertel described others as artists — playwrights, designers, director — but not himself. Viertel agreed. While he takes happy credit for often having the idea for theatrical art, he doesn’t think of himself as an artist. For him, to be an artist is to put art at the center of every discussion, every consideration of what happens next. Viertel considers art and commerce and many issues — he sees himself as a facilitator.

On Being a Dramaturg. Weisfeld described what she offers in her role with artists: read scripts, watch rehearsals, offer reflections from her expertise: “This is what I saw. Is this what you want to show? In her role as “proxy audience member” she hopes she assists the playwright and director in getting the audience experience closer to what the artist intends. Viertel agreed that this is what every dramaturg should want. He went further: “I don’t believe in art that nobody can understand.” Being a good dramaturg for Viertel requires “actual genuine humility.” It’s the artist’s job to have the vision of the work, he continued. The dramaturg “can redraw the road map.”

On Musical Theatre Writing. Viertel teaches muscial theatre writing at NYU and discussed structure and voice with Weisfeld as a way of analyzing contemporary musical theatre offerings. He can tell you about the placement of the “conditional love song” in any classical musical, he noted. Different that crafting a dramatic play, a musical for him is crafting a product. Weisfeld offered the observations of Kris Diaz on this point — “We’re living in a post Book of Mormon world,” she quoted, suggesting that musical form would not be the same. Viertel observed that “musicals have a set of bones and voice” that have been both affected and not affected by Book of Mormon. The voice of that show “is completely original and groundbreaking in breaking taboos on Broadway.” A show can have a voice (tone, style) but no bones (conventional structure). Without “bones”, Viertel noted, a show has a very difficult time reaching a broad audience. If the structure is too unfamiliar or not really there at all, the broader audience has little to hang onto.

On Role of the Audience. Weisfeld quoted Robert Brustein in In The Intersection as implying that non-profit audiences are partners in the artistic enterprise, even help mates in finding the next new works, while Brustein characterized Broadway audiences as purely consumers. Viertel, while suggesting that he and Brustein had differing opinions on many issues, agreed on the Broadway audience assessment. “Broadway is a shop where people buy experiences,” he observed.

On the Roles and Relationships Between Broadway and Regional Theatres. Tensions arise in part, according to Viertel, due to the historical role that Broadway plays now in contrast the role it played in the past. Before the resident theatre movement of which Brustein was such an important part, “Broadway had it all.”  At convenings of theatre professional representing regional and Broadway theatres in 1974, 2000, and 2011, questions were asked like: “are enhancement funds corrupting productions?” Weisfeld queried: have both profit and nonprofit theatres “hit an iceberg” in 2013? Viertel is cleared and hopeful. In his mind if you ask yourself “have you seen anything you like lately?” and the answer is yes, then you haven’t hit the metaphorical iceberg. Are pieces being created that communicate, that move, that connect to people? Viertel noted, “I don’t think it’s an iceberg, I think it’s a trajectory.”

On Getting the Attention of Broadway. A young audience member asked about strategies to get noticed by productions and producers. Viertel was kind and clear. “It’s rare that people come out of nowhere,” he noted. “It’s a job and you need to be good at the job.” Train, do your homework, develop your skills and your resume.

On Elements of Musicals. Quoting a Stephen Sondheim image equating a musical to a train, Viertel instructed that “Musicals are locals; they keep stopping.” So to keep the journey and the experience moving forward, several elements are required in a successful musical, in his opinion. First, a distinctive voice — words, sound, vision. Second, a firm grasp of structure — the “bones” of the musical genre. Third, memorable and/or unusual characters that a big star will want to play. Discussion ensued about Gypsy and Mama Rose being the musical theatre equivalent of Lear. And fourth, topical themes — is the musical about something that people care about these days. “The contest has to be worth watching.”

So read up on theatre history, develop your resume, and hie thee to a musical.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 25, 2013)

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