Monday, December 3, 2007

Uphill Struggles

Every creative venture is guided by some sense of artistic purpose. In the long run, however, the extent to which a performing arts organization's artistic goals can be realized and shared with the public depends upon the amount of money it can raise and the kinds of talent which that money can buy. Financial bankruptcy looms frequently on the horizon (when the New York City Opera suffered a warehouse fire in which its costumes for 72 productions were destroyed the company found itself struggling to survive). Rapid growth and sudden success can be equally frightening prospects.

Therefore, unless the people running an arts organization have a sense of their group's identity and a solid working plan for the future, an unexpected catastrophe can create chaos. Whether a group aims to perform opera in English, baroque music on period instruments or offer rhinestone drag spectacles to the masses, the reason for its existence must be well articulated, clearly understood and solidly supported by its board of directors and administration.

Although many nonprofits exist in a constant state of crisis management, arts organizations are occasionally confronted with a sudden change that can have a severe impact on their artistic identities. Last month, I visited two companies whose recent fortunes have forced them to make major changes in their long-term plans. Each company now faces a unique growth challenge. How well each organization will survive remains to be seen.


For several years, New York's Ridiculous Theatrical Company had been on an exhilarating roll. Charles Ludlam's multidimensional success as playwright, director, actor and resident genius had surged past the triumph of merely shocking audiences to the happy point where the RTC (founded in 1967) had built a loyal public for its melodramatic shenanigans and was comfortably ensconced in its own theatre. Ludlam was just beginning to receive the kind of recognition he deserved from other artistic disciplines when, in May of 1987, as he was preparing to stage a production for the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park, he died of AIDS.

Ludlam's death left his lover and co-star (Everett Quinton) in mourning, producer Joe Papp without a stage director and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company spinning its wheels. Under the circumstances, it would have been very easy for the RTC to fold. However, Everett Quinton was soon named artistic director and the RTC's tiny basement auditorium in Sheridan Square re-christened "The Charles Ludlam Theatre." Under Quinton's new leadership, the company decided to honor its founder's memory by continuing to produce both his plays and new works conceived in the dramatic style Ludlam had developed.

When a provocative artist such as Charles Ludlam is alive and flourishing, the excitement of his work is so exhilarating that people sometimes take it for granted. Perhaps it is only after the death of such an incredible talent that an audience can truly begin to appreciate how strong and unique his artistry once was and what stunning contributions he made to the cultural landscape. Although the Ridiculous Theatrical Company continues to function, there is now a noticeable void where artistic thunder and lightning once filled the skies.

Last fall, the RTC staged Ludlam's adaptation of Medea with Everett Quinton and Black-Eyed Susan alternating in the roles of Euripides' tragic heroine and her nurse. Having worked so closely with his lover over the years, Quinton has honed Ludlam's style of wretched excess into a wonderfully dangerous theatrical instrument. Unfortunately, while his performance in this one-act work was extremely strong (and Lawrence Kornfeld's production retained the wonderfully rag-tag earmarks of other RTC efforts) what was obviously missing was Ludlam's genius.

Quinton and Black-Eyed Susan were supported by John D. Brockmeyer as Kreon, Jud Lawrence as Jason and Bill Vehr as Aegeus. Katy Dierlam, Vicky Raab and Eureka made up the "Khorus of Korinthian Women." While I wish the RTC continued success -- and think it will eventually survive the tragic loss of its founder -- the sad news is that we may never again see the likes of Charles Ludlam's unique personal magic. And that sorry fact is a tragedy of truly Ludlamian proportions.


Bodybuilders who have ingested large amounts of steroids and growth hormones in their efforts to bulk up might best be able to relate to the Eugene Opera's growing pains. For several years, the company existed on an amateur theatrical level until a new, beautiful and exciting performing arts center was erected in the middle of the city. Suddenly, there was a need to fill the Hult Center's 500-seat and 2,500-seat auditoriums with performing arts events and, like its sister arts organizations, the Eugene Opera was called upon to start feeding the machine in order to satisfy the demands of the Hult Center's maintenance diet.

Unlike many other opera companies, Eugene Opera (which has an annual budget of $500,000) has yet to build a support network of volunteers and guild chapters. Its fundraising efforts, though stronger than those of the Eugene Symphony, need to be greatly expanded. Its audience, though small, remains appreciative of its work.

Although the company's board of directors has articulated a policy of hiring young American artists who are at the entry level of a professional career, if one were to judge Eugene Opera's efforts on the basis of its recent production of Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment one would label the group well-intentioned but not yet big enough to fill the britches it is forced to wear by virtue of its performances in Eugene's beautiful Silva Concert Hall.

Let me explain. Using Peter Dean Beck's sets from Opera Carolina and Lynn Bowers' costumes, this production of Daughter of the Regiment looked reasonably decent on the stage. However,the performance I attended was conducted with only moderate success by Stefan Minde (formerly music director of Portland Opera). Daniel Helfgot's stage direction, although adequate, was hardly what one would call exciting. The most crucially lacking element in th production -- an element which Donizetti's comic opera absolutely demands -- was personality.

As a result, Tambra King's Marie and Jerry Minster's Tonio boasted pleasant-sounding but underdeveloped voices which offered little to distinguish them from members of the chorus. Richard Zeller's Sulpice and Patricia Spence's Marquise of Birkenfeld remained at the level of artistry which one expects to encounter in a very good university production.

At present, the Eugene Opera has the performing facilities, a growing audience base and the potential to produce some very good opera. It would seem that the company is attempting to fill its lead roles with young singers who have not yet come under management. While this may help to keep the lid down on artist's fees, it gives audiences less than they deserve for their money.

What was painfully missing from the four leads appearing in Donizetti's opera was enough personality and stage experience to grab the audience's attention and fill the theatre with excitement. If General Director Jim Toland can convince his board of directors that it is worth their while to hire more expensive singers whose professional experience could galvanize Eugene Opera's productions, I'm quite sure the company could take a giant step forward.

The bottom line is simple: in the long run, you get what you pay for.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 21, 1988.

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