Thursday, August 29, 2013

OPINION: It is a Dark Time for SW Washington Theater

First of all, I would like to commend Love Street Playhouse and Magenta Theater for continuing to offer highly entertaining, family friendly theater. I would also recognize CYT, MPAA and Journey for their missions and the family friendly musicals they produce.

With that said, I believe times are darkening for SW Washington theater scene. Several theaters (Clark and Serendipity come to mind) have chosen to offer "edgier" material and have ceased producing musicals.

I, for one, find this both disturbing and disappointing. I am sure many of you are with me in this sentiment. 

It is not that I feel there isn't a place for darker, deviant and dirtier drama; I just don't think Vancouver desires a steady diet of that kind of thing. And I don't think it will sustain tickets in this market.

"Fair is foul, and foul is fair"

I have been informed that many of Clark's long-time season ticket holders are not happy with the direction that Gene Biby has taken the college's theater department and that some have even walked out. I have also heard that he thinks this will turn around as he presents plays that will attract more of the student population (rather than the gray haired supporters). Probably not.

While this is hearsay [anonymous sources], I daresay that Vancouver theater goers are, perhaps, more conservative than Biby thinks they are. Those of the liberal ilk in this neck of the woods just aren't the theater going kind. Personally, I'd like to see Biby go away, but since he's up for tenure this September it likely won't happen. I hate to see him tear down what Dan Anderson took so long to build from nothing. You can't make us swallow what we think smells bad.

Furthermore, Tony Broom and the board of Serendipity have also regularly chosen material that offends and they, too, have had walk outs. Some of their productions have not been well attended (and they only have forty seats) and they wonder why. It certainly isn't for lack of quality or talent!

I Tell You Why

If a theater company wants to sell tickets they must, at least to some degree, sell out on their agenda. All profitable theater companies know that if you want to keep your doors open you offer what the public wants three times out of four. The fourth show you can produce "for the sake of your art" (or your agenda) if you're willing to take the hit at the box office.

Finally, we all know that musicals are expensive to produce. But we also know that people love them (I do). Why? I think that we love to come away from the theater with a song in our heart and joy in our soul. We want to feel good and musicals supply that. We go to escape the grit and grim we must endure around us.

Theater companies do tend to come and go here (regardless of their offering) and I believe we are going to see a few more disappear before long. I know this is partly because the City and public at large aren't that big on the performing arts. Which is all the more reason to make sure we are appealing to those that do.

By Gregory E. Zschomler


  1. Thank you for the kudos and your remarks about what’s going on in Vancouver. I had heard about Clark College as well from an anonymous source. Sad.

    I sure do wish that LSP could do more musicals. I keep trying to put them on my calendar, but the price to do them is just so cost prohibitive. It hurts. Ouch.

    Dennis said that he is reviewing my Arsenic. I wish that you were able to see it as well. Maybe later in the run? I’m actually widening the stage if you can imagine that. The window and window seat are going DL so we are building to accommodate that. The things we do for our art.

    Thanks again, Greg.


    P.S. I’m lacking an Officer O’Hara and Mr. Witherspoon. Interested? Small roles. Less rehearsals.
    Owner/Artistic Director
    Love Street Playhouse

  2. I agree with your general premise. I think a company has to focus on the interests of the community and when they build a trust with them by performing quality productions, then it is the time to reach out and try some edgier things OCCASIONALLY. You don't have to compromise your vision, but using your vision to see your company or audience will suffer if you don't listen. Magenta has several times done edgier dramas and I believe their audience appreciates that. Colleges are known for doing out there stuff. One of the reasons I haven't been to a PSU show in years. Love to see them take on a standard once in a while.

    David Roberts

  3. Dear Mr. Zschomler,

    I read with great interest your August 29th blog posting entitled "OPINION: It is a Dark Time for SW Washington Theater" in which you criticize Serendipity Players and Clark College Theater for our production offerings that are "darker, [more] deviant and dirtier" than you would otherwise prefer and in which you insinuate that Tony Broom and I are pushing an agenda that Vancouver residents should find offensive.

    I find the sentiment expressed in your opinion piece curious for several reasons. First, while I certainly understand your concern over the marketability of particular works, I would remind you that Clark College Theatre has an educational mission beyond appealing to largest possible paying audience in the community. Its principal mission is to prepare students aspiring to careers in the performing arts, and it would be an egregious omission to shrink from the type of material that is presented regularly in the popular venues of most major American cities. It also has a mission to expose the general student population to contemporary cultural and political issues, to initiate dialog about these topics, and to acknowledge the diversity of our student population... (continued)

  4. Second, while I whole-heartedly agree that family-friendly theater should constitute a substantial portion of the theater offerings in any community, it would seem that even by your own recognition, the Vancouver area has a healthy assortment of such offerings. In the opening paragraph of your essay, you congratulate Love Street Playhouse, Magenta Theater, CYT, MPAA and Journey for their family-friendly productions. This leaves the impression that you are troubled not so much by the unavailability of family-friendly shows, but rather the availability of challenging works that are appropriate for mature audiences. It therefore seems that your true desire is a form of censorship. This impression is reinforced by your choice of words -- "deviant" and "agenda", for example – which seem designed to provoke outrage against certain elements of the community that you personally find offensive... (continued)

  5. Third, the pieces that Clark College Theater has produced under my direction have been principally award-winning works or works nominated for prestigious awards. Rent, based on Puccini's opera La bohème, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the original Broadway production won four Tony awards and was nominated for several others. Rabbit Hole won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Broadway production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee won two Tony awards and was nominated for three others. The original Broadway production of Reasons to be Pretty was nominated for three Tony awards. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is one of the most influential modern American plays, winning a Tony Award for Best Play, and considered for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Both Rent and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf have been made into extremely successful films. Thus, the selections made by Clark College Theater under my direction consist primarily of well-known and well-respected works, "deviant" only the estimation of an ideologue with an "agenda".

    Finally, I note with some bemusement that you wish that I would "go away" and are therefore disappointed that my tenure case is approaching. If I were a less generous soul, I would view this statement as somewhat of a veiled threat; but I trust that you are aware of the general support I have from the Clark College administration, and that you offer your criticism only in the most Christian open-hearted spirit.

    I can’t prevent you from attending our productions and continuing to review our work, but I would ask you whether it serves either one of us if you cannot conduct your reviews in a frame of mind that is free from bias and preconceived notions about what cultural offerings are appropriate for southwest Washington. Consequently, I would hope that the next time you sit in our theater, you do so only with an open mind and willingness to grapple with the serious questions we intend our productions to provoke.


    H. Gene Biby
    Clark College
    Theater Program Director

  6. Touche and ouch. But, oh so well said and kind Mr. Biby. And don't think I haven't enjoyed the talent and quality of your productions. I have seen many of them and given them good reviews. Some, which I prefer not to see, I have assigned another reviewer to, which he has also given high marks.

    You points are well made and I can see their validity, of course. Sorry, I was a bit hard you particularly. I see you are a good sport and I ask your forgiveness and appreciate your graciousness and sincere response. However, I stand by the fact that I (and others)want some "fluff" stuff from those (Clark) who can present it so well. You don't have to foist stuff on us because it's good for us (at least all the time); give us some Capt. Crunch sometimes, Cheerios gets tiresome. I understand that with students, but, hey, you know the saying: You can lead a horse to water... ~Greg

  7. I realize I am coming to this post late but I just had to comment.

    Greg, as you know I am supporter of this blog. I think its important to lend focus to the theater in our community and feedback, both positive and negative, is valuable to both companies and actors.

    However, I have to confess I am disappointed in the tone of this argument. It seems to me that you are putting all 'good' theater in one big 'family friendly' box. Now don't get me wrong - I enjoy a family friendly night at the theater as much as anyone - but that is not all that theater is to me. Sometimes I want to leave the kids at home and see something that makes me question or think or weep.

    I am a local director, actor and patron of theater and I have personally worked with most of the companies you mentioned as well as the now defunct New Blue Parrot and Slocum House theaters. And while its true that Magenta and Lovestreet continue to produce great family friendly theater - I have to say that I also enjoy the 'edgier' pieces they have done just as much as the flufffy stuff (and sometimes more so).

    Theater, before the advent of netflicks, hulu and cable TV had a much bigger place in our culture. Theater did not only entertain - it also sought to teach, inspire, provoke, move, address, question and cause reflection on the world around itself.

    Most of all I sincerely believe that 'good' theater inspires discussion (like the one we are having :) Just as a person can be unaffected or moved to tears by a Picaso - if we qualify all 'good' theater as being of only one type - we miss so many opportunities to learn from and connect with each other!

    As a final note - given your stated preferences for family friendly content and for musicals I am surprised that your choose not to review Makado - performed at both the Heathman and at Lovestreet playhouse or Godspell currently in production under Tony Bumps capable hand both for Pacific Stageworks. Whether reviewed or not, it would be great to have your support. Two more chances to see this show - it runs tonight and tomorrow.

    Dorinda Toner

  8. Dorinda, thank you for your comments!

    Good dialogue is what theater (and blogs) are all about, so thanks for joining in "the debate." I agree with your general assessment that we need a variety of themes and topics in theater. I don't believe I made a values judgement as to what was "good" or "bad" in my opinion piece. I meant to say that a couple of theater companies were trying foist a darker dramatic diet upon a public that really didn't want it just because it was "good for us." Just as I used to balk at broccoli when I was a kid, (I DO think there is a place for broccoli) I also think theater is a good place to educate people and share politics and other agendas (from time to time). Biby did a good job of clarifying things and graciously "setting me straight." Broom just wrote me off rather than dialogue. That's what I wanted--dialogue. After all, I have been wrong before. What DOES Vancouver want? That's the question. I guessed (and I may be right; time will tell).

    And I did not choose to not review Bump's work. I have eagerly offered, but he has declined. I simply do not have the budget to see every play and if I pay to see one that may catch on. lol I provide a free service. I try to give good reviews; I don't just give raving reviews because I get free tickets.That wouldn't be right. BTW, but I also try to be honest so that the PUBLIC can count on me. Sure, I love to boost theater, but, really, I am providing my service to the public. They can choose to ignore me, but many do look to what I have to say. Maybe, it's like I use to use Rex Reed's movie reviews--if he hated it I knew I would like it (with the exception of "Superman," which he liked because he had a cameo in it.) lol And I DO show my support by running PSW press releases.

    Thanks again for adding your valuable opinion.