The most startling news in Bay area theater recently was the announcement that the 20-year tradition of American Stage's Shakespeare in the Park is coming to an end. Last month, in a press release and published interviews, Producing Artistic Director Todd Olson explained that attendance for the outdoor Shakespeare plays had fallen significantly over the years, and that an audience survey had indicated more interest in seeing modern musicals and comedies. Olson insisted that American Stage would continue to produce Shakespeare every spring — but on the indoor mainstage, where, he asserted, it would be possible to offer serious histories and tragedies "that were ill-suited to an outdoor audience of over 1,000 people." Finally, Olson announced the first of the updated Park shows: Regina Taylor's musical Crowns, about a streetwise Brooklyn kid who learns to live with her grandmother in South Carolina.
I visited Olson at his American Stage office to talk about his decision to take Shakespeare out of the Park, and to find out, more generally, about the health of American Stage. The theater, with an annual $1.29 million budget, is presently $130,000 in debt, and losses on the outdoor Shakespeare recently came to about $30,000. Still, subscriptions to the mainstage season are up from 1,765 three years ago to almost 2,200 today. And Olson vows that, whatever the theater's financial condition, American Stage will continue to live up to high standards of play selection and production. That will include taking a few chances — including a one-week run next April of a demanding new play by Mystic River author and Eckerd College grad Dennis Lehane.
Olson said the $130,000 debt represents a real downturn in the theater's condition over the last five years or so.
"From 1999 and 2000, when we had a cash reserve of about $220,000, you can see the sort of trajectory of where we've gone."
But Olson, who started work at American Stage in January 2003, thinks the problem can be solved. "Now at the very least, we have a ... five-year plan of how we're taking care of that ... So we feel like we're finally going in a decent direction, and we're not accruing more debt."
As for the role that Shakespeare in the Park played in the theater's money woes, Olson said the series has been a problem for years. The best financial return that any recent Shakespeare play offered was the "eight or 12 thousand" earned by Romeo and Juliet in 2003. But "for an event that costs close to $200,000, that's cutting it pretty slim." And anyway, he said, Romeo was an aberration; 1998's Midsummer Night's Dream cost $250,000 and lost $80,000, while this year's double bill of Taming of the Shrew and Bomb-itty of Errors cost $192,000 and lost between $25,000 and $30,000. A similar story is told by attendance figures: 20,000 people came to Macbeth nine years ago, about 15,000 to Romeo two years ago, and only 11,800 to the Shakespeare double bill this year.
Why the steady downturn? Olson said that figures for outdoor Shakespeare festivals nationwide show a similar fall-off, and he wondered if the trend might be cyclical. But there's also the matter of competition. "Twenty years ago there were far fewer things to do. I mean, I've always known that we don't compete with other theaters, we compete with other stuff to do. And on a spring night, there's so many things to do, especially in downtown now. So I think it is competing activities."
Still, he admitted other possibilities. Bomb-itty's rap music might have scared off certain parents, eclectic styles of production might have "confused our brand," and doing two shows this year might have confused audiences further. But whether or not any of these reasons are accurate, clearly the Park show was crying out for some sort of correction.
The decisive information came from an audience survey commissioned last September in which "each study group overwhelmingly said, we'd be much more inclined to come to the Park if you'd just do something other than Shakespeare." Olson didn't find the message demoralizing. "How authentic a Shakespeare were we giving?" he asks. The Park venue, he said, was leading directors to create an event that was only Shakespeare in part, with the real attraction being the music or the concept. "We were trying to blow it up to be an event the size of that field [at Demens Landing]," he said.
Bringing Shakespeare indoors will, he suggested, bring audiences back to the Bard himself, in an intimate setting where they can more easily enjoy the incomparable language.
"If we had 4,000 purists in the Park that came there for the Shakespeare, I think they'll be satisfied with that."
As to what plays to expect, Olson said he's particularly interested in the history plays, "you know, that kind of Lancastrian series from Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V is attractive; you could even take that to Henry VI, Richard III." Another possibility is Othello, which two years ago was named by audience members as the Shakespeare they'd most like to see. But with Othello, as with most of Shakespeare, cast size (and thus budget) is daunting: Whatever play Olson finally chooses, it'll have to be one that the theater can afford. (Further, expect to see local actors in Shakespeare as elsewhere; Olson proudly noted that 65 percent of all American Stage casting these days is from the Bay area.)
Finally, Olson — who remains remarkably genial and even-tempered, no matter how tough the questions — told me about the programming risk that's most on his mind these days. That play is Dennis Lehane's Coronado, which opened in New York a few weeks ago and won a grudgingly positive review in the New York Times a few days later. The play is based on Lehane's short story "Until Gwen" and takes place in a nameless bar somewhere in rural America, where a young man and woman fall in love, a psychiatric patient confronts her demons, and a father and son search for a missing woman and a stolen diamond. Olson said Lehane will be involved in the production next April (while Crowns is running in the Park). "It's a brutal play and one we would have warning signs all over for our audience, but it's one that we felt, it was really worth doing."
So: Shakespeare moves indoors, Crowns moves outdoors, Lehane visits for a week and Todd Olson cautiously but methodically makes it clear just what his imprint on American Stage will be. And oh yes, he mentioned that he doesn't have a contract with the American Stage board: "I think the idea is we work until we're no longer suited."
"But I think we're suited so far."