Under the dynamic leadership of Artistic Director Lynne Meadow and Executive Producer Barry Grove, Manhattan Theatre Club has grown in four decades from a prolific Off-Off Broadway showcase into one of the country’s most acclaimed theatre organizations.
Founded in 1970, MTC remains committed to bringing theatre to the widest possible audience, bringing students and families to theatre through an ambitious education program run by MTC’s esteemed Director of Education, David Shookhoff. MTC’s many awards include 15 Tony Awards, 6 Pulitzer Prizes, 47 Obie Awards and 29 Drama Desk Awards, as well as numerous Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle and Theatre World Awards. MTC has won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Achievement, a Drama Desk for Outstanding Excellence, and a Theatre World for Outstanding Achievement.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Theatre, plays in particular, seem to be undergoing an enormous resurgence. My Great-Uncle, Michael Gazzo, wrote “Hat Full of Rain”, a very intense and controversial play in the late 50’s. So my personal experience of “plays” versus “Broadway” was very explicit. A play had a seriousness to it, a sense that if you didn’t fit into a certain intellectual club, then it wasn’t for you. It was the idea that they were never the crowd that went to musicals… nowadays the audience appears to be expanding.
BARRY GROVE: This year 26 plays were opened – it’s the highest in the last decade. There’s no question that there is this enormous musical audience – it’s 2/3 tourist and 1/3 ongoing fans, but there’s still this appetite for theatre in the tri-state area. There’s a sense of real fear that it’s an older audience, but it’s true that there is an earlier generation where culture is at the center of who they are. It’s true that due to costs of live theatre, you have to get to the point where you make it a priority so you can afford the babysitter, but people are still craving a live experience.
You know, you get on the elevator and everyone’s looking at their Blackberrys but when they go out, you know, at some point they want to put it down and really experience something. Whether it’s to be taken out of their normal routine or to be moved to a new sensibility and challenged– all of that can be found in a theatre and enjoyed, and it’s an important aspect of why theatre is so vital. Our plays become some of the most produced plays. In this building there are a couple of small theaters and people are lining up to see our productions! It’s packed. I think the appetite for getting away from your iphone, whether it’s conscious or not is very real. People, want that vital, live experience.
LYNNE MEADOW: I think the other thing is, interestingly, perhaps ironically, simultaneously that yes, the more digitalized we are with our computers and phones, the greater the appetite for the live and communal experience becomes, but I think that concurrently, theatre goers get engaged with the art now. That has sort of pulled it out of its former elitist – or at least changed the perception of it being ‘high art’ disconnected from the general culture. The connected nature of our modern techie society has sort of made it more relevant, and connected theatre arts to the broader culture, because, you know, you have people who are taking pictures and tweeting them and meeting the actors and facebooking about them and they’re going on the New York Times website to post their opinion next to a critics opinion. You know, there are so many more opportunities to engage with the art as a theatre goer now that it enables a kind of community building. I think it’s great…it’s great.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I agree, it’s a certain intimacy that theatre brings to our lives, we crave it more and more as technology expands its daily role in everyday activities. Theatre can also be quite expensive. You offer some great programs that create a more inclusive community.
BARRY GROVE: I don’t think it’s a barrier given the work we have – we’re able to bring a lot of people in with low prices, so there is a way in the door. We’re selling 30 dollar tickets to anyone under the age of 30 and they’re not back-row seats. There’s a 20-25 dollar student rush program, when you look at the top price, there are some people who want to pay that to avoid the headaches, if you will, of finding alternate prices, but the average price for these tickets is between 60-85 dollars and I would submit, based on other forms of entertainment, that that’s not unreasonable.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I was referring to your arts education initiatives as well – I feel that bringing children in groups to live performances is invaluable. MTC has an extraordinary, holistic educational outreach. David, I love your “Director’s Corner” blog, it’s so inspiring to read how no matter your particular background, exposure to the theatre can be life altering.
DAVID SHOOKHOFF: Thank you. You know, arts education in general, has positive benefits of all kinds and it’s fun to think about what does theatre, for example, how does theatre differ in what it offers as opposed to music or visual art? So, if you think about what you get from theatre, one of the ideas, I suppose, one of the takeaways, one thing of importance, is empathy – it’s the idea of multiplicity in a point of view. In a well-written play and well-conceived production, each character has legitimacy and a point of view, and by connecting with the production you begin to virtually live in the shoes of the characters and even the “bad guys.” In a well-done play, you enter the world through their eyes and begin to understand how you too might have Macbeth in you. More recently, this last fall, Enemy of the People, two brothers are diametrically opposed in their positions on the moral and ethical dilemma, but because the way the play was written and executed, you understand that the mayor has a legitimate point of view and that the brother isn’t the sole proprietor of the truth. You begin to see the legitimacy of various points of view and to see how to empathize and sympathize
CHRISTINA LESSA: That’s so important, especially in the early developmental stage of a person’s emotional intelligence.
DAVID SHOOKHOFF: Indeed. Similarly, when we ask students to write plays, we ask them to give each character a point of view. We work a lot with young people who are at-risk, and there in particular we find, for example, a lot of misogyny among young men. There is some objectification of young women, and fairly powerful stories that really had a very aggressive, un-empathetic attitude towards women. We have more than one example where we ask men to really flesh out their female characters – why it isn’t okay to rape a woman and to get them to understand; we have some dramatic examples of guys who all of a sudden began to see women as fully-realized human beings. That’s the one version of that theme of awakening empathy through art.
CHRISTINA LESSA: It’s such a powerful and empowering message about cause and effect for young students.
DAVID SHOOKHOFF: Yes, exactly. Consequential human experience. Aesthetic philosophers talk about drama as being the literary form that creates a virtual future. It’s about the actions that point to consequences and so it makes the audience aware of human agency and responsibility. As we watch, the characters make choices that unfold, a series of choices that breed other choices and finally they result in final consequences…those are life lessons and certainly many young people don’t pay enough attention to these consequential human actions.
So, again, when we teach people to write plays and we teach them to see plays, that human reality is what we want them to see. See it through a multiplicity of points of view, with empathy and an urgency if you will, actions having consequences are the unique affordances of the theatrical form. It’s also, of course, the reality of a live event. There is something unique
and special about the literary form of drama, which is fully realized by the live performance; so that these ideas are realized in the moment before a living breathing audience. It’s unlike the experience of reading a book. Here, the unique idea that you are living and breathing along with the actors is unique to the theatrical form. You can’t just decide to put the book down now, you’re there at the theatre and you live through the events alongside the actors. It has an immediacy that’s unique to the medium.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Even the simple act of taking a young person without previous exposure to theatre to their first show can be transformative. Learning how to appreciate theatre for them can be a life lesson that translates into their lives. It also grows the next generation of fans and patrons. Even the act of applause is important, understanding what effort went into the process and giving the players your gratitude.
LYNNE MEADOW: Well, part of what we do in that program is deal with more and more pressure in the teaching world to particularly evaluate what the students are getting out of it. So the portfolio approach is, even for the most early analysis of the theatre, asks you to write an experience about the theatre and then asks them to come back two or three months later and ask them to do it again and count the number of aspects of a play that they begin to articulate, whether it’s clothes and hair and makeup or subtexts or character or plot line, none of those criteria exists in their earliest interaction (with the play). There’s joy, there’s an experience, but within a very short period of time that needs to take hold. If you can expose people repeatedly – and for us that means eight times – we can get the best audience possible and hopefully create theatre goers for life. You won’t find an artist who does not proclaim that the most gratifying experience of the performance is the educational aspect because the authenticity of the response is so powerful.
CHRISTINA LESSA: MTC is dedicated to new works, an unusual approach in this era of revivals and sequels.
LYNNE MEADOW: We had a mission from the beginning…it was the early 70s when we started…we started and maintained that tradition while we’ve expanded and changed our approach to things. Berry, when he was in college, was reading Brave New World so we all have an appetite for coming back from the jungle. It’s not that we don’t do revivals but we kind of like the idea of having it be fresh – without a set of instructions that comes with having it already been done.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Many actors and writers have gone on to become highly recognized talents, and yet they are all committed to MTC and what it stands for, returning again and again to work with your incredible stable of old and new aspiring writers. MTC really is a mainstay in the theatre world in NYC.
LYNNE MEADOW: It’s the newest and the oldest. What we do institutionally is constantly redouble our commitment to the new. What we really hear from the artistic community is that commitment needs to be a steadfast, ongoing, long-term, meaningful commitment; that’s the way writers want to be supported now. It’s not just money, it’s money and artistic support and resources. It’s having a home. It’s having a place where they can say, “I need it now, I need it forever, will you be there for me?”, and our response to that very clear cry from the community was the Writers Room, which was a commission development and, hopefully, ultimately, a producing program where we can really extend our hand to artistic partners and produce them on our stage too.
We also share a long history of collaborating with other institutions and foundations, some of them quite unusual. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, who was the founder of GM, has been funding a series of writers who are writing about science ideas. This year, in addition, they’re supporting three of the productions on our stage. One of the pieces was this year’s production of “The Explorers Club”. This foundation appreciates that play’s spirit of poking fun at the scientific world and some of the hypocrisies there. It’s a piece that sort of pokes fun at pseudo-sciences and at the outset of The Explorer’s Club you meet all these explorers and scientists who do things that by contemporary scientific standards would not be considered terribly valuable, but at the same time she (the writer) is not only setting up true scientific endeavors that are incredibly difficult and noble, but also how this has long been done by men, but in this play a woman is banging down the door saying, “I do that, too and I need to be taken as seriously as my colleagues.”
We want people to examine what’s new in this art form and also what we are putting forth in terms of old issues represented in new ways. We worked with the issue of women mathematicians in “Proof” which won a Pulitzer for Drama. Here we are ten years later and this is about the first woman to break down the doors of the Explorers Club. This brings to our attention this problem: why is it that women are underrepresented in math, science and technology. You laugh at what is going on in the Explorers Club because of the science they are doing but you don’t laugh at the fact that women have been so underrepresented.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You do present an excellent forum that widens peoples range of thought on many subjects. It seems you have evolved through so many years of doing so. I was reading about what happened in 1998 with your production of “Corpus Christi” and the conservative backlash. What do you think would happen if you introduced that play now?
LYNNE MEADOW: I think it would probably not happen now for a lot of reasons but first of all because of how society has changed. Look at “The Book of Mormon”, where Jesus Christ is prancing around…society has just changed.
Some strange things happened at that time, that maybe was the beginning of some, I would say, irresponsible journalism – and gossipy journalism that we see happen more and more.
We had a reading of this play, we’ve done many many plays like this, it’s by one of the writers whom we call one of the ‘jewels of our crown’ and we had a reading of this play and before we even had a chance to talk about it, it was reported in the NY Post that we were doing a play about gay Jesus and it caused a firestorm. That being said, we stood by our right to express our views and the right of the public to express their views. It was an important time for us to reiterate how important the first amendment is to artists, to management, and to the public.
What I think will not happen again is probably that kind of a script going out immediately, where we weren’t afforded the privacy. We would just be more careful about letting scripts go out into the world. It was a very important and painful event in our history in that it caused such an eruption at the time on the other end. Having said that, we always look to the future here.
One of the reasons for our success over this number of decades is the quality of the people who work here and the idea that we don’t rest on our past. We’re always looking forward. We don’t dwell on the past here, our interest is on what are we doing, how can we do it better and how can we do it more interestingly and not sit around.
BARRY GROVE: And the other thing that is important, you mentioned philanthropy before, we’re able to do what we do and to keep going forward because we’re blessed with wonderful philanthropists, from our board of directors to people who are supporting individual plays.
We have to raise 10 million dollars a year in philanthropy. Less than one percent of that comes from government funds. We stand on the shoulders of giants; these people are extraordinary. The time that it takes to run their own work lives and then again the amount of time and care they have in supporting us. Thanks to them, the future holds great promise for continued work; and the work is already reaching larger audiences than ever before.
DAVID SHOOKHOFF: and..our educational outreach also continues to expand through those philanthropic efforts. Kids from the south Bronx came into the city center to see one of our plays and it was a very powerful experience. And on the way back, one of them called out to the teacher and said, “You know, Miss, that movie was terrific,” and before the teacher could answer, one of his friends hit him on the head and said, “Yo fool, that wasn’t a movie, that was a play. Those actors were doing it for us.” You know, the idea that this one kid got that idea of the immediacy, the live-ness of the event; that is fantastic.