“New York-caliber actors”: How NYC-centrism hurts regional theater

oslo-stearnsOn April 14, Philly.com published an article on J.T. Rogers’s OSLO, which recently opened on Broadway at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. OSLO was developed as part of Philadelphia’s PlayPENN workshop, and is arguably that program’s most successful output to date. The Broadway production — which originated last summer in a sold-out run at Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway outpost, the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater — stars Tony Award-winners Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle, and is directed by Bartlett Sher, one of the most prestigious and prolific theater artists currently working. By all accounts, Philly.com’s piece should have been a celebration of the great art being generated in our city.

Yet my antenna went up as soon as I saw the article’s byline—it was written by David Patrick Stearns, the Inquirer’s classical music critic. I frequently read Stearns’s music reviews and columns, in which he proves his encyclopedic knowledge of this subject time and again. But what is he doing writing about the Broadway premiere of a locally developed play? The Inquirer has two staff columnists, John Timpane and Tirdad Derakhshani, who regularly cover Philadelphia theater; additionally, freelancers like Toby Zinman (who also writes for Phindie) and Wendy Rosenfield frequently file articles as stringers. Surely any one of them would be a more appropriate fit for this assignment.

Stearns’s piece is not a review, per se, but as a critic, he can’t help appraising the merits of the play, which concerns the brokering of the 1993 peace accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Although he notes “a seasoned dramaturge wouldn’t have been wrong to recommend that the character count be halved and that numerous details about diplomatic protocol be cut,” Stearns writes that OSLO’s “emotional impact is such that you’re not surprised when hardened Arabs are reduced to tears over finally being recognized.” Having seen the play, I must say that I agree with Stearns on both points.

But Stearns and I emphatically part company when he writes that “I’m not sure I would want to see OSLO with anything but New York-caliber actors – or with anything other than Bartlett Sher’s direction.” I had to go back and reread that sentence a couple times. Was a Philadelphia journalist, in the pages of the city’s premier newspaper, in an article supposedly meant to highlight the excellent work being generated in the city, really saying that this play only works with “New York-caliber actors”? But it’s there, in black and white, under the Philly.com masthead.

OSLO on Broadway.
OSLO on Broadway.

Stearns’s assumption falls into a reductive – yet prevalent – view of theater as being the province of New York (and, often specifically, Broadway), with everywhere else a distant second. It undermines the entire goal of the regional theater movement, which strives to create thriving artistic communities throughout the United States, fostering creative homes for the actors, writers, directors, and designers who choose to put down roots in places that aren’t The Big Apple. And the tacit assumption that New York actors are intrinsically more talented than regional actors is easily disproven simply by looking at the massive amounts of talent currently occupying space on stages throughout the regional.

I see a lot of theater – my average is 150 shows per year. Many of those shows are in New York, and many are in Philadelphia. In 2016, I also saw professional productions in New Jersey, Delaware, Chicago, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and Williamstown, Mass., to name just a few places. The caliber of acting I found throughout the United States was consistently jaw-dropping, and I can say without reservation that many of the actors who have chosen to make their careers in places like Philly or D.C. or Chicago are every bit the equal of those who work consistently in New York.

In fact, sometimes they’re better. I would stack Wilma Theater’s searing regional premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ AN OCTOROON or Lantern Theater Company’s timely revival of Shaw’s MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION among the best theatrical productions I’ve ever seen. I preferred Philadelphia Theatre Company’s razor-sharp production of Robert Askins’ HAND TO GOD to the version I saw on Broadway two years ago. In Nick Payne’s CONSTELLATIONS (Wilma Theater), Sarah Gliko and Jered McLenigan were just as kinetic and moving as Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal.

It is not uncommon for many people to incorrectly view regional theater work as merely a stepping stone for Broadway or Hollywood. And, of course, there are many actors who do leave the relative safety of a tight-knit regional theater community to make their way on larger stages. Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company birthed John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf, Jeff Perry, Joan Allen, Tracy Letts, and John Mahoney, who have all gone on to win acclaim and awards on Broadway, television, and the big screen. Yet Steppenwolf has also given us actors and directors like Alan Wilder, Amy Morton, Mariann Mayberry, Yasan Peyankov, Tom Irwin, and Francis Guinan – all of whom have built smashing careers primarily within the confines of Chicago area theater. Are the latter any less talent or any less worthy than the former?

Our own fair city, too, has its own deep bench of talent. I’m sure that anyone who regularly attends Philadelphia theater can easily summon up great memories provided by the likes of Mary Martello, Scott Greer, Greg Wood, Jennifer Childs, Steven Rishard, Grace Gonglewski, Ben Dibble, Carla Belver, Dito van Reigersberg, Kittson O’Neill, and Charlie DelMarcelle – to name just a few. And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of local playwrights like Bruce Graham and Jacqueline Goldfinger, or directors like Blanka Zizka, Matt Pfeiffer, and Terry Nolen. When Stearns remarks that he can only imagine seeing OSLO with New York-caliber actors in a production directed by Bart Sher, I have to wonder how much Philadelphia theater he actually sees.

I, for one, hope to see a full production of OSLO on a Philadelphia stage in the near future, with a cast chock-full of local talent (the aforementioned Greg Wood and Kittson O’Neill would be ideal choices for the roles played by Mays and Ehle) and a terrific local director at the helm. Nothing would be more appropriate for a play that got its start in Philadelphia to come full circle.

18 Replies to ““New York-caliber actors”: How NYC-centrism hurts regional theater”
  1. I thought you’d like to know of the Philadelphia actors who brought the play to life at PlayPenn in the summer of 2015 –

    Ian Bedford
    Brooke Behmke
    Kevin Bergen
    Ross Beschler
    Damon Bonetti
    Joe Guzman
    David INgram
    Dan Kern
    Mary McCool
    J. Paul Nicholas
    Sabrina Profitt
    Steven Richard

    …and in a second workshop we added

    Tom Shotkin
    Jeb Kreager (former Philadelphia actor, now in the Broadway production

    An all around wonderful group of talented and dedicated actors devoted to helping JT bring his play to life.

  2. There is also a “grass is greener” aspect to this. It reminds me of when I designed a musical that toured to Russia just as the Iron Curtain was falling in 1989. They LOVED our production but I did think the review turned bizarre when it asked the question: “Why can’t Russian artists do work of this calibre”. Indeed! “Russian artists” include the likes of Stanislavsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoi!

  3. This is a great article. However, the “few” Philadelphia actors and directors you named are all white. Your white-centrism hurts theatre in its entirety. I urge you to make it a priority to see more diverse work and to support diverse artists.

  4. The lack of representation of artists of color among my examples of local theater-makers is a deeply regrettable oversight. Philadelphia has a diverse artistic community, and I have often noted in my writings that our productions are frequently cast in ways that highlight a broad spectrum of representation. This says nothing of the many nonwhite writers and directors producing stellar work in Philadelphia. To obfuscate them, intentionally or not, is inexcusable. I will strive to do better in the future.

  5. Excellent article. One cavil. This does not constitute the “Broadway Premiere” of this play. Lincoln Center is a not-for-profit, non-Broadway entity. Ask any journeyman actor who has ever received a check from them! Lincoln Center does nothing to disabuse people of this notion, as of course it aids in their marketing, but again; not Broadway.

    1. No, the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center is in fact a Broadway house, at least in terms of its size and eligibility for Tony Awards consideration. Whether LCT pays its artists properly is a topic worth discussing, and it’s a conversation Equity and larger nonprofits have every time they renegotiate LORT contract parameters. But if Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle at the Vivian Beaumont isn’t a Broadway production, I don’t know what it.

      1. The Vivian Beaumont is a Broadway house. The Mitzi Newhouse isn’t. Thus, “Other Desert Cities” and “Soyna and Vanya…” were off-Broadway until they moved. Kelli O’Hara was nominated — again and again — for her work in the Beaumont, finally winning for King and I.

        Is this complicated?

    2. Lincoln Center, though technically a LORT A theatre as far as artist contracts/ pay scale, the Vivian Beaumont is is indeed TONY elligible..and thus consideted “Broadway”.

  6. Douglas, thanks for your kind words, but I’m not sure what you’re trying to say with the latter portion of your comment. The Vivian Beaumont Theater is a Tony Award-eligible Broadway theater, as designated by the Broadway League. Regardless of how you feel about their pay structure, it IS a Broadway house, and referring to it as such is not inaccurate.

    1. Also, many actors who work in regional theaters are New York actors who get hired out of New York. It is not accurate to say that there is a distinction between New York actors and regional ones-

  7. As a friend of Paul’s and a few of the Philly actors he listed, I’d like to point out that reviews of workshops or readings are generally forbidden in the new play development scene. If it didn’t receive a full production in Philly, it makes sense that a local workshop did not receive a review. That not withstanding, I agree that many, many actors in the regions can hold their own against NYC actors. As a matter of fact, I’ve auditioned scores of actors in NYC who commuted in from Philadelphia for those auditions, and cast lots of them.

  8. As a “New York-caliber” actor (whatever that means), I have found Philadelphia theatre and the caliber of acting to be so impressive that I’m thinking of moving, so please reconsider your words!

  9. I’m a non-New-York based actor, who did spend time in New York, and I absolutely agree there are of course SO many brilliant actors in various cities across America.

    But it’s also hard to deny you’ll never match the vast talent pool and diverseness of the New York market. Besides size, I think this boils down to one thing — money. I have never met a single actor outside LA/Chicago/NYC who made their living solely from acting. There just aren’t enough shows, and enough well-paying shows, to financially sustain even the hottest star of San Francisco, etc.

    So it does stand to reason many of the most brilliant actors, the ones who know they can make a real living as an actor, will go to the bigger markets. Where there’re tons of film/tv opportunities, commercials, and in NYC– dozens of Broadway houses plus regional work being cast from across the country. It sucks, but there it is.

    (Any given city will still have its brilliant locals– people who just love that place, people who don’t want the stress of the big city acting life or couldn’t making a living at it, people who have family reasons to stay, or people who have a main job (like professor at a school) and act on the side.)

    Wish there was a way more actors could make a good living acting in their local markets. Would love to hear opposing or agreeing viewpoints!

    1. JR, thanks for providing your perspective as a regional actor. I would push back a little bit, simply because I know many actors who are making their living solely through entertainment industry work. Of course, this isn’t just theater: commercials, voice over, film and television, and industry appearances are a big part of an actor’s income as well. But it is possible. Especially in a city like Philadelphia, where the cost of living is not as steep as a New York or a San Francisco.

  10. I agree Cameron – Having working in NY, LA and later in Boston (16 years) and now in Pittsburgh (20 years) it is possible for some actors in ‘liaison’ cities to earn their living doing nothing but acting – combining stage, film, tv and perhaps some teaching. Until someone has spent enough time in the regions (and jobbing in for a LORT contract isn’t really spending time) they have no idea what life looks like – day to day spending less, living in your own house, driving and finding parking, having a pet you can let out the back door – it’s just terrible making your home outside NY- and currently over 40% of Equity lives outside ‘office’ cities (NY,LA, Chicago, Orlando)

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