Theaters fret over potential political roots of box-office slump


The terrace outside the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. (Daniel C. Britt/THE WASHINGTON POST)

A wonk test for Washington: Is the presidential election to blame for a box-office slump in capital area theaters? Are D.C.’s denizens so busy working on campaigns or blissing out on political TV that the usual audience cuts back until the votes are in and the shouting is over?

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company artistic director Howard Shalwitz says that lately there has been “a lot of talk about the depressed state” among theaters. Woolly staffers note that enthusiastic reviews and strong word of mouth did not move the needle as usual for the troupe’s America-as-pro-wrestling show, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.”

The Kennedy Center says sales for longer runs tend to slow every four years during electoral autumns. GALA Hispanic Theatre, coming off a strong 2011-12 season, took a hit this fall that associate producing director Abel Lopez thinks is partly because of broad focus on “the campaign discourse.” The Shakespeare Theatre Company recently had a tough time selling the return engagement of the National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch,” the searing interview-based drama about soldiers’ experiences in Iraq.

Yet some shows, of course, are selling well, among them Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Michael Kahn’s broad, jolly staging of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 farce “The Government Inspector.”

“I don’t think anybody exactly knows,” Kahn says of the general sales dip. “It’s always a difficult time at an election because people are preoccupied. . . . Everybody is thinking the election has something to do with it.”

Shalwitz says colleagues as far afield as San Francisco are fretting about the box-office pox and its potential political roots. But nobody has reliable numbers to back up a connection that a lot of theater insiders, especially inside the Beltway, feel in their bones.

“It’s hard to come to a specific causal effect,” Shalwitz says.

At Arlington’s Signature Theatre, managing director Maggie Boland, who worked at Arena Stage for 10 years, has never heard reliable patrons say they wouldn’t attend because of campaign distractions.

On the other hand, she says, “I definitely support the idea that election season is a difficult time to sell anything, whether it’s because we are competing for audiences’ attention, competing for the media’s attention, or just that people are in a crabby mood.”

“The thing that I know for sure,” Shalwitz says of the pervasive influence of a campaign in high season, “is that audiences bring that with them no matter what play is on the stage.” During talkbacks after “Chad Deity,” for instance, audiences have made comparisons between the charismatic incumbent wrestling champ of the title and President Obama, even though Kristoffer Diaz imagined and drafted the play before the 2008 election.

It’s easy enough to glimpse the theater world’s absorption with all things politics thanks to Twitter. During debates, playwrights, actors, directors and critics fire off real-time commentary with the trigger-finger frequency and indignation of paid pundits.

Audiences are similarly transfixed by the drama of the candidate showdowns, according to Jim McCarthy, chief executive of the online discount ticket outlet Goldstar. During the debates, traffic on the Goldstar sites slows “to an exceptional rate,” he says.

Kahn, like Boland, intuits this vast public distraction. But its drag on attendance is not inevitable. Dreading a dud house for “The Government Inspector” on one of the recent debate nights, the director checked in at the theater.

“I hoped I could cheer up the actors,” Kahn says. “And it was full.”

Even without the kind of explosive contribution from the entertainment world in 2008 by the happy-making surprise of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her “Saturday Night Live” doppelganger, Tina Fey, the campaign plainly commands what McCarthy calls “mindshare.” The D.C. titles trafficking on Goldstar have indicated a political awareness stretching back to last winter’s “Electile Dysfunction: The Kinsey Sicks for President!” at Theater J through this fall’s big-selling“Red Hot Patriot: the Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins” at Arena Stage.

“People pay attention to it the way they pay attention to sports,” McCarthy contends of the appetite for all things campaign. Savvy arts groups, he suggests, try to “take advantage” of the moment, “capture the zeitgeist.”

In Washington, some companies are frank about trying to do exactly that. Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer liked the satire of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” timing the salty, sultry musical to kick up its heels as the conventions and general campaign revved up.

“We’re all very aware of where we are,” Boland says of capital area theaters.

Kathleen Turner has hit the stump all fall in conjunction with her appearance in “Red Hot Patriot,” and the show has been a box-office bonanza. But its mandate as a zeitgeist item may be compromised by its barnstorming not on either of Arena’s Broadway-size stages but in its intimate 200 seat space. (Old showbiz formula: Big star plus small theater equals tight ticket.)

Other creative heads are more diplomatic about whether their choices are primed to ride the electoral tide. This autumn’s slate, which included the Round House Theatre’s gripping staging of another Iraq War-themed drama, Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” reveals a lot of topical material, even if Washington remains the kind of town that shuns such on-the-nose political theater as David Mamet’s 2008 screamingly crude “November” (now on the boards in Los Angeles with Felicity Huffman and Ed Begley Jr.).

Yet Shalwitz denies that “Chad Deity,” with its over-the-top wrestlers sending up the American penchant for lionizing heroes and demonizing enemies, was his notion of a campaign-season item.

“I can’t claim that that thought ever crossed my mind,” says Shalwitz, who is going through his eighth general-election cycle leading the contemporary-minded Woolly. Even the counter­cultural “America Hurrah,” produced by Woolly in fall 1984, wasn’t election-driven, Shalwitz says. Instead, it inaugurated a season reflecting on George Orwell’s “1984.”

Kahn says that given the explicit themes of power rippling through so much material by Shakespeare and other classic dramatists, “every play we do is sort of political.” But he adds that even though campaign autumns have a palpable character, he makes no effort to find an electoral-statement play every four years.

“Timon of Athens” was on the bill during the 2000 campaign, though, and Shakespeare’s seldom-seen play – about a man who gives away his wealth and rails at the hypocrisies of a materialistic society — provoked one woman to cancel her subscription.

“She said I was trying to influence the national election,” Kahn recalls, laughing with pleasure that the centuries-old script was viewed as having that much punch. (He set the play in the greed-is-good 1980s and had the exiled Timon fulminating from on top of a junked Jaguar.) “Best letter I ever got.”

As for slotting “The Government Inspector” now, Kahn says simply that he had always wanted to do it. It is, he notes, about local government corruption.

“People find it very timely,” he says.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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