September 23, 2023

Thoughts on a New Era in New York Theater

The news came this week that two titans of New York theater will be stepping down from the powerful perches on which they’ve long roosted. André Bishop who has lead Lincoln Center Theater since 1992 said he would end his reign there when his current contract runs out after the 2024-2025 season. And Carole Rothman, who co-founded Second Stage Theater in 1979, said she will wrap up her 45-year tenure with that company this coming spring.  

Both Lincoln Center and Second Stage produce both on Broadway and off-Broadway and have small black box theaters that serve as incubators for up-and-coming playwrights. And each has won a slew of awards for the shows they’ve put on over the decades. Their influence has been great, and cherished by us theater lovers.

So these announced moves would be momentous enough on their own. But they follow the deaths within the past year of Todd Haimes, who ran the Roundabout Theatre Company for 40 years; Robert LuPone, the co-founder of MCC Theater who served as its co-artistic director for 36 years, and Andrew Leynse who lead Primary Stages for 21 years. 

When you factor in the recent departures of James Nicola from New York Theatre Workshop after heading it for 34 years; Sarah Benson who lead Soho Repertory Theatre for 16 years and John Doyle, who served a comparatively short six-year term as the head of Classic Stage Company, it’s clear that the times, as Bob Dylan used to say, are a-changin.

Such long tenures might suggest that the moves should have come sooner. There’s no question that these folks helped shape contemporary American theater with the playwrights and directors they’ve supported and the actors they’ve boosted over the years. But most of them are now Medicare-eligible and they’re no longer the Young Turks who helped the off-Broadway and regional theater movements to make a mark.

So it will be exciting to get some new butts in those chairs. But it’s going to be scary too. The people who take on those jobs are going to have to navigate a rockier theatrical landscape than we've seen in a long time. And those of us who love theater are going to have to be patient as they attempt to do it.

For starters, audiences are still skittish about returning to the theater after the pandemic and are rejecting the old subscription model that gave nonprofit theaters a financial cushion as they planned their seasons. They also seem to want what I call comfort-food shows: familiar titles, big name stars, happy endings. 

Meanwhile, theater makers are calling for more inclusive, more diverse and more challenging productions. And they want more comfortable working conditions and better pay too. 

The new leaders are going to have to balance those sometimes competing demands at the same time that costs are rising and financial support—be it government funds that helped them through the pandemic or the foundation dollars that got them started—is shrinking. And, of course, they’ll be endlessly compared to their predecessors whose own faults and failings will fade in the glare of nostalgia for the “good old days.”

And yet I’m not discouraged. Things weren’t all that great back in the ‘70s when most of the now old-timers were starting out. New York City was a mess. Rising crime had many people scared to go out at night. Several of the theaters almost went under. 

But the courageous and creative young visionaries who stepped up to run those places found the money and, more importantly, the talent and the voices to create the theater we have today. 

I suspect that a new generation will find its way to do the same for future theater lovers. And maybe they'll not only act differently but, if the people choosing them do their jobs well, some of them will look different too.


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