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Stand up for Studio Arena

I'm not in the habit of wanting to punch theatre executives.

Gavin Cameron-Webb, former artistic director of Studio Arena Theater, was having a chat with a colleague in 2002. He described the place under his direction as a "community-oriented theater."

It sounded admirable, of course, until he elaborated. What that meant was that Buffalo's premier theater was happy as can be to perform Tom Dudzick's "Over the Tavern" trilogy, but avoided like the plague the likes of Michael Frayn's award-winning and universally praised "Copenhagen" about a phantom conversation between physicist Niels Bohr and his ex-student Werner Heisenberg.

"If "Copenhagen' were interesting to the community," explained Cameron-Webb, "I'd do it." My translation: Buffalo isn't smart enough for "Copenhagen." "Over the Tavern," yes, but not "Copenhagen."

I'm not in the habit of wanting to punch theater executives in the schnozz but that's how I felt reading that ghastly community condescension four years ago.

Studio Arena is, at the moment, in deep financial trouble - so much so that 14 people had to be laid off in circumstances that were bound to cause much pain. in a place whose denizens tend to be passionate about where they work and, sometimes more than a little, uhhh, theatrical.

I discussed it over the weekend with someone who knew a thing or two about the place's inner workings and workplace climate. "You can't do Brecht" there, she told me. "You can't do Harold Pinter. Not unless you get George Clooney starring in it."

An obvious question, then, is occasioned by the Irish Classical Theater's current production of Pinter's "The Birthday Party." Why them, and not Studio Arena Theater? And if that's part of the theater's culture, that may explain a lot.

Poor, poor, stupid, sports-besotted, supposedly culture-averse Buffalo, sitting there with chicken wing sauce and blue cheese smeared over its face and wielding a foam "We're No. 1" finger in its living room during Bills and Sabres games.

Bless the wings - and Bills and Sabres. But I'm fed up to here frankly with the moronic and despicably condescending assumptions made about Buffalo culture by cultural transients and fearful residents ignorant of our own cultural history.

Fact: Buffalo, for two decades and change ('60's, '70's and early '80's) was one of the most culturally progressive communities its size in the country. That mostly came from the State University at Buffalo, but that by no means explained all of it. Now-major artists Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo, for instance, were ex-Buffalo State students who helped invent the Hallwalls Gallery. Nor were magnificent institutions like the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and BPO incidental to all that.

That's why, amid the Studio Arena's current agonies, there was something more than a little encouraging reading artistic director Kathleen A. Gaffney's comments to Mark Sommer in his superb coverage of the problem on Sunday. Gaffney - who really does know Buffalo - harkened back to the Studio Arena's late executive director Neil DuBrock for inspiration. "He brought glamour to Studio Arena," she said.

I reviewed some of the "glamour" he brought here and it wasn't always so hot. For every "Lady of the Diamond" with Christine Baranski (and a young, slender John Goodman) and Jon Voight version of "A Streetcar Named Desire," there was silliness like Betsy Palmer in "Countess Dracula." Gaffney - to her credit - may not be all that adept at the more brutal requirements of CEO's everywhere but, even more to her credit, she seems to be on the right track to get Buffalo's premier local theater back to some sort of health. At the very least, she isn't in a hurry to condescend to an entire community.


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