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Theaters should pool resources to stay afloat

On March 17, an ambitious production of "Inherit the Wind," the much-admired 1955 play based on the Scopes Monkey Trial, opened in the New Phoenix Theatre.

The show, directed by Subversive Theatre's Kurt Schneiderman, was not ready for prime-time. More than one of the show's gifted actors flubbed lines throughout the evening. The pace of this brisk courtroom drama was uneven and plodding, which resulted in a general sense of unease and managed to blunt the power of the cutting dialogue by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee.

In my review of the show, I wrote that the play was simply underrehearsed and needed a week or two to mature. And when I returned last week to see its second-to-last performance, it had done just that.

The antagonism between the play's main characters, played skillfully by Gary Darling and Greg Natale, had achieved a compelling synchronicity. Other performances from supporting characters had reached new emotional depths. On the other hand, the worst performances remained as glaring as ever and some pacing problems lingered. But the production, given time, had grown into its considerable potential.

On Buffalo's sprawling theater scene, where resources are tight and actors nearly always work at least one day job while treading the boards at night, this is a common situation. To a certain extent, being a devoted Buffalo theatergoer in 2011 requires an understanding of the limitations our companies face and an ability to roll with the punches.

Theaters mounting large-scale productions like "Inherit the Wind" are usually at the mercy of a restricted rehearsal period, which hardly approaches the luxury of longer stretches of all-day rehearsals that regional theaters and New York City venues enjoy. (Not that Broadway is exempt from this problem: I once saw a much-hyped production of "Hedda Gabler" starring Mary-Louise Parker that rivaled some of the least polished community theater for awkwardness.)

The result is that some of Buffalo's best productions -- the ones with visionary direction, engaging material and gifted cast members -- do not truly come together until close to their closing performances. That's why, for all but the most adventurous theatergoers, the best time to see a show in Western New York is during its final week.

There are many exceptions to that rule, of course, from theaters like Road Less Traveled Productions, the Kavinoky Theatre, the Irish Classical and often MusicalFare Theatre. These companies, whatever the final results, typically give their productions a real chance to cohere before the curtain goes up.

But here's the rub: Audiences for nonmusical theater are going nowhere but down. Though the number of active companies on our theater scene belies this truth, live and nonmusical theater as an art form relevant to our lives is engaged in a fight for its life. And the under-40 set, used to seeing reasonably convincing or at least generally acceptable acting on television and in movie theaters, is far less likely to abide amateurishness or bad acting than its more theatrically inured elders.

That means local companies that are more than happy to put out six or seven (or more) underbaked productions a year as long as Mildred and Gus are still capable of strolling up to the box office will be in for a rude awakening in a few short years.

The underresourced companies that are likely to survive after that generation disappears are the ones that grasp their own limitations and concentrate on putting together two- or three-show seasons that consistently deliver both in vision and in execution. These include the excellent Jewish Repertory Theatre, Hamburg's Buffalo Laboratory Theatre and even the struggling Ujima Theatre, all of which are seriously engaged in the work of audience-building for the future.

Bigger outfits with more resources, like the Irish, Road Less Traveled and Kavinoky, can afford to put on full seasons because their work passes the under-40 test. But other companies, which give themselves the label "professional" but follow a policy of enforced mediocrity by virtue of their jam-packed production schedules, are sentencing themselves to eventual irrelevance by trying to do too much, too fast.

One solution, as has been suggested ad nauseam but can't be repeated often enough, is collaboration. "Inherit the Wind," a co-production of the New Phoenix and Subversive theaters, is in fact an example of that. The potential reopening of the former Studio Arena Theatre space on Main Street is a step in the right direction -- a much needed push for companies to work harder to pool their significant collective resources and work together to keep the art of theater not just alive, but thriving.


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