EXCLUSIVE: Deadline theater critic Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres president Jordan Roth discuss the hottest topics on the Rialto, the only precondition being: No holds barred.
JEREMY GERARD: It was inevitable that the recent spate of allegations about sexual harassment, abuse and violence would cross the continent from Hollywood to Broadway – especially when two of the most prominent subjects of those allegations – producer Harvey Weinstein and producer/actor Kevin Spacey – have been active in both film/TV and live theater. In an extraordinary guest column Deadline ran last week on the subject, actor and writer Sherie Rene Scott addressed the complicated issue of abuse in an environment that requires actors to work in situations of great vulnerability. “Having been on both sides of the rehearsal table, I can say it’s clearly incumbent on the people in charge to fix this,” she wrote. “The enabling of predators in the theater community must stop. Our fear of predators will end only when victims can be confident they’ll be heard…” I know (from admittedly anecdotal evidence), that predatory behavior persists, and yet so far, Broadway’s most powerful people – producers, theater owners, directors, casting agents – have not been heard from.
JORDAN ROTH: I am confident that every person of conscience in our industry – and every industry for that matter – is thinking deeply about how we could have been part of the problem and how we can be part of the solution. If a problem is systemic, as this is, we are all complicit. And I include you – the press – as part of we, as evidenced by Sherie’s brave description of the humiliation of inappropriate reviews and interviews. Sexual harassment and abuse are not acts of sex but acts of power, dominance and control. Using and abusing power to terrorize people in any way, sexual or otherwise, cannot be tolerated or normalized. Too often hostile and abusive behavior is excused in our industry because we are a creative field with big personalities, but on the contrary it is precisely because we are a creative field that we must vigilantly care for each other’s hearts. Vulnerable work onstage requires safety and security off stage.
GERARD: I accept your inclusion of critics and could cite many examples of reviews that were demeaning or cruel. On the other hand, I should point out one reason I invited Sherie Rene Scott to address the issue is that a few years earlier I had begun my review of her play, Whorl Inside A Loop, with this: “Sherie Rene Scott is beautiful, blonde and busty, an inspired comic actress with an air of practiced innocence…” Several readers chastised me for both the observation and the alliterative language. One person who didn’t take umbrage was Sherie Rene Scott, because being B-B-and-B was so central to the show’s construct, which was about her experience working with a male prison population. I mention this because I fear the net being cast for sexual assault perps, important as it is, risks bagging dolphins as well as sharks.
Next subject: My colleague Gordon Cox at Variety recently scooped us all with a report from Shubert Organization honchos Phil Smith and Bob Wankel that there will be no new Shubert Theater in the high rise going up in the Theater District, on Eighth Avenue between 45th and 46th streets. That was good news for me, because I’d bet the New York Post’s Michael Riedel dinner at Frankie & Johnnie’s that there wouldn’t be a new Broadway theater in the near future. (I called and they’ve got a 2-pound Delmonico steak aging just for me.) Seriously, I think that the theater owners don’t really want to expand the roster of 40 theaters (it will return to 41 in the spring with the reopening of the Helen
Hayes). Scarcity economics – in the case of Broadway, the triple punch of limited runs, dynamic pricing and a chronic space crunch – has resulted in huge profits and the enviable case of no open stock ever, with double and triple bookings in line for every available vacancy. So even the flops don’t endanger the bottom line for the owners. I salute the fact that this has allowed you and your colleagues to do the occasional passion project – you with Falsettos and Angels In America, the late Gerald Schoenfeld with Passing Strange come to mind – but I’m convinced that the status quo will prevail for the foreseeable future. Unless, that is, the newest player in the Broadway sandbox – the Ambassador Theatre Group – decides to expand beyond the two theaters they recently took control of, the Hudson and the Lyric. They’ve just brought Boston’s Colonial, a storied tryout house – back online. Perhaps they’ll shake things up here in Gotham as well.
ROTH: Trust me, we all would love to own another theater or two. But not one that can’t ever pay for itself. The cost of buying the land and building the theater, plus the opportunity cost of all the other possible uses for that space in what has become one of the most sought-after 10 blocks of New York City real estate all add up to a difficult equation. Not necessarily impossible, but difficult. Your question, though, points to the larger equilibrium of the industry, which yes is healthy – and that wouldn’t be materially altered by an additional one or two theaters anyway. The facts you seem to bemoan (I’ll never understand why you begrudge the commercial theater for being commercial) are actually indicators of a healthy Broadway. While it is very frustrating for any given show looking for a theater and for a theater owner who wants a show but doesn’t have a place to put it, in the big picture full theaters are good for theater. And shows waiting to fill them again is even better for the industry. It means there are plenty of exceptional artists making great work, plenty of investors willing to put money into it, and plenty of audiences coming to see it. If a show should be on Broadway, it ultimately will. Maybe not on the exact schedule the team first wanted, maybe not in the exact size theater they first wanted, but it will get a theater. I have almost always seen that to be the case.
GERARD: Oh painful wound! I’ve never begrudged the commercial theater’s commercial, as well as artistic, mission. For being greedy at times, yes. For manipulating the nonprofit theater for its own purposes, to be sure (though I include the nonprofits in that as well). But let’s be clear that I support the right of everyone except critics to flourish economically from the commercial theater. OK, let’s revisit a subject we dealt with awhile ago: Theater etiquette. As I recall, you made the case that theater owners and producers need to be more accommodating of the generation of customers used to using their cell phones and having drinks and snacks whenever they want. I understand that some Broadway theaters being refurbished will have drink holders at the seats. I sympathize with the conundrum this poses, but at the same time, the situation only seems to have grown more dire as performances are ruined by ringing phones, glowing screens, tinkling ice cubes and crackling glasses. Some movie theaters are now offering customer pods that allow you to watch as if you’re in First Class on a trans-Atlantic flight. Not a very communal experience. Are we headed there? Is it time to get tougher on miscreant theatergoers, or do we continue sliding toward everyone-out-for-him-or-herself?
ROTH: I continue to affirm that we need to make sure everyone feels welcome and feels that they belong here at the theater, and we don’t need to make anyone feel like an idiot or a criminal for not knowing the rules of the theater road. We want to protect the experience for the collective without alienating any one individual. That is a difficult but crucial challenge and one that is accomplished one human interaction at a time. None of that is inconsistent with wanting people to not text or take pictures or make excessive noise during a show. But if we make our audiences feel like we’d just as soon they not be there, they won’t.