Is it fair to compare small and large theaters: Shotgun’s Norman Conquest

Do you read reviews? If you do, are you reading them for the critic’s opinion or are you reading it for the comments that follow, because, generally, the conversations that result from reviews are much more interesting. Case in point: Rob Hurwitt’s review of Shotgun Player’s The Norman Conquests. As far as reviews go, it is pretty standard: a bit about the playwright, a bit about the play, this was good, this was bad, fin. But, thankfully, there was one incendiary comment amongst the rest: “The American Conservatory Theater’s staging of Garden in May was better designed and acted, and got more laughs than Shotgun’s does, but the humor didn’t run as deep without the other plays.”

Shotgun Player's THE NORMAN CONQUEST trilogy closes 9/12

Some context: last May, A.C.T. produced Round and Round the Garden, one of the three connected plays (together called The Norman Conquests) written by Alan Ayckbourn for the summer 1973 season, when he thought the weather in Scarborough, England, was going to be bad. He was the artistic director of the Library Theatre, a cultural pivot of the vacation destination. In case of rain, he wanted the tourists to have more than one play to see; at the same time, he understood that few people would attend three consecutive nights of theater.  As a result he wrote three thematically related plays taking place in three different parts of the same house. They were written to stand alone but, constructed “crosswise,” they were also meant to build off one another. “I found myself grappling with triplet sisters all with very different personalities,” writes Ayckbourn of the trilogy. “Each play, although dealing with the same characters and events, began to develop a distinct atmosphere of its own. . . . Although very closely related thematically and in every other way, they were meant to be enjoyed as individual plays.”

All this is nice to know when you are attempting to unpack Hurwitt’s comment, “Norman is one very funny sex farce spread out over three plays.” I have not seen Shotgun’s production, so I cannot comment on it. Having read the three, I tend share Hurwitt’s opinion, but plays—especially these—are not meant to be read, they are meant to be seen and heard. You should see the plays and report back! I won’t. I overdosed on Ayckbourn last May.

What is truly of interest to me is the response in the comments:

Otter_SF 12:15 PM on August 25, 2010
Umm – Comparing a Shotgun show to ACT, which has a completely different audience base, and budget, is pretty irresponsible.

RichReinholdt 11:54 AM on August 26, 2010
@Otter: thanks for your comment. No excuses, we at Shotgun try always to uphold the highest possible creative standards, but you are right in your observation that we just don’t have the resources (time, money, etc.) of an ACT. And we’re not trying to compete with them – can’t in any case. We’re indie theater – just like indie music/record labels. That said, we’re proud of what we do. We all have day jobs and we rehearse at night and all day on weekends – we’re “citizen artists!” And it’s perhaps worth noting that we are doing all 3 plays of the trilogy whereas ACT only did one and could focus 100% of their efforts on that alone. It’s not the same level of undertaking. Not really comparable on a lot of levels, but we hope our work stands up well to any comparisons. That’s what we strive for, in any case. While all the time having fun in making and playing these shows. Because god knows it isn’t about the money!

First, I love this concept of the citizen artist, who works by day and rehearses by night. What’s that remind me of? Oh yeah: superheroes! Mild-mannered temp-job worker by day, by night Rich Reinholdt throws off the trench coat and glasses to become Superactor! Please note, I don’t know whether Rich Reinholdt (who plays Norman) has a temp-job, or if he’s a super actor, but the very fact that he, like so many, works the dayjob to pay the bills and then goes out to rehearse a play does make him heroic.

That said, it does make me wonder what those who work fulltime in professional theater are (other than damn fortunate). And what does it say that they’re leaving their “dayjobs” to write plays for PlayGround, or act with We Players, or direct with Brava? Can they be citizen artists as well? Wait, what about the artists who are working fulltime in professional theater and then work second jobs because working fulltime in professional theater doesn’t pay that much . . . are they not citizen artists because they don’t do art for free on their non-existent free time. And, does working in theater by night make him more heroic than the man who works by day and then goes to practice soccer with his team, or goes to nightschool to learn Italian, or takes pottery classes, or plays with his kids?

I’m talking myself out of this. Simply, maybe it’s heroic just to do more than it takes to subsist. Or maybe this dilutes the word.

The relationship between the big theaters and the small theaters is fascinating to me. Well, honestly, the relationship between all theaters (regardless of size) is fascinating: that odd balance of cooperation, community, and competition. This brings me to point two: is it unfair to compare Shotgun’s production to A.C.T.’s? Shotgun decided to produce the trilogy three months after A.C.T. produced Garden. Doesn’t that beg for comparison? I cannot wait to see Shotgun’s Salt Plays, interpretations of The Iliad and The Odyssey by Jon Tracy and the team that brought you The Farm (an awesome adaptation of Animal Farm), but should I not compare them to A.C.T.’s 2009 production of War Music, also an adaptation of The Iliad? What about Hurwitt? He didn’t particularly like War Music, if memory serves: wouldn’t Shotgun benefit from such a comparison?

I compare large theater productions to small theater productions all the time: small theater’s usually come out ahead! If we are to critique theater—which we certainly don’t have to do!—shouldn’t we hold all theater to the same standards?

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