Jesse Green’s feature Sunday in the NYTimes takes stock of the theater-building boom in America, including Dallas’ Charles and Dee Wyly Theater, above. It’s a somewhat belated assessment, given the fact that the theater up-rising has run parallel to the art-museum and concert-hall building booms, and those have garnered a great deal of attention before this. Our major new stages have actually been going up since 2000.
But this is a hinterland phenomenon being evaluated by the Times, so we have to bear a degree of condescension. After citing “dozens of construction projects whose combined tab is approaching $1 billion,” Mr. Green quips about the size of the donors’ names on the marquee in Philadelphia (as if Manhattan did not enjoy the American Airlines Theater and, my personal favorite, the Snapple Theater). He sneers lightly at the resemblance of the theater’s new, comfortable amenities to those of a suburban bookstore (one prefers the classic, cramped seating in Broadway houses, not to mention their bladder-bursting restroom accommodations). And after quoting Philly dignitaries about how “arts and culture are at the heart of what makes a city work,” Mr. Green marvels drily, “They might have been dedicating a shiny new stadium or water-treatment plant.”
Oh, those rubes.
One can take Mr. Green’s last crack two ways. First, it says that arts and culture are not that vital to making a real city “work.” I disagree, but in any event, does he mean that a stadium is vital? Or second, his crack implies that these hicks get so excited, they celebrate a new theater the same way they go ga-ga for good plumbing.
I don’t know of any major city that has inaugurated a new water-treatment plant with the shutting down of the town’s central thoroughfare and the attendance of the mayor, governor and U. S. senator. But perhaps Mr. Green is more familiar with the celebrations of American sewage processing than I am. As for a city boosterishly falling over itself to greet a new stadium, let us recall the millions spent on (and the national media coverage devoted to ) just the arguments about Manhattan’s now-defunct West Side Stadium. One can’t even imagine the televisual onslaught New York would have inflicted on the rest of the country if the bloody thing had ever been built.
Once past the attitude, however, Mr. Green’s story is actually very good, highly recommended. It’s a thoughtful evaluation of both the promise and the serious dilemmas buildings such as the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts present their cultural group-tenants: Who are these buildings for? And do they fulfill the resident theaters’ mission or do they abandon it? Do they support artists, expand their reach to new audiences, risk new, more daring works — or do they just increase the need to suck up to donors when the fat new electric bill comes due?