What's going to happen to the Durango Arts Center? Will we ever see melodrama again in this town? Will the college ever stage another summer of Shakespeare? What's happened to the famous risk-taking Durango Rep? How will the Henry Strater Theatre fair in its new direction? Will Durango Lively Arts continue to search for viable family shows? Will the new youth collaborative, Imaginary Friends, succeed? How long can we expect the creative team at Durango High School to blaze ahead on its breathtaking path?The answer to all of the above is: Who knows? But, believe me, every American community that values its cultural life is asking the same kinds of questions.
I just returned from my annual American Theatre Critics Association conference. Twice a year, I travel to meet my ATCA colleagues, my tribe. We revel in or commiserate about the health of American theater and the art of criticism. Every year, we see what's happening in New York and what's cooking in theaters around the country. Last year, we went to Washington, D.C., to see its revitalized Shakespearean company and the famous Olney and Arena theaters. This year we traveled to Sarasota, Fla. For a medium-sized town of 90,000 edging the white sands of the Gulf of Mexico, Sarasota has earned its nickname as "culture beach."
A week anywhere with 50 drama critics sounds like a horror movie to most people. Imagine what it was like for actors learning that a bunch of snarly critics filled the best seats in the house?
Well, I hate to disabuse you, but a critics' conference is great fun. We got to see seven plays, including new works by Jeffrey Hatcher, Frank Higgins and David Harrower, and classics such as Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple" and an innovative interpretation of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," in which Bohemia turned out to be '60s-style American bohemian, big hair, dyed shirts, et al. We also explored backstages and participated in talk-back sessions with actors and directors. We heard community arts leaders discuss Sarasota's deep and colorful past, its tangled present and murky future. We met patrons who made their fortunes in real estate and passionately serve on boards to ensure the proceeds enhance a lively cultural scene. You can learn a lot in one week about a community's values.
Sarasota has a history of creating and caring for cultural institutions. In the early part of the 20th century, John Ringling decided his lucrative circus company should winter in Florida. Then, he, his wife and their many friends made Sarasota an oasis for the arts by building a spectacular museum and funding other projects. They established a tradition of arts philanthropy that continues to this day. The Asolo Repertory Theater, with its key connection to Florida State University, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Other theaters are proudly marking long life spans.
That doesn't mean anyone is immune from current economic troubles. Every Florida arts organization has suffered. Some may fold.
While we were there, the Florida Legislature bluntly abolished the State Arts Council. State support for the arts has disappeared to the tune of $38 million. Now every arts organization must trim programs, let staff go and allow positions to remain unfilled. Some theaters may drop one show from a subscription season; many continue to choose plays with small casts.
We learned, however, that ticket buyers won't be penalized with higher prices. Across the board, we heard pledges to retain a policy of affordable prices. And by that, theaters meant a base ticket price not far above the cost of a movie.
How does this reflect on Durango and its current turmoil? Every cultural institution, from the well-organized and focused Music in the Mountains to the current disarray at DAC, needs a clear vision, strong leadership, imaginative programming and a patron base. Each one needs to understand how to keep old and reach new audiences. Each one needs a circle of passionate supporters and active participants. We're all in this together, and we're responsible for the cultural life of our community.
When I got back from Sarasota, I ran into a local actor at the post office. He wondered why the fractured Durango theater community cannot transcend its little turf wars and begin by simply attending each other's performances: "Why don't we just do that?"
Some do, I told him. I see high school students from Mona Wood-Patterson's program at any number of town-or-gown productions. They love theater. Showing up is the best way to demonstrate "support." Showing up is the first building block of a cultural climate. Volunteering is another. Donating to your favorite arts institution is another.
Right now, however, you can buy a ticket or just walk in a door.
Jud_reyn@yahoo.comJudith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.