On a broken day it makes a lot of sense to curl up in front of the television with a box of tissues and watch old movies. Movie stars are fantastic. On a day that could be fixed it makes a lot more sense to take a shower and go out and see a live performance. The theatre is electric. The gleam in the eye of Jerome Stevenson as he speaks of making connections with an audience is communicated around the room and Michael Baron begins to get excited as he speaks about the stars at Lyric Theatre making that connection. Donald Jordan actually jumps up with joy telling how actors and directors make that connection. These three dedicated gentlemen are the Artistic Directors for the three Equity or ‘Professional’ Theatres in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area.
Stevenson is Artistic Director for the Pollard Theatre in Guthrie, just twenty short minutes from downtown Oklahoma City. The Pollard Theatre is just winding up 25 years in operation with a resident company living, working and entertaining in Guthrie. Baron is the Artistic Director for the Lyric Theatre, just beginning their 51st season in Oklahoma City with outstanding musical theatre using local Equity Members and talent, and bringing in other Equity Actors from all points east and west. Jordan is Artistic Director of CityRep with 10 delightful seasons of Equity Performers bringing the best and newest theatre to central Oklahoma with the heart of the heartland.
There are numerous theatre choices in central Oklahoma: University Theatre, Community Theatre and Professional Theatre. The students are learning their craft and as students often perform at a professional level. Community talent is strong in Oklahoma and consists of those talented performers who either did not choose to join Actor’s Equity or, well, Life Happened. Lyric Theatre, CityRep Theatre and the Pollard Theatre consist of actors who are paid for their services and have committed to provide the public with professional level performances consistently. That is not to say that professional level performances do not occur at the community or college level because that certainly happens. However, these three professional theatres always do so.
Having worked as a critic for several years here in Oklahoma City and Guthrie it is easy to see that professionalism has been without exception the rule. It is the job of the critic to let readers know whether or not a show is one they should see and, at the professional level, there has not ever been a show that shouldn’t be seen because it wasn’t good enough. There are occasions where a show might not be appropriate for sensitive or youthful audiences. Everything a review is about is a combination of nit-picking and constructive criticism. No one can claim to like every play ever written and performed. Every performance in Oklahoma City mounted by these theatres is an acclaimed piece of writing. If that writing is directed towards a mature audience that needs to be noted, but that is not a criticism. The review is invariably about the production and should be limited to criticism on that level. There are a few delightful occasions when we get an original script, and that review may include script criticism with the understanding that, here, we are drama critics, not literary critics.
With the apologia for this perspective out of the way, let us consider the goals of these three artists. Watching them connect with each other the way Stevenson talks about connecting with the audience is just as magical as the performance. Baron is ecstatic as he discusses the recent performance of Chita Rivera in “Chita Rivera My Broadway” an evening of love. The love that Rivera has for her craft and the love and respect she has for her audience as she labors to extend this feeling out in radiating and pulsating sound. Baron admires Rivera because he shares her commitment. And he has a troupe of performers and technicians helping him share that commitment with each audience. Jordan mentions several of his guest artists as well as several Oklahoma regulars. Their commitment is to entertain, educate, illuminate and inspire the audience. This commitment is not on a shallow or surface level. It is, rather, on an organic and basic level. These productions are meant to confirm, change and enable an audience to a greater understanding of life itself. These productions must be chosen with that in mind, because that is invariably what happens. As Stevenson describes the connection that occurs between the audience and the cast in a show, one can see something happening on a personal level. This connection just doesn’t happen with a box and a screen as wonderful as they are.
Jordan noted one of his favorite quotes from Thornton Wilder: “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being”. There is nothing more beautiful, inspiring and thought provoking than the naked emotion that is genuinely communicated between people and lovers. When it comes across the footlights the emotion is often more realized than coming across the candle lights.
So what value do these organizations have for the community at large? Education, Entertainment and Economy. Jordan directs me to a National Endowment for the Arts Study which shows that every dollar spent on live entertainment generates $11.00 in local income. That’s a pretty important contribution too!
These theatres have made these commitments and, obviously, they have been excellent stewards of public funds as well as public trust. They have provided diversity here in Oklahoma that is an outstanding asset and just like the excellence in other artistic areas; sports and nature have fostered an attractive business climate for job creating. That’s adds a little something to the pot doesn’t it? And out of the pot?—about $25.00 a pop as a comfortable average.
Clearly Oklahoma has a strong foundation in talent. Witness the number of successful community theatre organizations and University organizations. Oklahoma City University, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Central Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University all have excellent programs which nurture that innate talent that arises out of the prairie. Central Oklahoma can support three professional theatres because there is so much heart in the heartland. And that leads us back to the connective tissue Stevenson discusses: It is the audience that is the force behind the phenomenon of Oklahoma talent.
Yes – it is you.