New v. Classic

I was in the midst of graduating college when the New Coke marketing disaster happened. I had other things on my mind so wasn’t really paying attention. The high-profile roll-out has become an object lesson for how NOT to enhance a major brand and the near-immediate reversal has been touted as how to make lemonade out of lemons, in the billion-dollar retail sense.

This weekend had an interesting dichotomy in the local theater world as the high-profile world premiere RIVER DITTY opened at Virginia Rep while Richmond Triangle Player rolled out the classic drama THE NORMAL HEART. The seminal Larry Kramer AIDS play debuted in 1985, the same year New Coke hit stores. That’s about where the parallel ends.

But it did get me thinking about new theater versus classic. Nathaniel Shaw made a compelling case for new work on our podcast this week, his three main points being that 1) developing new work is a way for theater artists to add to the canon as part of giving back to the art form that they’ve benefited from; 2) Virginia Rep in particular wants to be a leading regional theater and the development of new work is a key part of reaching that stature; and 3) putting together a show that becomes enough of a hit that it moves to other places is a way to generate income -- sometimes substantial income -- for a regional theater.

One aspect that he didn’t list specifically but referred to throughout the interview was that theater requires new work to address contemporary issues. Even a show set in the past like RIVER DITTY is written with implicit commentary on the world today. For theater to remain relevant, it needs to be continuously refreshed.

But does that mean that “classic” theater should be shelved? Does something like THE NORMAL HEART remain relevant today when the fabric of the AIDS epidemic has changed so dramatically?

Well, a survey just came out that said a diminishing percentage of Americans know what Auschwitz was and that knowledge about the Holocaust is fading. That alone would be enough to argue for the restaging of works like Kramer’s play.

And, as director Josh Chenard made manifest in Firehouse’s restaging of DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, to the extent that a classic show can reveal intense, riveting, sometimes disturbing aspects of the human condition, it can be continuously relevant with the appropriate guidance.

Sometimes, though, you need a new work to really dig into the meat of what’s happening in today’s world. For that, you might want to check out ONE IN FOUR, the Nu Puppis production playing through next weekend here at Firehouse. It may not grapple with deep issues with the same intensity as RIVER DITTY...okay, maybe there isn’t much issue-grappling at all going on in ONE IN FOUR. But it has some fun and nutty comic antics and a youthful and audaciously tongue in cheek idea involving theatre for life in outer space.

It’s also written by a local playwright and VCU grad (Levi Meerovich) and Nu Puppis has already shown that they’ll take theater in unexpected directions. Which is another important reason to produce new work -- to take audiences places they’ve never been before.

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