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Backstage Onstage

Why the recent boom in theatre about theatre?

Patrick Stewart has portrayed a spaceship captain, a mutant, Scrooge, and Macbeth, but the character he’s performing this season on Broadway is a combination of all those roles and the many more he’s tackled during his fifty-year career: He’s playing an actor.

Stewart stars opposite T.R. Knight in the first Broadway production of David Mamet’s 1977 play A Life in The Theatre, which follows two actors in a repertory company as they perform onstage and chat backstage. It opens October 12th at the Gerald Schoenfeld, right across the street from the Music Box, where David Hirson’s 1991 play La Bête will open two days later, another revival on Broadway this season in which the actors are playing actors.

“I’ve always loved A Life In The Theatre: It’s a celebration of the theatre and a behind-the-scenes look at what it means to be an actor,” says the production’s director, Neil Pepe. “And it’s a great time to revive it.”

Apparently, many people see this as the right time to produce theatre about theatre. Last season saw Manhattan Theatre Company’s A Royal Family, a 1927 play that follows the fortunes of an acting dynasty, and the Mint Theater’s unearthing of a never-produced 1929 backstage comedy, So Help Me God. Then there was The Grand Manner, A.R. Gurney’s new play about his teenage meeting with the great stage actress Katharine Cornell, as well as a new play by Jonathan Tolins, Secrets of the Trade, about another teenager meeting his theatrical idol. Just a few weeks ago, audiences had the chance to see a drama about the Booth acting family on Theatre Row and some dozen “backstage” shows at the New York International Fringe Festival.

Is all this a coincidence, or is there something in the air?

Neither, argues Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theatre Wing. “If you consider A Chorus Line and Phantom of the Opera, those two alone mean that since 1976, there has always been at least one show on Broadway that’s theatre about theatre,” he says. “It’s nothing new.”

Neil Pepe sees it differently. True, he says, “people have always been intrigued with behind-the-scenes stories of stage or film actors.” But he senses a heightened interest of late that he attributes largely to the economy. “As in the 1930s, it seems that more people are hungry for live theatre, live storytelling. In difficult times, people gravitate towards the theatre. At the same time, I think a lot of people are worried about the fate of the theatre.”

There may also be some wistfulness in these peeks backstage. Although Mamet’s comedy is only three decades old, in many ways it presents a bygone era.

“There are few repertory companies any more,” Pepe says, “T.R. Knight was involved in one of the last remaining companies, the Guthrie in Minnesota.” At this, Pepe puts his smart phone on the table: “And actors wouldn’t use pay phones today,” as they do in Mamet’s play. “Computers, too, have changed the way theatre operates, albeit not its essential nature. My sense is people are realizing the value of theatre and are interested in what makes it work. People are amazed that actors live this kind of life.”

There is little surface similarity between A Life in the Theatre and La Bête, which is set in seventeenth century France, written in rhyming couplets, and follows the conflict between a street clown and the head of a serious theatrical troupe. However, both are revivals of plays about actors that were written by playwrights near the beginning of their careers—Mamet was 30 when he wrote A Life in the Theatre, David Hirson was 33 when he delivered La Bête, his first produced play.

“I never think of La Bête as being steeped in the world of theatre, but of course it is,” Hirson says via e-mail. “I grew up in a household where actors were not an uncommon sight (my mother is one!), so it’s a milieu that came quite naturally to me.”

He more readily recalls the music he listened to at the time he was writing the play rather than any specific dramatic inspiration. “Writing a verse play is as much a musical experience as a theatrical one. A profound love of theatre, however, was undoubtedly the prime mover of La Bête.

That is surely a major reason why backstage theatrics appeal to playwrights, performers and playgoers alike. To them, as Patrick Stewart recently told a room full of bloggers, “live theatre matters.”

Jonathan Mandell covers New York theatre for The Faster Times and is on Twitter as New York Theater

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