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The Tony Awards!

Anthony Chase at the 20th annual Artie Awards in 2010. (photo by Rose Mattrey)

It’s been a banner year for AV’s Anthony Chase, honorary chair of next week’s Curtain Up! celebration

Two thirds into 2012, the year’s identity has been entirely subsumed: Hereafter, 2012, thy name is Anthony Chase. It has been a year of honors for Artvoice’s founding theater editor: The National Conference for Just Communities named him a Leader in the Arts; Buffalo Spree named him Best Media Personality in Western New York; at Buffalo State, where he is assistant dean of humanities, he was named Outstanding Faculty Member at the Student Life Awards.

Next week he serves as honorary chair of this year’s Curtain Up! celebration, the annual kickoff to the region’s theater season, which includes a gala dinner, the opening of 15 new shows, and an after-party, all in downtown Buffalo’s vibrant Theater District.

And he’s still got four months to go.

We call Tony Artvoice’s “founding theater editor,” which fails to convey why he has been this paper’s only theater editor—and the only theater editor a newspaper could ever need. With his partner, Javier Bustillos, Tony Chase sees everything: not just local productions, and not just the big and small shows in New York and Los Angeles. They also see trial runs of shows that aspire to those big-city stages, in regional theaters across the country; they travel to see workshops and staged readings of plays of which most writers about theater are only dimly aware.

He is at once a member of this region’s theater community, one of its great champions, and its most astute and witty observer and critic, as evidenced in the columns he’s been writing for this paper for more than 20 years and his weekly radio show on WBFO, Theater Talk, with Jim Santella. He is the creator and producer of the Artie Awards, which for 22 years have elevated and celebrated regional theater.

All of us at AV prefer to leave the limelight to those on stage, wherever and whatever that stage might be. Just this once, we’ve coaxed Tony out from his seat in the audience.

AV: You and your partner, Javier Bustillos, who is the founder and director of Buffalo United Artists, travel far and wide to see shows all across the country. How many weekends do you think you’re on the road taking in plays?

Chase: Most. We’ve never done that kind of accounting. We have to be in town to see the more than 100 shows we see each year in Buffalo—we generally see everything that is Artie-eligible. We see everything that is within the city limits of Buffalo.

But it is most weekends. Nearly 300 shows a year.

AV: That’s impressive. Why do you do it?

Chase: Well, you have to, because you can’t be sure a show is going to make it to New York. A show that starts out in Oklahoma or at the Signature Theatre in Virginia, you can’t be sure it’s going to make it in. You go to Hartford, you go to Chicago, you go to Kansas City. And then you notice that there are places that become incubators. When La Jolla, California began to send a large number of product on, it became interesting.

You have to go because the theater is live. I just can’t see it on TV at some point. If I want to see Charles Busch in a fully staged production of The Lady in Question, and he’s doing it in Montauk, there are Tony and Javier and the Long Island Rail, schlepping out to Montauk. Then you become familiar with these places, and you become interested in what they do, so you go back again.

Chita Rivera will be 80 this year. That’s the same show over and over again, but she is a legend of the American theater, and she really only works in the live theater, and we will travel anywhere to see her. Which is why—I never thought I’d speak this sentence in my life—I’m going to Oklahoma City. And while we’re in Oklahoma City, we’ll try to see something else, too.

Also, we see anything that is brand new, anything with a prominent theater personality. Sometimes it’s difficult to see LGBT work. This is work that is considered fringe, but of course it is in the center of my interests and concerns, and it is frequently in hole-in-the-wall places. People in second- and third-string cities are doing what I would consider to be very important work, and so you find it, and you go and you see it.

AV: In this landscape of small and mid-sized theaters, where does Buffalo fit in?

Chase: Buffalo used to be far ahead of everybody. It’s not that we’ve fallen behind at all; we haven’t. Except that the loss of Studio Arena Theater was a humiliating defeat, because it took us out of the upper echelon of what people in New York would be interested in—other than the touring circuit, where we are number one, in some respects, because that week at Shea’s is just so lucrative for a touring show.

We used to be just behind Seattle, but what’s happened is that many cities now have grassroots-generated theater scenes. We are in many respects however, entirely unique. I have never heard of another city that has a successful Curtain Up! celebration, much less one that has run for 30 years. The cohesiveness of our theater community, meaning the practitioners—to match it you’d have to go to Chicago, which is far ahead in theater production. We are behind Philadelphia, Washington, but only because we lack the population. We’re always on the brink.

There have been two great losses to the ater community while I’ve been here. First, Studio Arena. And remember, Studio Arena did not close because it was not popular. Studio Arena, at the time it closed, had one of the most robust subscription bases of any resident regional theater in America. It closed because it was mismanaged. They could not see outside that resident regional theater model. It was frustrating to some theater people in the region who could see outisde that model—who see beyyond it all the time. In much more austere circumstances they keep theaters running. But Studio Arena’s management let it slip away by inches, and that was frustrating.

The second great loss, of course, was Ray Flynn’s. Because there was a place where every weekend people from every single theater congregated. And nothing has ever replaced it.

AV: Why not, do you think?

Chase: That was just such an alignment of the planets. I think Flynn’s started at a time when the theater community was not yet grown, and it grew up with that bar. And by the time it needed to be replaced, everyone was feeling important enough to want their own place. I think if there’s going to be another Flynn’s, it will be created by young people coming up, and not by jaded old people—meaning those of us over 30.

I also think that we should not underestimate the contribution at a critical time that Artvoice made. Because while there was growth, and this proliferation of theater companies, and there was this place where theater people were congregating, Jamie Moses comes onto the scene and comes out with a publication that reflects these arists back to themselves. That was brand new: your picture in the paper with a caption—suddenly you were a star.

AV: You have said in your column that among the strength’s of our regional theater scene is the way that companies appeal to niche interests. There is atheater-loving core that might go to BUA, and the Irish Classical, and Ujima, and Torn Space, and MusicalFare, but each company also has an audience that is particularly loyal to it.

Chase: Yes, and I’m interested in the efforts by some of the newer theaters to attract a more diverse audience. They don’t recognize that this has been tried before and has failed. The most famous example, because it was heavily documented and written about, is the Arena Stage in Washington, in the 1950s and 1960s. The Arena Stage was apopleptic because there they were in in Washington, DC, which had an African-American majority, and their audience was entirely white. They wanted to have a racially mixed audience. Well, they found that if they did an all-black production, they would attract a black audience. And then if they headlined James Earl Jones, they would attract a mixed audeince. The second they went back to regular programming, this audience did not continue. This audience did not follow with them; it would drop off immediately.

Studio Arena found that when they would do the inevitable African-American show—typically in February, just one in a season—that their subscribers would not even use their tickets. I suppose there is an element of racism in that, but it is also people saying: “This doesn’t speak to me; that’s not about me.” And we go to the theater in search of ourselves.

Diversity in an audience only begins to happen when people cease to notice their differences and begin to see themselves as belonging to a larger group. It can’t be forced. When we are no longer black Buffalonians and white Buffalonians, but just Buffalonians, audiences will be diverse. Most people do not seem to be in that place yet. It may be changing with younger audiences. Yes, when people do cross over a cultural divide to explore someone else’s culture, it is a beautiful thing. But I must say, it is also a beautiful thing to see people celebrate and contemplate their own African-American, Irish, Jewish, WASP, LGBT, Christian, women’s, Latin, Italian, Greek, immigrant, youth, senior, or whatever heritage and experience. Art is culturally specific. Being a tourist in Rome will always be a different experience from actually being Italian.

You can expect that a Jewish repertory theater is going to have an audience base that has a higher percentage who can say, “This is my culture. I am Jew. These are my people. This is a part of my story. I go here, and I take my family, and we immerse ourselves in our culture. We revisit or we contemplate what makes us who we are. Sometimes we question our failings and sometimes we celebrate our accomplishments, but in that moment we surrender a little bit of what makes me me in order to celebrate what makes us us.”

That’s what I love about Curtain Up! This is what makes us Buffalonians, that there is a night when we all come together downtown, and we feel that surge.

AV: What niches are underserved here? What sort of theater does Buffalo need?

Chase: We do not have an adequately strong Latin theater. For a city our size, I think that we should have more African-American theater. I look at all the needs of refugee populations that are being attended to—everything but their cultural needs. Who is hearing the stories of these Burmese people, these Somali people? We see them on the streets but we don;t know them. How are they going to feel like Buffalonians? What kind of connection are they making?

AV: The former Erie County executive, Chris Collins, forced a conversation about the role of arts in society, and the role of government in funding them. Was that conversation beneficial? Was it edifying?

Chase: Yes, it had a beneficial effect, in that suddenly people stepped up to the plate and said, “No, wait. This is important to me.” It also made an arts community realize that we don’t just bring a community to our audeince; we need to have some sense of solidarity amongst ourselves. Dogs may fight among themselves but they are one against a wolf—that is an Iroquois sentiment.

I think one of the most damaging things that Chris Collins did was when he chose just 10 arts organizations and he said, “These are the only worthy cultural organizations.” That invited everyone across Erie County to look and say, “Oh, well, I don’t go to any of those.” Not only are these institutions not important, Collins invited these people to say; the arts are not important.

Of course, if we examine those people’s lives, that can’t be true. The arts are important in the life of every single person. Are you telling me that none of those people listens to music? None of those people has an interest in fashion? None of those people gardens, decorates their homes, cooks?

All these people engage in symbolic human expression. Human expression people get, but the symbolic part? You look at a cave painting from 35,000 years ago: How do we know that it was painted by a human being? Well, because only human beings have that capacity. It is what makes us human. YSomeone who does not understand Abstract Expressionism can go into the Albright-Knox and look at the Jackson Pollock and say, “I just don;t get that!” And they can say, “That’s not art at all.” And I say, “Oh really? What other species can do that?” We know without question that this is a human gesture. This is an expression of humanity. This is an expression of the very essence of what it means to be human beings.

I don’t think the funding is the main point. By invalidating everybody the way he did, Collins tried to diminish the role of the arts in people’s lives. I think we have an opportunity now to say that the arts are important. Not only to human beings but to human beings here—that the theater is important to what it means to be Western New Yorkers.

Not all cultures develop theater. Athens had it, Sparta didn’t. Need I say more?

AV: Compare Curtain Up! today to the event at its birth.

Chase: Interestingly, I didn’t know I was going to Curtain Up! the first time I did. I stumbled upon the after-party. My college friend, Ian MacNeil, was visiting Buffalo, and we were going to the bars around town. At the end of the evening we took a shortcut along Main Street, which was completely torn up for the constrcution of the light rail, and there was a party going on, people in the street.

It was much smaller than Curtain Up! was to become. It was much more a handmade thing. I think that they were simply saying, “We’re still here. Downtown is not dead. The theater is still here.”

It still has that in common—it is still a public relations gesture to show that theater is vital in our region. But that was Buffalo at a critical moment. Do you remember the Fisherman’s Wharf at the corner of Main and Chippewa? In those days, the old Fisherman’s Wharf was a somewhat imposing and beautiful building, horribly decayed at that point and painted crazily. It was striped: The bottom was entirely black and the top was entirely yellow. I’m told by old Buffalonians that when downtown was bustling, there was crushed ice and oysters in the window, enticing people in for lunch.

Well, by the time of the first Curtain Up!, was a morning ritual of that bar that the cleaners would sweep up the empty wallets that pickpockets had abandoned in the alley outside. Chippewa Street was not this place where college students go to see how much they can drink; it was lonely place of porn shops and and streetwalkers. There was an element of desperation around that first Curtain Up! that is totally absent now. It is much less a railing-against-fate gesture. It is much more an unbridled celebration. We are bragging. and people feel comfortable with that posture. I think it is difficult for Buffalonians to do that. We still see our city as declining, but there are ways in which we advance. There are ways in which we are getting better.

Interestingly, about my friend and I: I never dreamed that I was spending a night in a city where I was going to live the rest of my life. And Ian never dreamed that he was going to leave Buffalo and go on to win a Tony Award and an Olivier Award. He designed a show that is touring to Shea’s this very year.

And we were both at Curtain Up!, the very first one. Neither of us knew what the future held for us.