Actor Jim Dale, the British-born Manhattan resident who narrates the "Harry Potter" audio books, welcomed an audience Monday to the St. George's Society monthly Arts Initiative, where a panel discussed the ups and downs of investing in theater.
St. George's Society Arts Initiative chair Margot Astrachan moderated the panel, which consisted of Ted Snowdon, producer of "Souvenir," a play about the life of Florence Foster Jenkins that begins previews at the Lyceum Theater on October 28; Victor Lownes, whose investment in "Stomp" has repaid him 60 times over, and David McCoy, chairman of the board of the York Theatre Company and investor in "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life," which is opening on Broadway.
Seen in the audience were Ken Starrett, who leads the American branch of the Noel Coward Society; and Sarah Murdoch, who is active in the Daughters of the British Empire and will be attending an October 14 reception held by the King Edward VII chapter.
Mr. Lownes opened by saying that "if you pick your targets well," investing in theater can be "safer than Wall Street." He said he often favors productions in which "people who can't even speak the language can enjoy" the show. He added that a speaker of Japanese could enjoy the show "Stomp," for example. This helps a show travel to different countries. "For 12 years it's been churning along," he said.
How did he come to invest in "Stomp"? The playwright Jerry Sterner advised him to see it at Sadler's Wells Theater. He went to ask for a ticket and the box office said it was sold out. He then asked for the next day. "I'm sorry," he was told, "it's sold out for the rest of the run." Mr. Lownes then decided to come to a Saturday matinee and get a seat from returns of unused tickets, but he was surprised to see that the line waiting for returns went around the corner. "I called Jerry and said, 'I'll take a piece of it.' He said, 'You liked the show?' I said, 'I liked the lines.'"
"Oh, by the way," Mr. Lownes said to audience laughter, "I never did like 'Stomp' when I went to see it."
Mr. McCoy spoke next about supporting nonprofit musical theater. "We're trying to find the next Steven Sondheim," he said. He said that in the nonprofit field, the return on investment is to society as opposed to the individual investor. He said another benefit is developing an audience for musical theater. Getting younger children to go to the theater results in "getting them away from TV and the computer."
The budgets for musicals are typically larger than plays. Advertising, he said, is a very large "chunk of your budget" - with people having 900 channels on TV, Nintendo Game Boys, and DVDs delivered to their homes, there are a plethora of entertainment choices, and trying to get someone's attention is expensive.
The moderator asked Mr. McCoy how he became involved in the York Theatre. "I complained about seats," he responded. He said he had started attending shows, began subscribing, contributing, and then started complaining. When he said there should be cushions on the seats, the founder, Janet Hayes Walker, said, "That's a wonderful idea - will you do that project and would you be on the board?"
BACK TO THE FUTURE WNYC host Brian Lehrer moderated a panel on "Reflections on the Future: Politics in the 21st Century," co-sponsored by the CUNY Graduate Center and an organization called the New York Salon. Mr. Lehrer opened the program by musing on whether society's relationship to the idea of big ideas has changed. "I would guess that for those of you here tonight, the older you are, the more you grew up with a healthy respect - maybe even a sense of awe - toward people who came up with big ideas, be they Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Einstein, Beethoven, Dickens, Martin Luther, or Martin Luther King Jr. Those of you who are Gen X or younger," he said, perhaps grew up more distant from the notion of big ideas: "Maybe you saw a certain fruitlessness in 1960s idealism or reeled from the excesses of certain big ideas like Stalinism and fascism."
UCLA history professor Russell Jacoby opened with a quip by Oscar Wilde that "the problem with socialism is the meetings."
University of Kent sociology professor Frank Furedi critiqued both the left and right. Many on the right espouse the view that there is "no alternative to the market," while on the left, environmentalists, for example, claim "there is no alternative" to the eventual destruction of the planet. He chastised both left and right for having "a common vocabulary of fear."
Mr. Furedi was quick to note ironies: He said the left opposes creationism but was largely silent about Gaia theories that are "just as superstitious." He also said that President Bush, after the Katrina disaster, has sounded "like a Roosevelt Keynesian."
Sociologist Richard Sennett said the Katrina disaster showed the weakness of the state in providing security for its citizens.
Speaking about his background, Mr. Jacoby said, "In fact, in my own work, I've sort of specialized in defeat, collapse, [and] ends, which puts me in an odd position in talking about the future." He told an amusing anecdote about his best-known book, "The Last Intellectuals." At one time, its working title was "The Fall of American Intellectuals." He said his publisher told him: "Well, Americans don't like to read about 'the fall,' could we change that to - sort of - rise?"