Money (or is it art?) makes the world go round
Tonight and Saturday at 7:30, and Sunday at 2, with additional performances Oct. 10-12
Thunder River Theatre, Carbondale
“Something Intangible,” a 2009 play by Bruce Graham currently being presented by the Thunder River Theatre Company in Carbondale, is pitched as a story about the conflict between art and commerce. But Lon Winston, the Thunder River Theatre artistic director who is also the director of the Carbondale production, notes that the play has other layers to it. A thinly veiled take on the story of Walt Disney and his brother Roy, “Something Intangible” also portrays devotion between siblings. The entire action unfolds as an exchange between Dale, the Roy Disney character, and his therapist, giving the play a distinctive stylistic edge. The therapy angle also provides plenty of opportunity for humor; the play is set in the 1940s, near the time that psychotherapy was on the rise, and was considered something of a fad.
It’s a good thing that Winston, as director, has multiple angles to pursue. If “Something Intangible” had been limited to the issue of creativity versus business, Thunder River’s production might have had a blunt, one-sided tone to it. In the debate between art and commerce, it is evident where Winston, who founded Thunder River nearly 20 years ago, has his sympathies.
“I’m definitely of the ilk — you’ve got to be true to your art,” said Winston, who over the years has loaded the company’s calendar with productions of Chekhov, Albee, Arthur Miller and the like. (This season, which kicks off with “Something Intangible,” features Miller’s “All My Sons,” and “American Buffalo” by David Mamet, another playwright frequently produced by Thunder River.) “As the artistic director, I’ve got to find balance in both the art and the commerce. But I don’t pick a season to make money. It’s part of the obligation in maintaining art — you have to be honest, true to yourself. You have to do the art. And you trust it will be so touching, so moving, that people will come.”
In “Something Intangible,” the Walt Disney character is represented by Tony Wiston (and played by David Pulliam), a brilliant animator who wants to bring animated films to a new level of artistry and ambition. Roy Disney is represented by Dale Wiston (Chris Wheatley), an accountant who for business reasons is hesitant to mess with a model — animated short films — that has been successful. But Winston notes that, in real life, Walt Disney, as creatively motivated as he was, aimed to find his own balance between art and commerce.
“Walt had that vision that he could make money on things like Disneyland, and it was not the films that had to make money,” Winston said. “It’s like me saying, I’m going to do one play and you hope that play will make money to pay for ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night.’
“Oddly, we did ‘Long Day’s Journey’ and sold out every night. It’s all a crap shoot. It really is.”
“Something Intangible” is no “Long Day’s Journey,” Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical drama of a cripplingly dysfunctional family. “Something Intangible” — the third play Thunder River has produced by Bruce Graham, Winston’s former student — is pitched as a lighthearted story.
“It’s humorous. It’s brimming with humanity,” Winston said. “The relationship between the brothers is intense but loving. Underlying the theme of art and commerce is two polar opposite brothers who love each other and would do anything for each other.”
What Tony wants to do is create an animated, color feature film, “Glorioso.” (The episode is based on the landmark Disney film “Fantasia.”) And he wants Dale to sell the project to the dollar-counters.
“He’s crazy. He’s like any genius. He’s animated like the films,” Winston said of Tony and Walt. “And Roy is a numbers guy — he likes neat columns that add up. And yet he goes out of his way to sell Walt’s ideas to the producers. He knows Walt is a genius. He gets stuck between a rock and a hard place, because he’s a numbers guy.”
In the play, “Glorioso” becomes not only a masterpiece but a financial success — perhaps sending the message that if you follow your art purely, the money will follow.
Winston says he understands theater organizations that embrace business-minded choices. He alluded to Aspen Community Theatre, which each year puts on a musical, and that next month is doing the smash hit “The Producers.”
“You can do ‘The Producers’ and pack the house. That satisfies the yen that people have to see big splashy musicals,” he said. “It’s just not where I choose to spend my aesthetic energy. I want to examine the pantheon of great world drama.”
Winston seeks to at least draw the lines between what makes great art and what makes loads of money.
“’Citizen Kane’ — you could hardly sell a ticket,” he noted of the critically celebrated Orson Welles film. “The Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello pack the theater. Does that mean Abbott & Costello and the Marx Brothers are geniuses?”
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