The theater industry has its fair share of geniuses running around, with helmer David Cromer the latest legiter to score a MacArthur Foundation genius grant for stage work.
Other winners of this year’s grants include “The Wire” and “Treme” creator David Simon and fiction writer Yiyun Li.
A number of previous winners have gone on to have significant success. But while the kudo reps an undeniable boon to an artist’s profile, it’s not necessarily a bellwether of major commercial endeavors.
That’s because the foundation is just as likely to honor an experimental creative working on the fringes of the legit world as it is to recognize a budding commercial powerhouse.
The list of past theater winners includes Jerzy Grotowski, Richard Foreman, Elizabeth LeCompte, Lee Breuer, Ellen Stewart — all hugely influential figures, but far more so on the theater produced downtown as opposed to midtown. (More recently, winners have included scribes Sarah Ruhl and Lynn Nottage, whose 2007 grant preceded her Pulitzer win for Off Broadway hit “Ruined.”)
Cromer, the director of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and Off Broadway longrunner “Our Town,” stands out as one of the legit creatives whose work has proven more accessible to auds. He’s already lined up to direct Nicole Kidman’s return to Broadway next fall in “Sweet Bird of Youth” and the upcoming Main Stem transfer of tuner “Yank!,” as well as another project expected to come together.
Cromer said he was thrilled by both the compliment of the award and the financial security the prize’s $500,000 check (to be paid over five years) will bring. But he had no illusions about the benefits of the increased profile. “Now the scrutiny will be very aggressive,” he said. “And one has less underdog status.”
In the case of director Julie Taymor, currently in rehearsal for megamusical “Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark,” it’s natural to assume that winning the grant in 1991 helped her land the job as helmer of the Disney Theatrical smash “The Lion King,” for which she won a 1998 Tony. But according to the Disney camp, producer Thomas Schumacher knew Taymor from her work in an Olympics opening ceremony rather than from the MacArthur.
Still, while the grant may not directly lead to a gig for legiters, it obviously brings a significant boost in reputation that can come in handy. As one theater agent points out, it doesn’t hurt to have official documentation of a client’s genius.
The half-mil prize that comes with the award is one of the heftiest available for legiters, and recipients are always quick to mention the newfound financial security it provides. That, ultimately, reps another reason a MacArthur win doesn’t necessarily lead the way to box office-busting hits: The newfound fiscal stability can encourage recipients to steer away from commercially driven projects.
That holds true for Ruhl, whose Tony-nommed Broadway outing “In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play” was written following her 2006 MacArthur win. “It continues to make a huge difference in allowing me to work only on projects that aesthetically interest me, and not make decisions based on commerce,” she said.