March 28, 2015

Don't bother "saving theatre"

You've heard the gloom and doom predictions about theatre, I'm sure. They usually sound like one of these:
  • The audiences are all older people, and when they die... no one will come.  
  • Movies are killing live theatre. 
  • The internet is killing theatre. 
  • It's the prices! 
  • People just don't have long enough attention spans.
Some of the above things have some truth to them, but I want to address this idea of "saving theatre."  I think it's misguided.  Me and the internet like lists so I'll make a bunch of vaguely outlandish claims and then support them with my experience or logic.  
(First let me make a distinction between what Broadway is/should be doing vs. nearly everywhere else. Broadway is a behemoth, high cost, high risk market, and what they're doing has little to do with what I'm talking about.  Broadway is largely (but not entirely) a tourist trap where only the shows that are known commodities and which have a very wide appeal will ever be successful.  I'm not really talking about those theatres.  They are in a trap of producing the Big Macs of theatre, and they can't really do much else.  It's not their fault. Blaming them for playing it safe would be like blaming a tight-rope walker for concentrating on balance.) 
1. Theatre doesn't need saving.   
During many periods in history, theatre was the popular form of entertainment.  It no longer is. Let it go.  The dominant form of entertainment will always be 1. the most convenient and 2. the broadest and least challenging thematically.  "Ease of access" and "lacking in substance" will always be the recipe for WIDE appeal.  Examples: McDonald's, Candy Crush, YouTube videos of cats in your FB feed.  It's right there, and it takes no investment of time, money, or thinking.  Theatre used to fill some of those needs, but it is no longer the easiest to access and it's rarely vapid in content.   
Happily, theatre doesn't have to be for the masses. Because things made for the masses are dumb and often bad for the masses.  I am suspicious of any work of art that everybody likes.  It usually means it's too easy to be profound, and too socially reiterative (read: the way things are now, is the way they should be).   
The truth is, theatre has found its place on the artistic landscape.  Poetry, dance, symphony orchestras, and studio art aren't trying to produce the next Marvel superhero movie, so why is theatre looking so hard to be something everybody likes?  Not everyone will love theatre and that's ok.   
Don't get me wrong, I have a considerable evangelical zeal for the art form.  I have spent most of my adult life introducing people to theatre and trying to get them to engage as audiences or artists.  I have just learned to stop bemoaning the fact that I dedicate countless hours to the production and promotion of a play, and most people would rather just watch Netflix.   
But theatre is not going anywhere.  It may not be as popular as it has been, the market may shrink, and there are certainly drawbacks for the artform as a result.  But history has shown us again and again that humanity longs to enflesh its beliefs, big questions, and demands for justice in a communal setting.   
2. The internet and cellphones are neither the destroyers or saviors of theatre.   

It's funny to me that many theatre people forget the words of Shakespeare: "There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so."  The internet falls into this category as well.   
There are those who bemoan its impact on the brains and attention spans of audiences. These are some of the doomsayers who think that there's no way we can make theatre work in a world where people want to check their phones every ten minutes.   
Then, on the other end of the spectrum are those who want to make theatre more like the internet to appeal to the digital generation.  I've seen productions that encourage people to Tweet about the production with a hashtag during the performance and they even project the tweets on a screen throughout the show.  And of course, smart theatre promoters have been able to utilize social media. 
I don't believe that smart phones and Facebook have made us dumber.  I believe that this generation has been brought up to read, process, and synthesize at a much more rapid rate that other generations.  Some would argue that they can't just sit down and read a book well, and that's true for some.  But the kind of "reading" people are doing today is just a different kind than that of the past.  Creators of theatre can certainly take this into consideration, but I think it's a mistake to think that all theatre now needs to feel like 140 character tweets, or 2-minute cat videos.   
As a side note, I think playwrights, directors, and designers will be wrestling for sometime with staging the internet.  It's not something we need to do to stay sexy, but it is necessary because the internet is a locus of culture.  People meet, fall in love, create and destroy on the internet.  We can't ignore it.  But staging it presents an interesting challenge.  I've seen some plays do this well, including dark play or stories for boys and Water by the Spoonful.  It will be interesting to see how future plays take it on.   
3.  It's okay if your audience is nearly dead, as long as your theatre isn't

I see a lot of people bemoaning theatres doing 50-year-old musicals and Neil Simon plays in an effort to get the blue-hair crowd.  And I understand the commercial necessities of producing plays that will fill seats.  The truth is, people just don't come to shows they don't know.  I am a HUGE fan of new work, and would dedicate my work entirely to it if I could. But a theatre without an audience isn't a theatre at all.
So, it's fine to do older plays occasionally, or plays that will appeal to an older audience sometimes, but it must always be ALIVE!  I simply mean, that doing Arsenic and Old Lace exactly as it has been done for the last 60 years might please your blue hairs (and it might not), but it will kill your theatre.  
We must never lose sight of what makes theatre unique and powerful.  We must never be reduced to doing a play that would be just as successful as a movie.  This has a lot to do with how we tell the story, staging, audience arrangement, etc.  How can we make the "aliveness" of the work, the urgency of live theatre, conspicuous and meaningful?  
The best plays, the ones I want to see and direct are the ones that demand to be live theatre.  I want people to walk out of performances I direct saying, "That HAD to be a live experience".  If you could video tape my play and get a pretty good idea of the experience, I have failed.  
Once audiences, new and old, come to trust the work of your company, they'll trust you enough to come see a newer or lesser-known work.
So, do "A Christmas Carol" if you must, but figure out how to make it something special for the people who decided to see your version. Or next Christmas you can bet they'll just watch it on Netflix.  
4.  Let there be theatre on Earth, and let it begin with me.   

For as many conversations as I've had about "the future of theatre" on a national or international scale, exactly zero of those conversations have been with the director of the NEA, or program directors for major theatres like the Steppenwolf or the Arena Stage.  So why are we playing armchair commander, when we are foot soldiers, at best?  Our job is to make theatre, support theatre, and see theatre (oh, and probably to bring our friends). Period.   
Nothing will transform people into theatre-lovers like them giving them the chance to love theatre.   
The future patrons of theatre are in middle schools, high schools, and universities right now.  And I'm not talking about those kids that are destined for the stage.  I'm talking about the DABBLERS!  Dabblers are the future.  I know lots of theatre educators and what I hope they are doing for the majority of kids is giving them the love of theatre. That's it.  Be infectious with your love of the thing.  People will go see a play as adults if they were in that show in middle school, or they read it in high school and loved it.  I know far too many theatre teachers who think they need to be tyrants in order to get hard work and good productions out of their unskilled casts.  I'd rather high schoolers do terrible productions and love theatre, then do great shows but be resentful about their treatment during rehearsals.  
So we need to teach people how awesome this thing is.  Here are a few tips on theatre evangelism:
  • One-on-one outreach works the best. Invite along a friend to a show, especially someone who doesn't consider themselves "a theatre person".  Guilt your friends and family into seeing the shows you are in.  
  • Kids get and enjoy more theatre than you think. Bring them to grown up plays, not just children's theatre.  Most people who love plays were exposed to them early on.
  • Be mindful of "Gateway" theatre.  Don't bring a staunch conservative to a showing of Hair. Don't bring a first time theatre person to a high minded, avant-garde work about suicide.  DO bring people to improv shows to get them exposed to live performance, then follow it up with a scripted comedy.  Then they might be ready for something heavier.  DO start people off with a very fun stuff, or straight-forward stories. Remember for most non-Theatre people STORY matters the absolute most.  If you have become fond of unresolved endings or non-linear plays, you might want to leave your "beginners" at home for those.  
  • Get involved in bad stuff.  No one was a brilliant playwright, director, or actor in their first production. We get better by doing it more, but if beginners keep having doors shut in their face, or being judged as poor quality, they will leave the artform defeated.  So help the local community theatre, give the aspiring playwright feedback on his script. And remember that you sucked once too.  
I'm certain there will be people who disagree with me on a lot of this.  And that's okay.  I have been fighting the fight for theatre for a long time, and these lessons are earned through some success and a lot of failure.  But there's a lot of wild speculation in there as well. Feel free to take me to task on those.  :)  


Terri Measel Adams said...

Nicely said (or written), Dan. How the heck are you?

DAN BUCK said...

Doing well Terri, thanks!