Theatre, Relevance and Hush Puppies
The back-and-forth between PianoFight head Carl Benson and me continues, having migrated from Chloe Veltman’s lies like truth over to the PianoFight blog. And now it’s getting interesting--we’ve essentially set aside Free Night of Theater (which was how the whole thing started: I think Free Night works, Carl doesn’t, and never the twain shall meet) and have moved onto ground where we more or less agree about the problem, if not the solution.
Our discussion now (as you’ll see, if you take a look at the initial post at PianoFight and then the subsequent comments) centers around what is driving down theatre attendance--essentially, what is precluding people from considering theatre to be a good way to spend their free time. In my mind, the issue is actually a series of smaller issues on a continuum, namely:
- People don’t get exposed to theatre in formative years
- They develop methods of interacting with other media (TV, music, even visual arts, to some degree), but don’t learn the (rather complex, if you think about it) mores of being a (even passively) participatory audience member at a theatre event
- When presented with an option to attend a show, they not only feel disconnected from the need for live performance, they feel at least somewhat worried/nervous about fitting in and/or acting correctly
- This feeling, coupled with the cost of attendance and what the WolfBrown intrinsic impact study is showing to be a significant lack of social networks interested in attending live performance, keeps people out of our doors--even though there’s a good chance they’d both fit in fine and enjoy the performance once they were there
- Rinse and repeat.
“This is absurd,” you might say. “Who doesn’t know how to behave in a theatre? It’s just like watching a movie.”
But it’s not, not really. People don’t dress up (not even a little) for a movie. They don’t mill in the lobby beforehand. They don’t pay an average ticket price of $35 for a ticket (which raises expectations of what’s going to be offered). There are no people that breathe on stage, and say the words, and change things up and forget lines and sweat and spit and move about. Movies are voyeurism at much more of a remove than anything theatre has to offer.
I remember seeing a production of Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby at the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC (photo of that production at left) when I was in college. It was a school assignment, and I was there with the 15 or so students from my class and my hippie-dippie teacher. This is a space with maybe 100 seats, surrounding a thrust, and here suddenly are these two nubile, prancing, very naked 20-somethings with all the bits and pieces out on display--and here’s a man nursing on a girl’s bare breast, and yes, here’s some witty Albee-esque repartee, but who can remember that.
Of course, it’s not just nudity. Helen Mirren in The Queen was great, fantastic, all the accolades you can think of--but look at the words they’re using for her current turn as Phedre at the National in London. I can just imagine the energy, the crisp static energy that must be running through the theatre there--it’s something that is absolutely irreplicable anywhere except live on stage. And I would bet for someone who didn’t have much experience, it would be both electrifying and off-putting all at once.
More mundane differences--there’s no intermission in a movie (unless it’s Gone With the Wind, and jeez-oh was I glad about that). What’s the appropriate thing to do there? Do you sit? Do you go out and mill? Are you allowed to talk about what you’ve seen--should you judge it in progress, or are you expected to wait? When can you clap mid-show? What level of verbal reaction is appropriate, and when do you need to muffle? What if you really like something, but you’re the only one who gives it a standing ovation at the end? Is everyone just sitting there judging you? And why, oh why is everyone sitting around me so damn old? And after, what if you hated it, and everyone else is ecstatic? What if, as I’ve heard more than once, you “just didn’t get it?” Do you talk about it with your friend, or do you keep it quietly to yourself?
What is the acceptable reaction/interaction/action after, for example, seeing a man die on stage in At Home at the Zoo? What is the acceptable reaction to watching a dying woman give up and walk into the light in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-winning Wit?
Carl, in his latest comment, makes a great statement, with which I agree, but to which I must add a caveat. First the statement: “Theatre has got to take at least some of the blame for this drop in attendance, awareness and relevance. If we do not collectively take a long, hard look at our art and our business, Free Night of Theater won’t save us, it’ll just prolong the death spiral.”
I think there are theatres that are already working to address these issues--theatres, actually, like PianoFight, where, in Carl’s words, the audiences are “loud, raucous, and quite frequently (though not always) inebriated.” Not that drinking’s the way out of this particular hole, necessarily, but the sentiment is there: break all the boundaries, examine everything, and see what’s left. This, however, is the realm, mostly, of small companies, who are flexible and nimble enough to sample the latest Hot New Thing. Sure, ACT can allow drinks in the theatre, but it traffics in opulence and, somewhat, in familiarity. If you take the dress-up out of the affair, it loses something irretrievable and essentially valuable to that particular type of theatre. And even Berkeley Rep, the new-play-presenting brother company across the Bay, may do new organic work drawn from the community. They may even commission the stage version of American Idiot, complete with punk-rock craziness and the director that brought Duncan Sheik to a stage near you. But I promise you it’ll be a different (not quantifiably better or worse, necessarily, but different) experience from the inebriated experiences of PianoFight.
A study by Theatre Development Fund in New York (runner of the TKTS booth, but also a substantial research engine for arts nonprofits) recently noted that while theatre attendance is on the decline, overall audiences are actually more likely than ever to pay the exorbitant price of a Broadway ticket--once or twice a year. It’s a special event, often done at the same time every year, wrapped in amidst splurges like a nice dinner and a dress-up date. It is theatre as an event, and I think that’s fabulous. The downside, however, is that theatre as an event is special in the same way that the hush puppies I experience when I visit my parents in North Carolina are special: delicious, decadent and available for a very limited time. If I had hush puppies every day, well…you get the idea.
Where Carl wants to get to, I think, and it’s a noble place to be searching for, is a place where some portion of the theatregoing audience is going for a more, dare I say, minor experience--a little after-work way to blow off steam, less a full entrée, more an amuse bouche. There are only so many momentous events one needs in a day, a week, a year. Carl talks about how Shakespearean plays were originally done before rowdy restless groundlings.
I should also say, unequivocally, that I don’t think theatre is in a death spiral. I just think it’s changing. The rumblings in the rising generation of leaders are all about relevance, pertinence, theatre for the people. The Neo-futurists, the Civilians, the Rude Mechanicals, the (now separated) Tectonic Theatre Project (and here in SF, individuals and groups like David Szlasa, Banana Bag and Bodice, foolsFury)--we’ve had companies playing with form, function and relevance for years. And now the presenters are starting to follow--gay nights, young nights, pre-talks, post-talks, in-show texting, drinking, audience-driven narrative, Twitter plays…phew. Theatre’s not going to die, it’s just not going to be how it was. And that’s okay.