Sunday, August 19, 2007

Are You Relevant?

Maybe I’m getting older but if I hear another theatre person say “theatre is dead” one more time, I’m going to slap them upside the head.

I’m not prone to violence, but ignorant comments deserve punishment. It’s bad enough when people outside of our profession try to claim this as truth, but we don’t need it from within our own ranks.

Usually they’re not referring to theatre as an art form or the theatrical community in any sense outside their own microcosm. What these theatre folks really mean is: “I can’t get people to see my shows; therefore theatre must be dying”. They think it has something to do with the audience and nothing to do with

a) the quality of the shows or
b) the relevance of the shows or
c) both.

While new entertainment mediums may jab at theatre, they will never deliver any smashing blow. Theatre is ancient, but not obsolete. It’s always present, always immediate and always reactionary. Theatre has caused riots in the streets and contains power for true social change (look at Ibsen, Brecht or Boal if you doubt it).

Here are the facts about theatre in this country: There are over 1,400 professional and semi-professional non-profit theatres, not counting community theatres (By contrast, in 1961, we only had 16 non-profit theatre companies) employing more than 100,000 people (actors, directors, playwrights, stage managers, et al) and in 2005, over 32 million people saw their shows.

That’s just this country—there’s a whole world doing theatre.

Although theatre isn’t dead, one could say it’s looking a little malnourished, mainly because we’re losing that which feeds it: the audience. Theatres across the country are finding new challenges in audience-building. People are going out less and becoming choosier about their entertainment. Why should they spend gas money and fifteen bucks to see some unknown in a low-budget play when they can stay home and be entertained by the Hugh Grant movie which came from Netflix?

The real question is not “is theatre dead?” but “IS THEATRE RELEVANT?”

Is it relevant to do a production of a play because you once did a scene from it? Or a director who says, “Well, I’ve always wanted to do Hamlet, so let’s do that next” without considering a few questions like; what’s your point of view? Too often, we don’t consider the political and social sphere when considering our choices of material. Why this play now? For who? What do you want the audience to get out of it?

Theatre has become insular and we aren’t bothered enough by the fact that other people aren’t interested. Our job is to make them interested. Many theatre companies struggle to find a new audience because they keep seeing the same faces in their seats (family, friends, colleagues from past shows). As artists, our first audience must be ourselves. We must tell stories that ignite our own passions. But we must take the next step and communicate to an audience. Theatre cannot be only about us and our circle of friends. This requires thought because we need to know who our audience is and we must have something to communicate.

We can’t throw a big blanket over the word “audience” so that it’s defined as “anyone who will please pay fifteen bucks to see my show.” We must be specific. Is it the neighboring community? Your Aunt Myrtle? Hip twenty-somethings? If you want to reach all of those people, then why and how would you do that?

Once you’ve figured out your audience, then ask: is what you’re doing worth it?

It’s not a defeatist question.

I’m not saying theatre should throw in the towel. On the contrary, I’m saying that theatre is worth too much. It’s worth too much of an audience’s time to sit in a darkened room for two hours and patiently wait for you to figure out who you’re talking to and what you’re saying about the world. Audiences want to be entertained but above all else they want substance, where they can say, “Yes, life is like that—that’s so true”. People used to call theatre cathartic. Now we view it as medicine that must be taken, because its “culture.” And like all medicines, it may be good for you but it feels pretty gross going down.

The same theatres complaining that their audiences “just don’t get us” are the same companies blindly sending form letters for money to support their mediocre work. It’s time to take responsibility for what you’re putting up on your stages. Stop blaming the audience and reexamine the quality and relevancy of your own work. Quality is not about only having nice sets and pretty costumes or even professional directing and acting (although that’s always nice). I’ve seen many professional productions with top-quality actors and tight directing that nearly put me to sleep. They all made good choices in the work, but no one made any daring choices. No one took risks. Joseph Chaikin said we should always be working outside of our comfort zone, but very few of us actually push ourselves to do this. We need theatre that is unforgettable, that grabs the audience and shakes them up. I’ve seen a lot of shows and few truly shattering moments come to mind. Unlike a movie, the only real record of a theatrical performance is in the mind of the audience and if they forget it by next week, then it’s gone forever.

People argue that no one puts money into a theatre that takes risks. Mainstream theatre has become corporate and they only want reliable hits from Broadway. But mainstream theatre has always been more concerned with the bottom line than any artistic statement. This is why it’s called mainstream. The Disneyfication of Times Square is just the inevitable evolution of a direction begun since Broadway first existed.

It’s not enough to say “I want to do good theatre”. Of course you do. No one wakes up in the morning saying, “I want to put up a crappy show.” Quality and relevance should be the standard. There are many theatres competing for funding, so why should anyone give to yours? It’s not enough to say we must fund the arts—of course we must and people do. But how are you different than the hundred other fringe companies? How are you taking risks? How are you pushing yourself and audience out of any comfort zones? Every time you choose to do your work—write a play, choose a season, direct a reading—think about whether what your doing is worth it.

Doesn't the audience deserve something relevant?

When theatre embraces the power of everything that it can and should be, then we won’t have to moan about the lack of audience. People will support theatre when we give them something they cannot get from the multiplex or YouTube.
If this sounds difficult…guess what? Making theatre is hard. Get over it.

And stop saying “theatre is dead.”

It’s getting old, already.

No comments: