Monday, May 15, 2006

On Maple Syrup and Vital Traditions

Pamela's last post brought to mind something I read in Spike Lee's Gotta Have It, the journal and production notes for Lee's breakthrough film She's Gotta Have It. Here's Spike Lee:

"The majority of people can't spend forty dollars for a play, even the small plays. The Negro Ensemble Company is twenty-five dollars. That's five movies right there. The theater's not really acccessible and the shit that's accessible no one wants to see. The walk-on-the-stage-and-act-like-a-tree-shit. That's what white people call art."

This book was published back in 1987, when movies cost $5. And to their credit, the NEC is very accessible nowadays at $15 a ticket (what we charged for Torrid Affaire). However, I think it sums up the general attitude toward theatre rather succinctly. "I'd rather see a bad movie than a good play" as they say.

There is some truth to this cliche (otherwise it wouldn't have become a cliche), and Spike is absolutely right, overall. Tickets for the recently concluded run of Oscar Wilde's Salome, starring Al Pacino ran from $68 - $93! Yikes! I can rent Pacino AND Keanu Reeves for a couple of bucks down at Blockbuster! I can see Al on the big screen later this year in 88 Minutes for around $10 - $14 depending on what theater I hit. And I can bring a tub of popcorn and a ginormous soda into the theater with me.

On the other side of the theatrical equation, there's . . . well, I'm not sure. Living in Los Angeles is like being daily washed over by a tsunami of promotion and marketing, and it's sometimes hard to pick out smaller groups of artists struggling to make themselves heard among the din of "Industry" brouhaha and "Paid Escort" advertisements. I am fairly certain, given the size of this fair megaoplis that somewhere someone is in a green room preparing themselves to wadle onstage in a tree costume in an economically priced production of Rock Maple, a Dramedy.

Speaking of rock maples, read this:

"In order to be vital, tradtions have to be a part of what people do, not what they used to do." (from Thomas Chittendan's Town: A Story of Williston, Vermont by Willard Sterne Randall and Nancy Nahra.)

I found this quote on a calandar at my "day job", accompanying a picture of a rugged Vermonter tending the stove in a sugarhouse. The tradition of making maple syrup out of rock maple sap originates with the Native Americans; it's a very simple process that hasn't changed much over the years. You put the sap in a pot and boil it down to it's essence. Sort of like what a director does with an actor.

The point is, it is our job to make our tradition vital. It's more than just a matter of ticket prices or famous headliners. It's about finding what makes the theatre unique, and creating an experience for audiences that they cannot find anywhere else, an experience that can, as the great Peter Brook put it in his book The Empty Space, "evoke in audiences an undeniable hunger and thirst." "Necessary theatre-going" he called it, "The Immediate Theatre."

I'm not sure how to go about doing that. People are pretty damn cynical nowadays. In fact, cynicism is up there with know-it-all-ism and road-rage as national pastimes. I know I engage in all three - sometimes simultaneously! I can imagine a truly "popular" theatre (and I mean "popular" in its sweatiest, noisiest sense), and I know there are examples of such a beast far and wide, and brilliant artists making it happen. I seek them out where I can find them, and throw as much support to them as I can. I watch, I study, I learn. And when I mount a play, hopefully I bring my audiences closer to that hunger, closer to that thirst.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go make some pancakes.

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