Monday, April 26, 2010

Deadly Assumptions: A Response to "Why Theatre Matters" (part three)

This is part three of my response to Steven Leigh Morris' LA Weekly cover story, "Why Theatre Matters."  Part one may be found here and part two may be found here.

Always listen to experts. They'll tell you what can't be done, and why. Then do it.
-- Robert A. Heinlein, storyteller
Now, to address relevance.  "So, if there's even a flicker of belief that our theater does actually matter, the next question is how to keep it relevant," writes Steven Leigh Morris, committing to paper a staggering tautology.

The theatre has relevance, therefore it must have relevance.

To be fair, there is more to that passage.  Here it is:
So, if there's even a flicker of belief that our theater does actually matter, the next question is how to keep it relevant, and inviting, financially and aesthetically, to new generations.
I'm not sure Morris has established that "our theater does actually matter."  Does the theatre have "relevance," and what does that question actually mean?

Do the game designers behind Bio-Shock fret over the relevance of console games?  Does James Cameron sit awake nights tied in knots of worry over his relevance as an artist?  Has J. J. Abrams ever surveyed a writer's room and asked, "Yes, but does the medium of television have relevance?"

This kind of navel gazing is reserved for people with too much time on their hands.  I used to worry about the relevance of theatre -- then I helped start a theatre company.  The question has changed.  It's not, "Is the theatre relevant?"  The question is, "What do we do next?"  "How do we get asses in seats?"  "What can we do with this artform that no other artform can do?"  I had a conversation with one of our company members just the other night about this, about how ridiculous it is for theatre to try to be film.  Eisenstein's theory of montage doesn't quite play.  (A dialectic approach can be taken to writing and staging theatre but it is far different -- I believe more potent -- than the mere combination of images.)

I refuse the premise.  The relevance of the theatre is a moot point when you're a week away from opening a show.  What truly matters is more sublime:
"The audience has a right to be entertained. They deserve that!"
- Tigger!, storyteller
What's missing in the analysis -- or rather, what Morris glances upon but abandons in favor of his three point wish list* -- is the audience.

To quote the poet, "give the people what they want."  Stop assuming that the folks who fork over their hard-earned money in exchange for a couple of hours divergence are simpletons or Philistines who gravitate to fast food culture over "ART" (pronounced with a soft "r," naturally) for any other reason than a desire for a predictible outcome.  The $15 bucks we charge for our Main Stage shows at Theatre Unleashed might be better spent at the movies or top deck tickets to a Dodgers game.  Our challenge is to reverse that equation:  The money spent on Avatar or the latest Grand Theft Auto sequel might be better spent on an evening at the theatre!

We speak of trust in the theatre all the time:  The Actors must trust the Director.  The Lighting Designer must trust the Set Designer.  All must trust the Playwright.  But, goddammit, the audiences MUST be able to trust the theatre.  Why do people stay away?  They're tired of being disappointed.

The audience wants their expectations fulfilled.  They want to know what they're getting into.  They want to know they are not about to waste time and money on a piece of self-reflective garbage or trite socio-political commentary.  They want Something Worth Seeing.

You could argue that the producer/curators and curated festivals Morris pines for would stimulate the production of such plays.  But what Morris describes is still not audience-centric.  It's not even artist-centric.  It's "expert-centric."  Give me a company fast on its feet and able to adjust to an audience feedback loop over a curator with an eye for "what works."  Of course, such a company would have to pay attention to the dreaded SocNets.  Indeed, such a company would have to submit to the SocNets as a vital communication line to their audience.

In sum, it's the audience.  We need to get out of the mindset of doing plays "for" and audience, and start telling stories "with" an audience.
When you come into the theatre, you have to be willing to say, "We're all here to undergo a communion, to find out what the hell is going on in this world." If you're not willing to say that, what you get is entertainment instead of art, and poor entertainment at that.
-- David Mamet, storyteller
Until we get back to connecting with our fellows in the immediate, visceral way that truly Rough theatre allows -- burlesque, magic, stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, etc. -- we will find ourselves trodding the boards and soliloquizing for fewer and fewer people.  Theatre was born before audiences drunk and rowdy, cheering and jeering along.  You can't curate that experience; you have to live it.

* Producer/curators, more festivals, and ... an L.A. Theatre Chamber of Commerce.  As to the last point, it exists and is called LA Stage Alliance.  They are in the process of revolutionalizing the way theatres interact with their patrons, and LA Weekly is completely missing the boat.  Where's the cover story on PatronManager, Steven?

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