Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Getting people to look at something they don't care about: Theatre

You have a magazine in front of you.

A magazine that you can only go through in the sequence some editor you don't know has laid it out in. And while you can't skip ahead and you can't go back - you can page through it as fast you want - or as slowly as you need to.

What's more, you don't really remember how the magazine started or when the magazine will end.

You only know that you are moving through the pages and each page - love it, hate it, feel excited by it, be bored by it - is its own experience.

That's right, the magazine is your life. And inside it are all the things you will ever know or feel. And it's up to you what you're going to pay attention to. The articles, the pictures, the cartoons.

But of course, knowing that life is short and that your magazine may end at any moment, there are some things you're not sure you ever want to look at.

Namely, the ads.

Yes, those pesky ads that are always trying to get your money with promises of everything from good real estate to stopping that bald spot to finding bliss in a bottle of gin.

And if it's not enough that they suggest you can have impossible things, they've been placed there by people you've never met right smack in the middle of articles you really care about.

Articles on things like, finding your soulmate, building a home, having children, enjoying friends, getting over the loss or death of loved ones - you know, articles that you're pretty sure you bought the magazine for in the first place.

Now, at first you might have paid attention to some of these "ads". In fact, you might've thought they were part of those articles. But they weren't. And when you learned they weren't, well, you decided not to read them.

At all.

Occasionally, however, you find yourself chugging through your magazine and you find yourself stunned by a page that's a little out of the ordinary.

A little angry or warm or loud.


But it stops you and there you are, reading an ad.

Why? Because it's visually arresting in a specific way. A way that throws the rest of the page into relief. A way that has an internal logic that makes you actually want to read it because that logic actually connects with something inside you that maybe you weren't even aware was there.

Let's call it a universal.

Interestingly enough, you occasionally find yourself realizing that this universal is not only something you already know, but something other ads may also say, but not in a way that had ever found its way into your heart before.

So why does this ad get there when others don't? Partly because this ad doesn't use a cliche, visually or verbally, and yet isn't so original you can't recognize it or understand its value. And, in fact, all the things that make it something you notice are also all things that make it relevant to where you are in your magazine.

That's right, a page earlier, not interesting. A page later, not worthwhile.

This is why people experiment in theatre (or any art for that matter).

Some of the experimenters know they'll fail, but they do it anyway.

Others only want to succeed - which is why they fail.

And still others have enough money to be able to place their ads so often in the magazine that we can't not notice them no matter how much we try - or how uninteresting they actually are.

Which also means that the people with no money except for the tiniest ads must be that much more innovative to get your attention. Afterall, the space they have to work in is so small, they may never have much of an audience - though, if they put their ideas up often enough, in the same space, in generally a similar way, they may, after a long period of time actually have an audience that means they can step up in a space size or two.

And that is what small theatre must do if it wants to survive.

But the worst thing an ad can do is pretend it's something it's not.

It's not a television show. It's not an editorial - though it could make you look at editorial differently.

It's not a movie.

It must be true to the idea of the original creator in every way (the playwright or the director or the actor) or it will do something more tragic than bore. It will fail to put the original energy of the creator into the magazine - and thus the magazine you have would be less interesting than it was before.


patrick said...

And that is what small theatre must do if it wants to survive.

But the worst thing an ad can do is pretend it's something it's not.

Great post, Malachy. I think you're right on the money with this. And I think that what's cool about small theatre, and what makes it vital, is that when it's working, it's not in competition with TV, or the movies, or even with plays performed on a larger stage. The experience of the performance, especially the intensity, the connection, the intangibles, in a production in a 100-seat house, or 50-seat house, cannot be duplicated (and often not very well explained or written about).

This provides an interesting dilemma for the artist, of course, because our society pressures us (sometimes through the use of clever, successful ads) to want to be part of the larger consumer culture, and the inability to commoditize small theatre makes for some tough choices.

(I'm going to look at ads in a whole new way for a while.)

tim said...


Great post. A great metaphor. And great ads. Any chance you wrote one or all of them?

Malachy Walsh said...

I wrote the first and last one.

To see the work I've done in advertising to date, check out my ad site -

Of course, I'd rather write plays, screenplays and television, but I also like eating on a regular basis.

And there's nothing more fun than making something with words that actually says something to people.