Sunday, June 10, 2007

Relevance and Innovation in Theatre - Whattup with all THAT?

It seems the "theatrosphere" is in the throes of examining why theatre has become a third wheel on a bicycle for a culture that's been doing everything via rocket-powered motorcycles.

A lot of it has been focused around postings by Scott Walters that include a list of how great theatre artists should go about being great theatre artists as well as some interesting responses to an essay by Peter Birkenhead at Salon about why more people will be watching the Sopranos tonight than the Tonys.

Between the posts, the articles and the responses, everything is blamed from the "formal experimentation" of off and off-off Broadway theatre that is apparently not very experimental to the play development system in the US which over the past 12 months I've been taking blogs seriously has been very very well explored and torched.

And the advice about how to right all this ranges from "stop being ambitious" to "stop thinking your work is important" to "stop pandering" to "stop thinking you're smarter than your audience" to "stop trying to be so thoughtful." More positive exhortations are made to "start being more entertaining" and "start listening to communities" and "start thinking locally".

I have, of course, paraphrased. And the quotes emphasize what I heard in the conversations - ie, they aren't literally (in most cases) what was said.

Or maybe they're the things I want to hear - after all, some of these bandwagons are very attractive to jump on. It all seems so contrarian. It seems to say, hey, there's a better way.

And I'd be the first to say that the current system hasn't really worked to my advantage in any kind of big way.

I'm not getting done by big, well-established non-profit theatres.

And it's slow going in the downtown off-off broadway scene for me - despite some good things with CLUBBED THUMB and the SOHO THINK TANK.

And let's face it, depending on what kind of work you do, what theatre companies you work with, where in the country you're doing that work, well, a lot of these critiques about the state of theatre ring as completely true.

But then, the more I thought about it, the more it all felt a little, I don't know, generic.

I mean, depending on what kind of work you do, what theatre companies you work with, where in the country you're doing that work, well, a lot of these critiques will strike you - at best - as pretentious to offer, and - at worst - completely baseless.

These "depending on" factors that determine how you see these things are part of problem, aren't they?

Another part of the problem with all this conversation - for me anyway - has to do with the absurdity of the Birkenhead essay to begin with. It compares apples and oranges because the medium of TV allows him to - not because it's appropriate, or even helpful.

To state the obvious, television is a cheaply distributed mass media. Its popularity is in no small part due to this. At any point in time, in any day, millions of Americans are watching it. Even at 3 in the morning. In the battle for the biggest number of eyeballs, the powers that be have found certain tried and true formulas to ensure people are watching their shows. Eventually it's lead to a lot of programming that's violent or funny or thoughtful or salacious or sexy or whatever that keeps people watching. Television that can't prove people are watching, even if it's interesting television for some people, usually disappears.

More importantly, television's cheap access meant that it surpassed theatre's popularity almost before television even got started.

Which means that it will never matter whether theatre addresses any of Birkenhead's criticisms. Television shows about theatre in ANY capacity will NEVER be watched in big numbers. Period. (If more people were watching the Tonys than the Sopranos tonight, it would not even be news, because the real news would be about why the power failed everywhere across the country to prevent anyone from watching TV.)

I think we'd all be better off to look at something else when trying to address how to fix the woes of theatre.

We should look at advertising.

Yes, corporately sponsored, pro-capitalist, evil advertising that nobody ever wants to watch.

Just like theatre.

And I don't mean television advertising. I mean the lowest of low advertising, the stuff no-one cares about, the stuff that no longer brings in real money (as opposed to TV money): Print advertising.


Because even with TIVO, print is still the most ignored, least read, easiest to avoid kind of artful messaging there is in the world. Plus, print has to BE READ to be understood, which means you have to work at it to "get it."

Just like theatre.

So, what does it take to get someone to look at something they don't care about?

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