variations on a theme; or, how to save the american theatre

Take a deep breath folks, have a seat, bring a glass of wine, because this is going to be a big one.

Before I begin, you have prerequisite reading: The Empty Spaces, or, How Theatre Failed America, an essay from the Seattle Stranger by Mike Daisey.  You must read this before you continue.  Don’t worry, I can wait.

Ready?  Okay.So a question has been laid on the table: How do we save theatre?  Well first, let’s think about what theatre is.  I’m not talking about some fancy Webster’s dictionary definition[1. The type of atrocity you generally see in a 9th grade argumentative essay …. egh.], I’m talking about the essence of what it means to go on stage every night for six days a week.  No, it’s not money.  No, it’s not success.  It’s not fame.  It’s your soul.

Art is putting your soul out there for people to see and appreciate.  Theatre is doing that by creating a story.  Painters do it by putting brushes to canvas.  Dancers dance.  Singers sing.  Writers write.  And we all do roughly the same things: a musician, for example, has twelve notes[2. In western music, at least.] to utilize.  You’ve heard a million songs in the chord progression I – IV – V, from the Beatles to blues to rock to folk, etc etc ad nauseum.  But it never gets old.  Why?  Because of the persons giving you the music.  The Beatles would never be the Beatles without John, Paul, George and Ringo, period.  The Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger and Keith Richards would be nothing.  Carrie by Stephen King would be different if written by someone else.  This is just how it is.

One of the great things about theatre is that it inverts the concept of creation: with music, it’s usually one act creating many songs, or one artists making many paintings, but in theatre, it’s one play inhabited by thousands of actors.  Imagine all of the people who have played Hamlet.  I guess from an actor’s point of view it’s one person becoming a thousand people, but still.  Every play is like a cover band.

So what is the problem with theatre?  A couple of things.  One, it’s becoming too commercialized.  Regional theatres are becoming national theatres in the sense that, instead of hiring brilliant regional actors, they’re outsourcing to New York, which is a silly, stupid idea.  Regional actors are who regional people want to see, plain and simple.  I’m going to talk about the Boise theatre scene for a second because it’s so small it’s laughable, but also because I know more about it than anywhere else.  Boise has two big theatre companies: the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, and Boise Contemporary Theater.  The former does summerstock, or theatre in the summer, in an outdoor venue.  They do maybe one Shakespeare show just so they can keep the title, and then do other shows. A couple of years ago they did Arsenic and Old Lace, which I actually thought was pretty gutsy of them, considering Arsenic is almost exclusively a community theatre play.  But mainly they are a “spectacle” theatre: fancy sets and costumes, boisterous actors, physical comedy — stuff to entertain the masses.  Style without substance.  One of the crutches of theatre is that people assume the script is the substance, but it’s not.  The substance of theatre is the play happening on stage (and, to a lesser extent, to the rehearsal process).

Anyway, ISF outsources to New York, especially for their musicals, which is a fucking travesty because we have an enormous group of very talented singers, dancers, and actors at Boise State who would love to be a part of that experience.  Here’s where the “regional” aspect comes in … some of the non-outsourced actors have been there for several years, and that’s part of the charm of it all: patrons keep coming to the theatre to see the shows, but also to see their favorite actors performing.  They look for nuances in each performance.  They grade the actor based on past experiences.  These actors aren’t celebrities, they’re almost part of a family.  Unfortunately, it’s a family that only rich, white people can see.

This would be okay if ISF also didn’t make it look like they were raising young actors to eventually be a part of their stage.  As with all theatres, they have youth classes and whatnot, and one of those classes is the Apprentice program, wherein a bunch of rich kids pay a lot of money to get taught by the ISF staff over the summer, taking “master classes” (I fucking hate that term) and being glorified stagehands and extras.  They become part of this “family” that’s really just a clever money pit, because once these kids are too old to be a part of the program anymore, they either get the illustrious job of being assistant stage managers (read: stagehands), or they go to college and major in theatre because they’re so full of the spirit of it all, and get their degree and audition for the artistic director in an audition that can only be called a favor to the department chair, only to be told that they need a graduate degree.  And that’s frustrating, but fuck it, they’ll go to graduate school, do their two years learning how to become a puppet of corporate theatre, and then finally get into ISF — a theatre company they gave their hearts to eight years ago — only to be in a shitty version of Midsummer Night’s Dream set in Studio 54.  Oh, the audiences will eat it up; Puck is dressed like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever!, the “magic potion” given to Titania and Lysander is actually cocaine!, everyone does the electric slide at the end!  Congratulations, you just sold your soul in a way you never thought you could.

Well … I didn’t expect to go on such a rant right there.  I just really dislike the Apprentice program.  For the record, I never participated in the program; my family was too poor.

The other theatre company, BCT, fares a little better.  They do occasionally bring in the out-of-state actor (or, say, Lauren Weedman for her one woman shows … but of course that’s understandable).  Their shows are small and intimate, usually three to four actors, which is nice.  And they’re trying to reach out to the actors in the city, with staged readings and other internships and whatnot, but they still cast the same actors in every show.  Which is good, because they’re local actors and they’re very good, and like I said earlier, audiences like to see the same actors, but it just means no opportunities for fresh faces.

They’re also having a “Season Opening Celebration” which is a thinly veiled fundraiser.  How much does it cost to get in?  $100.  Fucking ridiculous.  Contrast that with the Manor of Art, a week long event here in Portland, right across the street from my house, with I believe eight to twelve bands, a ton of art in about three hundred rooms, all of it incredible, and how much did it cost to get in?

Suggested donation.  That’s how much it cost.

Theatre is not the fucking Freemasons.  It’s not some secret club that has a special handshake that you need to know to get in.  It’s a collaborative art form that includes the AUDIENCE as part of the collaboration.  It’s not a rich white people society, where white-haired old ladies watch August Wilson’s “Fences” only to talk about slavery on the drive home, totally missing the point, and perhaps the plot, of the entire play.  And it certainly, certainly should not cost one hundred dollars to go to a theatre opening celebration.  That’s fucked up, plain and simple.

I’m getting a little off topic, and I apologize.  But to all my actor friends in Boise (those who aren’t in ISF or BCT) I implore you to leave.  Move away.  Go to a city that has more theatre opportunities.  Get some gigs under your belt.  Then maybe come back.

So the answer to the big question: how do we save theatre?  First and foremost, cut ticket prices across the board.  Plays cost anywhere from $20 to $60 these days, while movies only cost $10, and people always complain about the cost of a movie.  Theatre is not more “special” than a movie.  It’s a different experience, sure, but they’re essentially the same medium (an audience watching actors), and one should not cost more than the other.  Make theatre tickets $10, maybe $5 for senior citizens.  No one is turned away then. We live in an age where a few people make a lot of money, but most people don’t, and those people don’t want to have to choose between a play, or groceries.  If you’re wondering why so many people watch TV, this is one of the big reasons: because they can’t afford to go to anything else[3. All performance art suffers from this problem.  Most concerts cost too much.  Dance, art galleries … everything costs too much.].

This will invariably lead to budget cuts for costumes, props, lighting, etc.  This is a good thing.  The old theatre adage is “Keep it simple, stupid.”  Yet if you look at Broadway these days, or any of the big theatre companies, you see this is clearly not what they’re thinking.  And so what happens is that the story gets bogged down by spectacle, by style, by exuberance of novelty.  I think — I hope — that we’re finally reaching a point in our society where this is starting to die down.  Probably not, but you never know.  Unfortunately, keeping prices low will mean more audience members, but less money overall, but that’s a good thing!  It means you have to A) innovate, and B) act better! so that people will say “Oh that play was great!” vs “Oh that set was pretty!”

This is a good thing, I promise you.  I know that the costume designers and set designers out there will feel left out by this proposition, but I assure you, it’s a good thing.

Another obvious solution is to not spend so much money on equity actors in New York, and instead spend slightly less on, you guessed it, regional actors!  I suppose artistic directors think that this diminishes the quality of the theatre they produce, but I guarantee you it doesn’t.  This is what auditions are for, to weed out the shit actors from the good ones.  Unfortunately acting is all about “networking” now, which is a business way of saying “kissing ass.”  They call it networking because it obviously is not making friends.

I know, I know, you theatre companies have children to feed and houses to pay for.  I understand all of that.  We all do, because we all have rent and children and dogs, etc etc.  But we all share a common bond: we all love theatre.  We love giving a piece of ourselves for the good of the community.  We love an engaging story that brings the audience to a feeling of higher consciousness.  We love making people laugh.  We love making them cry.  It’s not manipulation, it’s storytelling, and we’re going along with them.  But stories should be for everyone, not just the privileged few who can afford it.

Ultimately, the ticket prices is just one aspect of theatre that we can control.  We can’t control the motion of our culture, the fact that young people would rather watch the stupidity of Transformers 2 than the brilliance of, say, Eric Bogosian. Or Mamet.  You think kids would love Mamet, buuut no.  They want to be dumb.  They are being funneled into mindless job drones, carefully manipulated into getting a job doing the same stupid shit eight hours a day until they die.  Honestly, I think art is what is going to fix this country.  I wish other people felt the same.

Sorry for rambling, I tend to do that a lot.  I just don’t want my college education to go to waste.  I think we could easily save the American theatre, but doing so will require a huge sacrifice — by everyone.  Money, first, time, second.  And if you’ve read this far, I’d love to hear your opinions too.  🙂

By Josh

I'm the guy who owns this site, ya dummy.

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