A Bad Word

March 7th, 2011 § 0 comments

It goes without saying that, as a literature based-discipline, theatre must be very sensitive in its word usage. Certainly playwrights choose their words with care, to insure that we understand not only story, but character, by faithfully following their script. In contrast to what we hear about the movie business, playwrights’ words are sacrosanct in the theatre; they are not altered, production by production, by actors or directors to make either party – or the audience – more comfortable. Words are the road map from which all theatre springs.

So now let me pose a hypothesis: what if the word ‘theatre’ is the greatest threat to the very discipline of theatre?

Before you begin to parse the last phrase, let me state that I am not seeking to reopen the tiresome “theater vs. theatre” argument that seems to blossom anew every so often. For the purpose of this discussion (and as far as I’m concerned, at any time) the variant spellings are interchangeable, as is ‘teatro’ which I tossed out once during an internet debate in an effort to end a cycle of meaningless debate.

So, why do I worry about the word ‘theatre’? I’m concerned that, like so many things that are said in the world, its meaning to the speaker may be profoundly different to those who hear it. And I fear that the word ‘theatre’ — not the act of making it, or the buildings that house it – has connotations we rarely think about.

If you happen to use Google News to search on either word (and the ever literal algorithm distinguishes between them), you will of course find a deluge of articles that speak to the act of people collectively gathering to present a dramatic story live for an assembled audience, as well as a steady flow about performance spaces being built, refurbished or razed. But seeded amongst these expected results are the stories that make we wonder about whether ‘theatre’ always means what we want it to mean.

I cannot tell you how many articles about government, be it city, state, federal or foreign, constantly cite acts of ‘political theatre.’ In the vast majority of these citings, they refer not to activists engaging in some performance-based activity designed to illustrate a position on an issue. Instead, ‘political theatre’ seems, in its common usage, to refer to political acts, statements and strategies that are merely for show — empty, hollow gestures that serve only to advance an agenda, and are sized up by reporters as cynical acts of attempted manipulation.

I also see flare-ups of articles about ‘security theatre,’ in which the more public efforts to address the safety of the populace, such as the work of the Transportation Safety Authority or random bag checks in the New York City subways, are seen merely as sham demonstrations of protection, rather than meaningful steps towards securing the population. But one thing is for certain: whether it’s ‘political theatre’ or ‘security theatre,’ ‘theatre’ is used to denigrate the action taking place, not to elevate it.

So when we talk of drawing people to the theatre, or working in the theatre, are we, for the many people who are not attendees, suggesting that what we do is itself a sham, the apotheosis of fakery? Yes, what we do is to engage audiences in an act of collective pretending, but in order to achieve a higher purpose, whether it is to bring them joy or illuminate some truth. But is that possibly understood by those who have either not been exposed to, or do not connect with, the art form so many of us love? If the media and the public accept ‘theatre’ as a pejorative when it is tied to ventures other than the act of making words come alive on stage, is the word becoming barnacled with a negativity that carries over to our own efforts?

Let me offer a corollary. One of the words that theatremakers embrace and champion is the word ‘new.’ It is, to us, a word that means many things – not yet of the repertory, encompassing of current style and ideas, unseen by our constituency – but in every case it is worn as a badge of honor by artists, companies and enlightened funders. That we are engaged in the ‘new’ is to blaze a pathway and be part of building the continuum of the stage.

Yet I have learned, from both anecdotal and research evidence at multiple theatres in different communities, that most audiences do not hear ‘new’ when we say it. What they hear is ‘risky,’ ‘unproven,’ ‘experimental,’ even ‘avant-garde,’ when all we’re trying to say is that they probably (or in the case of world premieres, certainly) have not seen it before. And when they’re deciding whether to plunk down money in order to enter into the unknown, many will balk. This is why whenever I hear about theatres surveying their audiences to ask what they’d like to see, the answers are invariably titles of plays they’ve seen before and liked. After all, they cannot name plays as yet unwritten, and the casual theatergoer is not going to ask to be subjected to risk, even though those of us on the inside of creative endeavors know that only by risking do we have the potential to achieve great things.

Perhaps you find my wordplay on ‘theatre’ and ‘new’ to be merely semantic pedantry; it surely would not be the first time I’ve been accused of such. But as we watch the political arena, the marketing arena and other cauldrons of ‘message,’ I don’t think we should simply overlook the possibility that the very words which we hold so dear may be stumbling blocks to reaching new audiences. Perhaps we should have gotten a message when a decades-old PBS mainstay of high quality drama dropped ‘theatre’ from its name, to be known henceforth as “Masterpiece.”

If it is true that theatre audiences, or audiences for any of the arts, are in fact experiencing a diminution of demand, then we may need better words to describe our efforts and to incite others to experience them, lest the work we create and celebrate – that of playwrights, bookwriters, lyricists and composers – go unheard.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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