Defending the Invalid

April 4th, 2011 Comments Off on Defending the Invalid

A few times in the past week, I have encountered several people who, unprompted, expressed to me their concern for the future of theatre. I am not sure what prompted this confluence of empathy, but I chose primarily to listen to their dissertations on why theatre was in trouble and why they were worried.

It immediately bears mentioning that these were well educated, culturally aware people, who no matter where they were from (and I’ve been on both coasts in the past seven days), seemed well informed on the newest theatrical works, although they were perhaps disproportionately basing their information on The New York Times, rather than a range of media outlets, regardless of their location.

Because it has been a hectic week, I simply wasn’t up for a sustained debate about the undying nature of the fabulous invalid; cross-country travel has a funny way of putting me into an altered state: anticipatory anxiety over the rigors of travel, the charming experiences that characterize our modern airports, the unfamiliarity of my accommodations, and so my rhetorical engagement was superseded by the specifics of the tasks I had to accomplish.

As I return to New York (I am currently 35,000 feet over the Mississippi, I imagine, but a blanket of clouds prevents better geo-location), I realize that I missed opportunities to evangelize for theatre and so, to avoid this problem in the future, even when torpor besets me, I have decided to enumerate the talking points I should have at the ready any time the vitality or validity of theatre in our present day, or future days, presents itself. Perhaps this may prove useful to others as well.

1. Theatre hasn’t always been for everyone, and it’s not reasonable to expect that it should be. There is this unspoken theory that in the days before electronic media, everyone flocked to the theatre constantly. But for every audience member at Shakespeare’s Globe, there were probably five others else where enjoying a good bear-baiting somewhere. That is to say, even when today’s high culture was somewhat less high flown, there was always an even lower common denominator form of entertainment outselling it, but the latter has never seemed to eradicate the former. In fact, we’ve outlasted bear-baiting, so there.
2. The desire to make theatre seems innate. While it has taken different forms and styles across cultures, languages and eras, theatre has always been there, from the Greeks up to today. We hear about the dismal opportunities for playwrights to make a living from their craft (and it is worthy of concern), but the poor economic model doesn’t seem to be a deterrent. I have no figures, but in America at least, I suspect we have an ever growing number of playwrights, fighting to get their work produced in a wide range of venues. Logic may dictate that they apply their efforts to other forms of writing – even other dramatic forms – but something about the stage calls to them.
3. You don’t need a theatre to make theatre. This applies to adventurous, site specific ventures by trailblazing companies just as easily as it applies to living rooms and basements of imaginative youths. You can actually make theatre with nothing but people, meaning that theatre is stunningly accessible to anyone who wants to be a part of it, and there are no rules, no requirements beyond imagination. Yes, money can enhance the experience, but as we know all too well, money can also overwhelm the art. “A poor theatre” is not necessarily “poor theatre.” And when children invent their own dramatic scenarios for their parents, I’ve never heard of one saying that they’re making their own movie or TV program – they somehow know they’re putting on a play.
4. Yes, it’s expensive to attend in most cases, but when was the last time you bought a ticket to a sporting event or rock concert. Inexplicably, people endlessly discuss how expensive theatre is, but they’re not as quick to say the same of some other forms of live entertainment. I think this is rooted in the idea that theatre is elitist and so this argument is trooped out to reinforce the stereotype, when other entertainments are at least as expensive or even more so. Ironically, sports and rock are priced high in order to pay outrageous sums to a relative handful of people who are often distant figures rarely making a personal connection with their audiences. Theatre is expensive in order to support a distinctly human interaction that is incredibly labor intensive at every level, but if you want to have a moment with your heroes, just take a quick survey of any venue where it’s performed and find the stage door. You’ll see your heroes, maybe even speak with them and get an autograph or a photo, instead of discovering that, say, they’re already on the way to their airport so they can fly home and sleep in their own bed, while you’re still trying to get out of the parking lot.
5. Theatre is outnumbered by the electronic media, but so what. Yes, the advent of the printing press reduced the job prospects for those skilled in producing illuminated manuscripts, but presumably monks found other pursuits for the solitary devotions (I believe one order in Europe produces a great beer – no kidding and no disrespect). Every advancement in technology from Gutenberg to Steve Jobs has offered new ways of distributing forms of entertainment to more people in ever more creative ways, but isn’t it funny how theatre has remained in practice throughout? Movies may be more popular than radio, television may reach more people than go to the movies, and the computer may be more prevalent in our homes (and pockets) than TVs. But each of those forms have found their place and their level, while theatre has perhaps grown as well, since it is less and less the province of singular patrons and increasingly embraced by its own communities not only as a form of entertainment, but as an economic engine as well.
6. The very thing that challenges theatre is also what keeps it alive. Oxymoronic as that may be, it’s absolutely true. Individual productions will rarely ever reach the number of people who see a single episode of a mediocre TV series, but it is the fact that theatre is live and unable to be electronically duplicated and distributed ad nauseum that makes it entirely unique each and every time there is a performance. That may not be meaningful to everyone, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the recording, film and television industries are scrambling to cope with the havoc wrought by digital piracy while theatre only has to concern itself with cell phones going off during shows and taking poor video recordings of snippets of shows. And only a few years after the music industry discovered that live concerts are the only hedge against piracy, fewer rock tours are able to hit their economic marks, while theatre, while challenged in this wavering economy, goes on.
7. Even after civilization as we know it has been destroyed by the madness of war and politics, theatre will still be made. I realize I’m taking a leap here, but I refer you to the final scenes of the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, after the gladiatorial arena has been upended, in which a small group of young people who hold the hope of restoring society in their hands gather nightly to “tell the tale” of the man called Max, and while one youngster holds a frame of sticks suggesting the confines of a movie screen, they are performing a nightly play, as we’ve seen earlier, for a captive audience, in which they come together by firelight to enact their own, new history – acting the tale, not simply telling it.

We’ve been asked to stow our electronics and fold up our tray tables in preparation for landing, so I’ll leave my list – albeit incomplete and perhaps a bit irreverent – incomplete. That’s actually not so terrible; after all, our “elevator speeches” are often cut short when we reach our destination.

I should acknowledge once again that we face economic struggles in our efforts to make theatre, and the realities of a complicated and ever more technologically wondrous society are not necessarily enhancements that will improve the lot of live theatre in the world. I do not believe simply that “if we build it they will come,” nor do I believe that if we applaud at theatre it will, like Tinker Bell, be perpetually brought back to life.

But I do believe that in its simplicity, its foundation in the human connection of people telling, of people enacting stories for other groups of people, live and alive, theatre will go on precisely because we cannot be reduced to a series of zeroes and ones, packed for sale at the local warehouse superstore, or streamed into homes. The very things that make theatre hard to sustain are what insure its survival.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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