Theatre is Good

December 19th, 2011 § 2 comments

An unadorned, declarative headline, a basic thesis. But I feel compelled to state that theatre is, in fact, good. It is inventive, simple, thought-provoking, shocking, challenging, entertaining, comforting, educational, cultural, popular, necessary, surprising, ritualistic, original, familiar, compelling, relaxing, perfect, messy. It is and must be for all ages, all religions, all races, all classes, all incomes, all locations. It can be grand or intimate. It is, as a form of creative expression, essential. It is, unfortunately, relegated to niche status by far too many. If you do not believe this, there’s probably little that follows that will be of much interest to you, though I hope you’ll stick around anyway.

So I repeat: theater and the practice of making theatre is good. That applies to all theatre, under whatever auspices it comes to life — save that it adhere to the beginning of the Hippocratic oath, by doing no harm, in process or content. This is what I believe.

Why the declaration? Because as someone who enjoys attending theatre, reading about theatre and discussing theatre (online and face to face), as someone who has made my life in theatre, I worry that we lose sight of this fundamental in our discourse on the subject and, since we probably also all agree that theatre faces constant challenges, we reduce our strength by focusing on our divisions rather than common ground. I admit, many among us probably gain more attention from inflammatory rhetoric than we do from emphasizing mutual goals, but this is probably endemic to any subject upon which people are passionate. Yet hyperbole is largely anathema to progress and solutions. Occupy Wall Street may be known to us all, but can it claim any achievement other than awareness? And as aware as we may be, most of us probably can’t articulate its goals; “occupy” has become a signifier simply of protesting the status quo, or worse still, a punchline.

I announce my platform because of the many theatre debates to which I am either party or witness. This weekend, Patrick Healy’s article in The New York Times set off a new round in the perennial struggle between commercial and not-for-profit theatres, between large not-for-profits and small ones, between urban organizations and suburban ones and rural ones. By speaking for the article on the record, I felt compelled to join the conversations that followed. On others issues I have been more circumspect, but some include: the ongoing question of the proper place of playwrights in the life of institutional theatres, as voiced in the TDF report Outrageous Fortune; the complementary consideration of the place for new plays on Broadway; the philosophy of whether gatherings to explore theatrical challenges must by their nature be wholly public; the analysis revealing what some view as disproportionate funding by the federal government of large organizations in highly concentrated population centers; the uncertainty over whether dynamic and premium pricing is positive or negative in both commercial and NFP scenarios; the ethical question of utilizing and relying upon unpaid interns throughout our organizations. Feel free to insert your own here.

What concerns me is that in many cases, these topics are addressed unilaterally (in blogs or speeches) or with simplistic brevity (in Twitter volleys). Public colloquies are most often undertaken solely by and for peer organizations or individuals, so face to face discussions occur among people who function in a similar manner, on a similar level, or within a structure that discourages genuine free expression as people fear reprisals for honest statements. And let’s face it, everyone is so busy keeping their own organizations or projects alive, (not to mention making a living and having that often elusive construct known as a personal life, frequently with people who have interests beyond theatre), that it’s difficult to change their small part of the theatre world, let alone transform the field itself.

As I engage in as many conversations in as many forums as I’m able, I am of course opening myself up as a target, especially as I sometimes adopt contrarian views and refuse to accept labels others seek to foist upon me. Frankly, I enjoy honest, respectful debate, and I participate in it to insure that all sides of an argument are being explored, that those of us who are passionate do not simply spend our time reinforcing the beliefs of the like-minded. Let’s leave narrow-minded partisanship to the ugly political process which divides our country; let us first and foremost be partisans for theatre. Because theatre is good.

I was called part of “the theatre elite” on a worthy blog a few weeks back, and it caught me up short. I did not respond to it at the time in what might have been, for others, an entertaining series of blogs and tweets resulting from that assertion. Trust me, I don’t think of myself as remotely elite. But by forcing myself to not make an immediate response, I could consider the statement, which stung, but which I came to understand better over several days. Prompted by the perspective of the writer, I pondered my career, and I will say that while perhaps many may classify me as part of the theatre elite (however you define it) by virtue of where I’ve worked and the jobs I’ve held, I can only hope that none will think me elitist and some may find I’ve done a few good things.

Do I flirt with the charge of elitism again by speaking out to say that I do not oppose the large NFPs their ability to produce on Broadway? Absolutely I do, since these multi-million dollar companies are seen as elite, and are targeted from both sides, from smaller companies and from commercial producers, for differing reasons. But I hope that people will understand that my position comes from my central belief that theatre is good and that there are lots of ways to make theatre, that Broadway is simply one portion of the field, and that in its high profile yet geographically limited part of theatre, it is enriched by the presence of the work of these NFPs.

Are you muttering, “Pollyanna,” as you read this? Do you think I am being “willfully ignorant,” as one Tweeter said this past weekend? Do you thrive on confrontation as opposed to respectful debate? Do you favor overthrow rather than collaborating for change? Then perhaps I’m not for you — and indeed, if you’ve tried to get a rise out of me, I’ve probably disappointed you.  When it comes to the politics of theatre, I guess I am an enthusiastic and passionate moderate. I want to be part of developing and implementing creative solutions that remove impediments and build support for theatre, not fomenting rebellion. As six degrees of separation have now been reduced to roughly 4.7 (according to a study I read earlier this year), I don’t want to increase that distance once again by shouting, but instead shrink it more, level the field of communication, by building ever more linkages – creative, intellectual and personal — between reasonable people, by pushing us all past reflex reaction and towards productive action.

I did not intend to deliver a sermon (another tendency brought to my attention on Twitter). But perhaps as the year draws to a close, I am more reflective than I realize. Perhaps I am influenced by the waning rays of the winter sun sinking behind the horizon on one of the year’s shortest days. Perhaps I am wearied by theatre reportage and conversation which either seeks to inflame dissension or which blandly propagates party lines without seeking deeper understanding. So I hold fast to what I hope we all keep paramount: that whether professional, amateur or audience member, we are all in this together. We would do well to remember that before our next communication, be it among ourselves or to the public, the government, the funders and others, about the art form we hold dearly in common and in trust. Because, when it comes right down to it, theatre is good.







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