Seeing Red At The Theatre

February 16th, 2012 § 12 comments

In this post, I have chosen not to name a particular show to which I allude because my thoughts pertain to a very brief moment in the production. While you may be able to identify it, I am not writing theatrical criticism and don’t want my response to perhaps 30 seconds of stage time to be misconstrued as applicable to the entire evening.

I am not often moved to anger at the theatre. I may be disappointed in a show, annoyed by a directorial concept, discomfited by a noisy patron or shallow legroom, but I don’t usually get so irate that I am mentally jolted out of the production at hand and need time to settle myself down. But it happened last week.

While the production had updated a classic musical with many assorted contemporary references, what had me seeing red were fleeting one-liners at the expense of three recent Republican presidential candidates, including Rick Santorum. Was I upset because I support that individual or his competitors? No. Haven’t I laughed at jokes about them in other circumstances? Yes. So why was I deeply incensed? I was upset by the context of the comments, namely in the midst of a family-friendly musical. I think they were probably insulting and upsetting to some in the audience. And I’d like those people to keep going to theatre, even if I don’t share their entire worldview.

I read a great deal online about various theatrical issues, audience development being one and political theatre being another, and I am personally supportive of both. I think political drama and comedy can indeed have an effect beyond theatre’s four walls. Whether it’s as explicitly political as David Hare’s Stuff Happens, as subtle (save for the title) as Richard Nelson’s That Hopey-Changey Thing, or as socially aware as Mike Daisey’s The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, I think the theatre is a great forum for political topics (funny how my three examples are all from New York’s Public Theater). As for audience development, I think every theatre professional must (if they are not already) be constantly thinking about the needs and interests of audiences both current and future, as our art form must gain support from both ticket buyers and donors alike, not just for today, but ad infinitum.

So why did a couple of jokes that would go unremarked if heard on The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live get me riled? Precisely because I wasn’t watching those shows and neither was anyone else in the audience. I was happily watching a show which had absolutely nothing to do with the current political or social situation in America when these random gag lines flew out from the stage, displaying utter contempt for anyone in the audience who might actually support those individuals.

This is hardly an isolated incident, as I’ve been at events where a speaker suddenly inserts this type of joke to get a laugh; I’ve seen it woven into the scripts of awards shows or deployed by recipients of those awards. Frankly, it gets me pissed off every time. I’m barraged by it on Twitter and Facebook from people I follow or friend because of their theatrical interests, rather than their politics, but there it is more akin to a comment between acquaintances, and I can always opt out of my online relationship if someone becomes overbearing.

But why do theatre people, who strive to sell tickets and build audiences, participate in these drive-by insults of some portion of their audiences? Surely they must realize that, especially when dealing with a few hundred or more people at once, not everyone follows the same political bent, no more than they should assume everyone is from the same culture or the same religion (unless they have explicitly targeted a narrowly defined audience). They’re not going to suddenly trigger an epiphany, and if the goal is to appeal to audiences, why show disdain for those who might think differently on some topics?

Theatre affords those who work in it the opportunity to weave stories that communicate emotions, ideas, concerns with artistry and skill. By tossing out topical political jokes shorn of context, we play at being witty or current but only succeed in reinforcing the stereotypes that some would throw at us: lefty, radical, socialist, elitist, godless – what have you. In those moments, we achieve nothing but a fleeting laugh and the affection of the like-minded — and perhaps the eternal enmity of some of those we otherwise claim to court.

If we believe that among the dramatic forms, theatre is the most immediate and complex; if we believe that theatre must remain vital while the electronic media continues to encroach upon our territory and our audiences – then we mustn’t sacrifice our greater interests for an easy guffaw. If we wish, we can (and should) create works which rail against the status quo or those who would seek to diminish some in our society, we can make bold (or careful) and emotional appeals on those topics which we believe to be important. But when we stoop to irrelevant one-liners we play the very game of distortion and insult that I hope we all deplore in the political arena itself, a game which is reportedly turning off the populace in droves. We are better than that and, if we’re creative enough about it, if we use the narrative and rhetorical skills that we have in abundance, perhaps we can in fact change a few minds – all the while insuring that our audiences remain willing to go to the theatre many more times.

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  • Very well said. I share your concern about alienating audience members. (And I’m speaking, like you, as someone who’d almost certainly laugh at (and even repeat) similar jokes if they were told in other contexts. I think they’re too easy and too adolescent and not worthy of what we do.

  • Dlofdahl10

    I enjoy your posts on theater immensely an have great respect for your love of theater and ability to communicate it but I have to disagree. You describe the show as “family-friendly” and thinks that somehow declaws it abiltity to provide political commenatry. I disagree, especially in the case of Santorum. This man is making direct attacks on the “family” as many people who made the production you saw define and live by it. The idea that they should abandon their greatest weapon against such attack iN an attempt not to rattle the sensibilities of their audience seems to diminish the role of theater in a way I am sure you would never intentionally do.

    • If the mission of the company or the play as written is designed to be political, that’s one thing.  If it’s a show designed as family-friendly entertainment, that’s another thing entirely.

      As a father of two, both of whom are theatregoers, I’d rather not have Santorum injected into shows meant as entertainment for them.  It doesn’t mean the work is “declawed” or that we abandon defense against perceived attacks on “family.”  It means that we as theatre-makers are aware of who’s potentially in our audience and who we’re serving.  Context is important.

      As it is, thanks to the wonders of television and Google, my 10 yr old is already aware of what searching for Santorum can dig up online.  He doesn’t quite understand it, and that’s fine.  Because he’s 10.

      Not everything has to be politicized.  It doesn’t diminish the role of theatre to serve a particular audience in a particular context.  It’s only when someone says “this can’t ever be said in any forum or format” that we’d have a problem.

      (For the record, like his parents, our 10 yr is a big Colbert fan.)

    • I share your evident loathing of Santorum and what he (and others) are attempting to do to our country, but I must disagree with your assessment that a tacked-on joke is anyone’s “best weapon” against anything. For my money, it’s more like the kind of weapon that accidentally goes off and hits the person wielding it instead. There are better ways to advocate. Far better.

  • Jon Wilner

    It is hard to agree with you or even agree with you without knowing more information.  A lot depends within the context of the show, it also depends on which show it is…without knowing that, one cannot judge.  For instance if it is in a show like BOOK OF MORMON, it would be in keeping and if the remark was funny, it would be taken in the spirit of the show…if it were in PORGY AND BESS, it would be out of place.  But the theatre is a live environment, ifan actor drops a hat, it is okay to pick it up, there is not another “take”.  If a singer flubs a lyric, and corrects it, the audience is “in” on it and returns affection for the performer….Hugh Jackman made several political jibes and it was funny.   It all depends on which show, the context of the remark, etc…you cannot generalize, in my opinion.  The advantage that the theatre has over every other medium is that it is spontaneous and every performance is different in some way and unique.    Not everyone can agree with everything, and sometimes removing the third wall works and sometimes it doesn’t… cannot generalize.

    • Gil

      @Jon: You know, even in Book of Mormon the jokes would be out of place.  Those guys did a good job keeping to only Mormon or religious jokes.  They don’t suddenly break out into a crack about Paris Hilton.

      @Howard: I want to add in that it also insults me on a comedic level.  Much like saying the words “iPad” or “Charlie Sheen” becomes a cheap laugh because, “look, I said a thing you recognize!”

  • akamo

    If nothing else, I think it’s just bad theater to throw out an irrelevant quick-laugh comment that breaks the spell that is being woven for the audience.

  • Taylor

    If a bigot comes to Broadway (and i do think a Santorum supportand is a bigot) and the play makes jokes about bigots then it shows the bigot that our mainstream institution does not tolerate bigotry. I see no problem with this. I didn’t see the musical your writing about but even if the craft level of the joke was low it still has done its job in establishing what our moral norms should be.

    • But that’s not Howard’s point. His point, is that he felt this show had nothing to do with the politics of our government. If a staunch supporter of abstinence goes to see Debbie Does Dallas, The Musical, they know what they’re getting themselves into. If one goes to see Beauty Queen of Leenane, one doesn’t expect commentary on the current political landscape. We should be allowed to go to the theatre we want to see. We should challenge ourselves to see theatre that is outside our personal scope or political views, but it shouldn’t be thrust upon us.

  • Regardless of knowing the show or not, the point is very clear. If the commentary, line, or reference has nothing to do with the actual plot, theme, story of the show, then such addition is way out of order. It DOES take people out of the moment. I have seen a few shows where suddenly something is said in reference to a contemporary matter that has NOTHING to do with show. That’s just poor judgement and bad theatre. 

  • I agree, Mr. Sherman, if only because ad-libs (even planned ad-libs) have no place in scripted theatre.  UNLESS, of course, permission has been given by the playwright for the inclusion to occur. — Regardless of the content.

  • Playing in Iowa

    I would imagine that the majority of the audience in any given show is there to set aside the “real world”, and an off-handed one-liner simply sends them crashing back to that which they came to the theatre to forget.  As an audience member, these sort of things annoy me.  As a performer, it merely makes me uncomfortable.  I am there to provide respite from the worry and stress of the daily political wrangling, not to enhance it.  Unless the show is specifically written and designed to do just that.

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