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.