Tuesday, March 30, 2010

It ain't art...but I like it

So, wow...two blogs in one day.

I was thinking about something over the last couple of days, and it might bear some discussion on my part;

One of the things that I believe in, regarding theatre, is that we, as the purveyors of such, have forgotten that our form is at it's height when we entertain. Now, I don't mean solely entertain, or only aim for the lowest common denominator, but to leave the audience with a sense that they enjoyed their time with our story. We can strive for any number of higher goals if we keep that function squarely in our sights.

Shakespeare was an entertainer, he wrote what he thought would sell. He wrote for the groundlings. He wrote dick and fart jokes, for God's sake. Now, he also spoke (wrote) many, many truths about the human condition, but he understood that the audience would remember that they enjoyed themselves more than anything else.

Anthony Neilson is absolutely correct in this piece from The Guardian.

Our audiences should never, ever feel like they "should" go to the theatre, they should get excited. The same way I get excited to go to a new movie. They are two forms that are linked in many, many ways. Sure, we don't have special effects and CGI, but we share almost every other storytelling technique. Why is it people enjoy going to the movies, but feel theatre is a civic duty?

Because my friends, we have failed. We have bought into the idea that we are creating something "more important" than what's playing at the local cinema. The public labeled us "elitist," and, frankly, we embraced it. We liked the idea we were doing something "important," and that the mass audience would simply be confused or turned off by it.

I had a discussion not long ago, in which I said, in reference to a play I was reading, "it's got no climax." The response I got from a fellow theatre professional was, "I like that it has no climax." I am still agog at this. It's the kind of response that favors some sort of theatrical inventiveness over an audience's experience. An audience's desire to have the story resolve in a definable way.

Basic story structure is universal because it works. I'm not saying you can't muck about with it, or disregard rules, but, ultimately, the climax is where your audience sees how your story has impacted and changed the world of the play. It's the place where they are rewarded for watching your story. It's one thing to have the ultimate meaning and impact of your climax murky, to leave your audience with questions, it's another to say, "well, it's over. GOODNIGHT!"

In a lot of ways, I think our problem comes down to this idea that we are creating ART, instead of creating theatre. Honestly, here's my take, "art" is a descriptor that is solely the purview of your audience. I create, or help create, a show, and then I turn it over to the audience and they decide if it's "art." This doesn't let us off the hook to create intelligent drama, but it puts the needs of the audience over ours. if we spent more time thinking about what someone who's looking for a compelling night out needs, instead of how to impress the folks over at, say, Halcyon (Hi Jen and Tony!) with how "challenging" our latest show is, we might reach out to a larger audience.

We've been playing to ourselves for so long, we don't even know what a general audience is, anymore. When I lived in Omaha, there were something like 30 operating theatre companies in the metro area. Y'know who the audiences were, outside of the Community Playhouse, who actually draws the general public?

Other. Theatre. People.

Which is largely the problem in Chicago right now. We send show notices to our friends, who are other actors, actresses, directors, designers, stage managers, whathaveyou. We don't even know how to reach the general public anymore. I couldn't tell you how to do it, I'm just as much at a loss as anyone else. Even if we could get them to come, what are we giving them? What are we putting on the stage to get people involved with our stories? We've grown to distrust simple human drama, the kind of storytelling that draws in an audience and binds them to the characters. We're too busy trying flashy narrative devices and odd staging to understand that 90% of the human race (if not more) doesn't give a shit.

Tell a good story with truth and conviction, and people will be moved. Far, far too often I see plays bogged down in trying to make some sort of important point, or worse, trying to fit every, single facet of some point into a script that can't support it, losing the audience because the emotional drive is lost. The connection to the characters is lost. Your story can touch on political topics, social injustice, macroeconomics, whatever you want, but the STORY is what touches an audience and will make them understand the point you are making.

Now, there's a opposite to this viewpoint, and that's a world with nothing but Oklahoma! and Bye, Bye Birdie! revivals. No one wants that. However, there is a way to tell powerful, moving stories that still grip an audience with great storytelling. Make your point as simply as possible, tie it to your characters, and your audience will understand. Create theatre that informs or critiques our society, and still sends the audience out of the theatre saying "God damn that was a great story."

The future of our craft is in our own hands.


  1. I concur, with one small exception--on story structure. Not necessarily talking to your example, but I think there are as many ways to tell a story as there are stories to tell. I'm far more impressed by a compelling story that engages me than stylistic acrobatics that are hollow underneath.

  2. I don't disagree, Tony. You can form a play in many, many ways, but I do think, using the aforementioned "climax" example, there has to be a point where your story matters. Where the audience can feel, "ahh! that's what it all was leading to," and it has to be compelling enough to make their time spent on our story worth it.

    I just read so many (new) scripts where I feel like the playwright just ends the play, maybe their political/social point has been wrung to death, but the emotions, the story, just peters out. Or, they just plain refuse to give a concrete end, maybe because they think ambiguity is more interesting or "realistic." Either way, that's not compelling or interesting, to me. (and I'm only speaking for myself, here, of course)

    I'm also willing to be proven wrong. There's probably a script out there, somewhere, that I'd love with the same sort of ending.

  3. Totally. Is that more just the amount of bad plays out there. (lots of great ones too, but still . . .)