Thoughtful Revolution



The theater is dying: Part 1

But not for the reasons that some Golden-Age-of-Broadway curmudgeons would have you believe.  Directors haven’t gotten worse, and neither have choreographers, designers, etc.  Venues are ever-bigger, brighter and more glamorous.  And there’s a glut of talented performers to rival any in the ’50s or ’60s.  Certainly, the problem doesn’t lie with “kids these days.”

No, the problem isn’t in the supply of talent — it’s where that talent ends up, and how it is put to use.  The very nature of theater has changed for the worse; it has become an elitist, commercialized, rapidly aging and (dare I say) not very interesting art form.  If we are to keep theater alive, I believe we must turn our attention to two problematic factors: content and accessibility.

Everyone’s heard someone or other lament about the dearth of new plays and the constant deluge of revivals.  Too often, that someone-or-other is quick to blame unoriginal playwrights and an unimaginative generation.  Let me say it right now: THIS IS NOT THE PLAYWRIGHTS’ FAULT.  Thousands of new plays are written every year, many of them exceptional — but theater today is about as commercial as you can get, and new plays just don’t make business sense.  It’s always more lucrative for a venue to mount a revival than to gamble on a completely unknown and untried new work, which will require much more publicity (and publicity funding), not to mention a much better production overall — if an old chestnut gets poor reviews, audiences will still attend for sentimental reasons, or because they love the show, or because they need to take out-of-town family members to a matinee.  But if a play by an unknown right-out-of-college playwright flops, who will come?  And even with good reviews, the lack of name recognition for new plays ensures that many nights will see near-empty houses; no theatrical business manager in his or her right mind would willingly set the venue up for that.

Why is theater so very commercial?  Well, for starters, it’s always been.  Shakespeare’s company charged audiences for tickets, in an astoundingly modern system involving raised prices for the box seats; the best seats in a Victorian house became a playing ground for the rich and famous.  But theater has arguably never been so commercialized as it is in the modern era, because it has to be.  As film has emerged as a popular, low-cost alternative to live shows, theater companies find themselves struggling to keep afloat.  And, paradoxically, many of the most prestigious companies have done this by positioning themselves as a high-class version of film: movie theaters for the overpaid and well-heeled.  Acting is all but ignored, sets and costumes are pumped up to Lord of the Rings proportions, and all available technology is vigorously deployed.  This makes for very pretty but ultimately bloodless productions, shows that look very nice but lack the emotional whammy that should lie at the very heart of any play.  Without strong performers, a play cannot elicit much in the way of emotion from an audience; this problem is only intensified by the movie-theater presentations, which literally leave audience members “in the dark” throughout the production and serve to isolate them from the world of the play.  This effectively removes the greatest power in the theatrical toolbox: the power to force audiences into the character’s lives, minds, and hearts, to seamlessly integrate them into the scene so that every tragic twist rends their heartstrings.  Though the cinematic production strategy works very well for a popcorny movie blockbuster, it makes for a dilution of theater as an art form — removing the humanity from what is perhaps the most viscerally human art form we have.

With all that in mind, is it any wonder that many of the new plays that make it into our theatrical lexicon (exhibit A: the teenybopper fantasia “Wicked”) are watered-down and formulaic?  The writers of successful modern shows have seen the formula for financial success — imitate films in every way possible, including, but not limited to, sappy soundtracks and snazzy lights, then charge hundreds of dollars per ticket to make up for the production values — and must, to achieve any kind of fame, follow this formula by rote.  There are some admirable exceptions, particularly when you leave the Broadway/Times Square strip, but when we talk about real success, the case studies that come to mind are the ones that exemplify a festering, overcommercialized art form.

Part 2
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