I’ve been thinking about the responsibility of the theatre a lot lately. Or rather, our responsibility as theatre artists. I think I get theatre’s obligation, it’s to entertain and educate, and in that order, right? It’s the question of what each of us owes to the medium and to its audience that’s got me to net-hopping for opinions. Unsurprisingly, there seem to be about a billion differing view points on the subject, ranging from the need to politicize the theatre, to making it hip for the youngsters, to, well, just about everything in between. It’s obvious that this is a highly contestable issue, not to mention completely subjective, so I’ll narrow down the parameters of the question: what is our responsibility to theatre to make it more accessible, so as to extend its reach beyond the existing audience? To make it trendy, if you will. Given that every playwright, producer, or company is doing work that expresses the issues and commentary that they wish to communicate to the world (which is, in my view anyhow, as good as any a definition of an artist), how much consideration to material should we give in order to reach beyond the choir? Or, to put it simply, what the hell do the people want from us?
Number 8 in Scott Walters’ recently published ten-point directive [see the third link above] states that “there is a place for preaching to the choir” in theatre in order to strengthen and reinforce its values, and that their song would then become propaganda for your cause. But the choir is going to love your sermon no matter what the subject, and with a full throat sing on-key regardless of its content, because that’s their job, they’re the converted. I’m interested in the song of the congregation, the ones that don’t actually have to be there, but show up because they’re curious. If we can make them sing, albeit perhaps a little leery and off-key, then we might be approaching the responsibility of the public stage here. But first we’ve got to get them into the pews.
I think we have to write/choose material that is of our time, material that speaks to our experience now, be it observational relationship humour or biting political criticism, whatever floats your boat. We don’t have the luxury of a guaranteed box office buzz here that allows us to put up all those standards that the choir loves to belt out, we’re not going to baptize a new generation of theatre lovers on Streetcar or Godot or True West. These are great plays to be sure, and I get it if you’ve been dying to play that part since that scene in class when it touched something so deep inside of you that you knew that you just had to enact it one day, but until we find a way to get the workaday residents of this city off the couch and into the small theatres, we really are just preaching to the choir, and that is simply not going to be enough to make a popular theatre culture viable. I posit that great writing and committed performance isn’t enough to do that unless the subject matter strikes enough of a resonant chord with today’s audience to make them come back for more. All the great playwrights became great because they were commenting on their own period (yes, sometimes through historical allegory), and that is what made audiences line up for their next play. It’s time to stop riding on the coattails of past glories until we become glorious ourselves. I really want that to happen soon, because I’m fast coming up on the right age to play Eddie in Fool for Love, and I’ve always wanted to play that part.
Funny. And I agree. I think there’s plenty of exciting new work being done. But sometimes I wonder why anyone making independent theatre bothers with the classics. Where’s the excitement in that? The invention? And, as you say – we’re not going to inspire a new legion of fans by scrapping together another production of Waiting for Godot. (Rocks though Beckett does.)
“Here’s a play that was good 100 years ago. Let’s see how we do with it.” A great exercise – maybe, but as a theatregoer, it’s not what I’m looking for.
I love the classics as much as the next guy – actually, I probably like the classics considerably less than the next guy – I just get really excited by new work.
(BTW. I think there are ways of telling old stories in relevant and new ways . . . I guess my point is more directed to straight-up productions of the classics.)
And there’s the rub, developing new work is where I live too, which certainly makes me biased towards pushing towards for a theatre which speaks right at its audience, grabbing them by the throat, as it were. Having said that, I do believe that the great older works deserve to live on and be experienced by newer theatregoers, I just think that’s up to somebody else right now, at least until theatre becomes a more vital facet of city life. Well, my city anyway, Steppenwolf has constructed a model that I aspire to.