Over at Theatre Ideas, where there was, as many blogopathic readers might know, recently a bit of a row, Scott Walters welcomes new readers by defining the mission of his blog. The post can be found here.
There, he begins with this provacative statement:
"Theatre Ideas is based on a single premise: something is deeply wrong with the state of the American theatre, and without radical change it will continue its slide into irrelevance."
Now, whatever differences I might have with the tone of the discussion on Scott's blog (and it can get pretty unpleasant) I think it can be useful to put forth something clear, like the statement, above, and consider it.
I'll leave the rest of his solutions to this proported problem alone, for the most part, because they are variations on a theme: the true problem with American theatre is that it isn't focused on local communities and it is too influenced by a few central hubs, particularly New York City. Theaters should consider their local communities and reach out to them, if only for the reciprocal health of both.
That's indisputable, but it's not revelatory. If anything, theatre is already inherently local, and if local artists resist being put into community-oriented bubbles and resist being treated as community activists, that's entirely their choice. Funding incentives to encourage theaters in the direction of local artists seems to be dictating mission statements. It's unnecessary; if local art is important to you, and local playwrights are important to you, I'm sure you can find them wherever you live. If you are an artist or influencer of artists that is aching to see your own reflection in the art around you, perhaps you can locally support or create the art you'd like to see.
But that's neither here nor there, because I part company with the premise of the argument.
I simply don't think that there is 'something deeply wrong' with American theatre. There is something challenging, perhaps, about working our way through the muck of a world that is full of technological progress and increasingly globalized, while we have an inherently local art form. There is the challenge of getting audience and artists immersed in a language of storytelling that bears resemblance to, but has large departures from, the more popular languages of television and film. There are the economic challenges of marketing budgets, rental prices, union rules, ticket sales, non-profit versus for-profit models; there are tons of logistical and complex issues that make communicating what we do a struggle.
There is, though, nothing wrong with the plays or the actors or the directors or the producers. The work is not irrelevant. On the contrary, there's quite a bit of it that is current, potent, and extremely relevant to today's political and cultural issues. Beyond 'issue' plays, there are plays and musicals that speak to something more fundamental, speak to human truths, and those works are NEVER irrelevant. If these new plays and musicals aren't being seen by as many people as we'd like, then we should dedicate ourselves to that problem.
In June, we talked about National Premieres (how is that going Slay?). We talk about, on this blog anyhow, new genres and marketing techniques. These things are useful approaches, in my view, to practical problems that are mostly about managing scale and communication in the modern world, about expanding audiences, not about fundamentally altering the plays to match anyone's personal taste (regionalism, minimalism, musicals, etc).
One could easily say, "The problem with theatre is that its too expensive, let's give money to anyone who writes musicals with small budgets."
Or one could say, "The problem with theatre is that it's not enough like TV. Let's give money to theaters that perform episodic plays."
The list could go on for miles. Personal taste extrapolated into theory and rules.
Scott has, during his tenure on the blogosphere, worked to refine his position, often by way of hardening his stance against what he feels (and this is clearly stated in his post) "those who are invested [...] in maintaining the status quo." (Perhaps that's where the fiery rhetoric of apocolypse comes from, or where his comparisons to Global Warming and, in his last round of posts, slavery, come to the fore.) I disagree with Scott, and I don't particularly find an affinity for the Status Quo. In fact, what I find is that there is very little in the way of Status Quo. Theatre communities are very distinctive in the urban markets I've sampled, in both style and access and audiences, and if the Status Quo is somehow represented by a few New York large theaters, let's all remember that they are simply a well-heeled and vocal minority anyhow.
Scott, to be fair, isn't the only person who speaks of American theatre as if it's sick, as if it's a patient and he's a doctor. That's a sentiment that is easy to find on any street corner, in conversations among undergraduates, among professionals, among professors, among subscribers. The death of theatre, Broadway, the impossible business model, the lousy playwrights... you name it. Those declaring the death of theatre are often offering the sort of solutions that come from any would-be revolutionary: tear it down and start over. They don't like the theatre, but would love to be theatre's savior.
In the end, I don't deny that there are issues facing theatre as it moves into the 21st Century, but these problems are not new and they're not insurmountable, if we have reasonable expectations and an eye to what's practical.
In short: let's stop talking about theatre as if it's broken. Let's look at the increasingly diverse and exciting work being done all over the country, celebrate it, and try to get more people to see it.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.