April 5, 2011

Thoughts On Defending the Invalid

Howard Sherman of the American Theatre Wing posted a pretty great article titled "Defending The Invalid" about the present and future of theatre.  Yet one of his talking points really struck me, and not in a good way.
4. Yes, it’s expensive to attend in most cases, but when was the last time you bought a ticket to a sporting event or rock concert. Inexplicably, people endlessly discuss how expensive theatre is, but they’re not as quick to say the same of some other forms of live entertainment. I think this is rooted in the idea that theatre is elitist and so this argument is trooped out to reinforce the stereotype, when other entertainments are at least as expensive or even more so. Ironically, sports and rock are priced high in order to pay outrageous sums to a relative handful of people who are often distant figures rarely making a personal connection with their audiences. Theatre is expensive in order to support a distinctly human interaction that is incredibly labor intensive at every level, but if you want to have a moment with your heroes, just take a quick survey of any venue where it’s performed and find the stage door. You’ll see your heroes, maybe even speak with them and get an autograph or a photo, instead of discovering that, say, they’re already on the way to their airport so they can fly home and sleep in their own bed, while you’re still trying to get out of the parking lot.
Although the rest of the article is very on-point, my response to that particular talking point is this:


Allow me to elaborate: theatre does not need to be expensive.

I posted a comment on his article (with additions/edits below) thus:
The overriding sentiment of the above talking point can be summarized thus: “Why won’t people pay $100 to see live theatre? Don’t they know how good it is for them?” And that seems shockingly disconnected from reality.

When live (non-musical) theatre and its practitioners are as much a part of the cultural landscape as sports and pop music, then it’s entirely justifiable to price it accordingly. Wake me, however, when Denis O’Hare and Norbert Leo Butz reach the same level of hero worship as Derek Jeter and Justin Timberlake.

I accept that Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Regional LORT theatres operate with high budgets out of necessity, given Union payscales for actors and crew, and the (flawed) assumption that artistic legitimacy must be measured in dollar signs.  When the latter view is taken to extremes, monstrosities like Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark come to pass.

The ideal paradigm for theatre in which [an earlier] commenter’s vision of “Theatre … building empathy, connection and passion for life” can be an actual reality (instead of a quaint trope or marketing phrase), is in smaller venues. A reduction of scale, but not of vision. A performance at a black box theatre seating 99 or less — where one is separated from the performer by inches instead of hundreds of feet — offers a uniquely intense, personal, intimate experience, and is usually economically comparable to a movie ticket or restaurant meal as opposed to a Sox game, a rock concert, or a night at the symphony or opera. And you can wear jeans and not feel judged.

Plus many of the groups I work with bring beer, wine and cookies to share with the audience after. You can’t get more up close and personal with the artists than that.
Over to you, Bread and Puppet Theatre:

1 comment:

Ian Thal said...

These are good questions we do have to ask regarding the economics of scale, scale of vision and degree of intimacy. Generally, when every seat is a cheap seat, there's an amazing potential for an intimate and immersive experience that few other media allow.

On the other hand, we all want our friends in the profession to make a living from their art: of course, we have to also accept that few artists, no matter what their medium, get by without a day job (even if it directly connects with their true calling as in the case of theatre or music teachers.)

So while I think it is a good thing for expensive theatre to continue to exist, what we need to do is make sure the theatrical eco-system is one that is healthy for the cheap theatre-- and that means convincing the general audience that theatre (cheap theatre included) is just as viable an evening's entertainment as seeing live music, or dancing to a DJ-- and we need to make that case to people who aren't explicitly "theatre people." And that means people who are eager to pay for cheap theatre tickets during the 51 weeks of the year that Bread & Puppet aren't in town!