Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Value of Theatre

I wrote the following in response to my intrepid director Rebecca asking three questions for a discussion she has been involved in:

1. What makes theatre more valuable than other art forms?

2. Is theatre, indeed, more valuable? If not, tell me about it.

3. If you could explain to the average, tv-watching, sports-going Joe, why they should come see a small show over something like Wicked, what would you say to them?

And here's what I said. Your thoughts are welcome too!

Ok. I've slept on it. First off, I don't think theatre is more important than other art forms. I think, and this may become the greater theme of my answer, that people are meant to be intellectual and emotional omnivores. When people ask me what they should see in Chicago, I don't so much tell them what to see as try to engage them in a conversation about what they want and expect and what kind of mood they're in. And I never just recommend one thing. Have I recommended 'Wicked?' Yes. Have I recommended 'Blue Man Group?' Yes. It's not so much within my field of expertise to dictate what will or will not be meaningful to someone else. I haven't pitched those shows as often as I've recommended T.U.T.A. or Sarah Kane plays or Breakbone Dance Co. or the smaller stuff at the Chopin or Stage Left -- I figure the big houses have monster ad budgets that can remove some of that burden from me -- but I try to genuinely listen to the person I'm talking to and figure out something they might like. And I think it's worth acknowledging that lots of people genuinely like the mainstream stuff like 'Wicked.' That's one of the reasons it's POPULAR. I've seen people streaming out of the big downtown theatres ecstatic and crying and chattering to their friends about how what they just saw changed their lives, and it's not my place to say, "Well, they just don't know what's good."

But I do very much believe that our emotional core is like a muscle that requires exercise and variety. Just as you wouldn't advise someone who rarely exercises to run a marathon tomorrow, I wouldn't recommend Sarah Kane -- or, to a much lesser extent The Skriker -- to someone who would be shocked and appalled and decide that they hate small theatre as a result. One thing that's important to acknowledge is that people who go to big theatre aren't necessarily compulsive theatre-goers. I would rather a person know that there is a wide range of theatre choices out there and choose to go see 'Wicked' than say to themselves, "Well, I don't like that freaky shit; I just won't go to theatre at all." A lot of the people who go see 'Wicked' are not extensive theatre-goers, and it may be because they live far out and there isn't a lot of diverse quality stuff near them, or it may be that when they go to movies they're usually movies with Meg Ryan and a happy ending. Some people have taste that's different from mine. That's a positive thing. And my many friends and professional acquaintances who've made a good living in Broadway musicals and big touring shows and theme parks -- and yes, 'Wicked' -- might add to this discussion that, were it not for the big shows that paid the rent, they might have gotten discouraged and gone back to dental hygeine school long ago. It's like Michael Caine said, "I do the movies to pay for the films."

When recommending theatre I don't distinguish between the big shows and the small shows. If I have friends with somewhat mainstream taste in town for, say, two days, I give them choices according to plot summary and any technical info about the shows they might find interesting or appealing. And I can recognize the difference between someone who never sees small theatre because they hate small theatre and someone who never sees small theatre because they don't know it exists (this is an oversimplification). More than once I've said, "Yeah, the Steppenwolf show is FANTASTIC but the Viaduct has something going on you're NEVER going to see back home." Then I shut up and listen to them talk about what they're into. Maybe what they really want is to go home and tell their friends they went to Chicago and saw a show at Steppenwolf or the Goodman. Rock on. They should do that. But I find that an equal measure of people will take a chance on something different if it's put to them in a way that makes it new and exciting. And sometimes the only way to get people to take a chance on theatre is to talk about movies: "Are you more in the mood for When Harry Met Sally or is tonight more Reservoir Dogs?" People know what they like and they're not inherently resistant to the offbeat unless it's pitched to them as something that's good for them or that we're a bunch of art people out to show those damn yuppies how much more fun it is on our side of the tracks.

What I find far more depressing than the people who've had no exposure to indie theatre and are cautious about it are the young artsy types who will come right out and say, "I've seen too much shitty theatre. I don't go anymore." There are more of these here in Chicago than I would have thought. These people seem to be the same group who are full of drama and angst about their own work but neglectful of their senses of humor. This sucks. I've tried -- and it's a bit like trying to explain to one's grandfather that the internet is actually pretty cool -- to come at it from the perspective that, yes, there is some crap floating around, but there's always more new stuff and variety being produced, and what's to stop an audience member from laughing during a sad scene if it plays funny or corny, or leaving at intermission if the show isn't growing on them? I do these things myself. I'd rather play to a house that thinks that show is bullshit and gets angry and has opinions than to an empty house or a group that never gasps or laughs or blinks their eyes.

To close, because I've yacked on long enough, a lot of the people that I send to the small houses frequently come back to me with, "I felt like I was a part of the show -- I was almost right on the stage!" or "I just can't believe how good those people were!" It's extremely cool and gratifying to hear that people stepped out of their comfort for a night and it paid off. And even on the occasions where I send people to a show and later they say, "Yeah, what was the deal with that?" we can still share a sly smile and exchange a cool-kid look that says, "Yeah, well now you know THAT wasn't your thing."

Keep on truckin',


Blogger GreyZelda Land said...

Hey, Kat -

Thank you again for sending me your excellently worded thoughts on the subject. I've linked you from our bloggy blog, too, if you don't mind.

See you tonight!!!


10:28 AM  

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