Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The State of the Form (not good...)

Before I go into what I think it a bit of a bummer of a post, I want to state my absolute and total happiness with what was a wonderful weekend for THE KING IN EXILE. Great turnouts, thoughtful and enthusiastic crowds, and a great chance to see this work which is challenging, entertaining, and my first foray into the intense world of downtown NYC theatre. More to come later...but after such a lovely time it's important to do some much needed reflectin. It's not great, but I hope that by highlighting what I feel to be some of the challenges before the genre that we can begin to make theatre important again (I don't know why, but thats a question for another time...).

I think we can all agree at this point that theatre is not a dominant cultural trend. To be truthful it hasn't been for a while. Here is what I think defines a cultural trend. Art, when it is a dominant (and popularly consumed) trend both synthesizes and reflects upon culture. It is in this way that you see the cross-genre influence of film, television and popular music and art on the way we think of ourselves, the way we define our generations, and the way that we make our art. The effect of films transcends its own genres, in such a way that you see their influence on everything from other popular art forms to even our dialect and the way we speak.

When's the last time you saw a theatre production having that kind of widespread cultural effect? Perhaps Angels in America may be the last one - (maybe musicals, but I'm not well versed in them and will let someone else opinionate on them).

I'm not saying that theatre has to have the same pull of reality shows, but even high/low aspects of the genre become dominant culturally. Look at the indie-music blast in rock, or the indie-film phenomenon in cinema - a movie like Little Miss Sunshine, nominated for an Oscar, featuring indie music in its soundtrack, and reaches widespread audiences. Television that is critically acclaimed such as The Wire, or Arrested Development or Mad Men or Lost, all these things as well becoming part of a national artistic narrative that theatre is not participating in.

Let's face it, when less than 10% of the American public goes to the theatre we are in crisis mode.

Instead what do we have? Rather than have a cultural art-form that participates in the national cultural narrative while also in some way constituting it, we have a cultural-diasporic form that is relatively tiny that synthesizes its own narrative, creating a group of artists and theatregoers that are increasingly invested, even while their own numbers are shrinking and being increasingly ignored by the populace. The result is higher numbers of people making theatre, a more competitive market to get this theatre made, and increasingly conservative and minimal abilities for this theatre to be made by institutions that are both overwhelmed and economically struggling.

Yep, it's dire straights. I don't mean this to be a condemnation, just a reflection, and perhaps I am being to harsh, or perhaps I am woefully uninformed, but it doesn't look very good; and judging by the blogosphere's reactions to Outrageous Fortune (I havent had time to read it), it's not a very good time to be a young playwright who creates work certainly out of the mainstream.

I know I've only talked about pretty mainstream things in this post, this is not to say follow the mainstream it's all that matters, I actually avoid a fair amount of the mainstream and spend most of my time at underground theatres...

But the problem is that even the theatrical mainstream is out of the main mainstream! The only way high-falutin productions seem to make money is when they borrow from Hollywood's thunder - (A Steady Rain does fabulously featuring two famous Hollywood actors, while classic shows such as Brighton Beach Memoirs fall flat).


There is also the problem that both film and theatre are mediated experiences. Theatre is not.

In fact theatre requires the unity of time, place and MONEY. All this is out of an audience member's control. With something like Hulu, all of these variables can be controlled by the audience. The entertainment is provided at an audience's convenience. Even a three-week or longer run, is just an extended event. It occurs then it dissipates and if you've missed it, unless it does extremely well, you've missed it. There is no Hulu, no reruns later that night, no dvds to purchase (usually).

The problem is how do we make theatre attractive as an event, how to generate the excitement that hollywood award shows gather, or rock concerts do, how do we generate the numbers of a political rally? There needs to be a way for theatre to continue to be an unmediated experience, while at the same time participating and perhaps expanding into a mediated place, so that the participation expand beyond the stage.

I don't know. There are too many questions at this point unanswered, this is not meant to answer anything, just meant to reflect and perhaps build a way towards answers.

How do we change this? And if we can't change it (which I feel to be the case), what should theatre's purpose be. Why make theatre when we know it can't have the dominant cultural effect it used to have - why is still important? I don't know. All I know is I want to keep making theatre. Theatre is essential and important to me, and hopefully to other people, but I don't know why. All I can do is convince myself that I'm not deluding myself - then again, we entrust ourselves to the world of illusions, hard not to live in them sometimes...

- J

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