Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Value of Theatre

Quick note before I begin ... I emailed most of our current and past collaborators to see what they thought about the questions being asked today. I only received three responses. I can think of a myriad of reasons why people didn't respond, but one thing that always interests me is the lack of input that comes through from people. Are they bored with theatre even though they do it? Are they really not interested in the conversation? Are they doers and not talkers? Are they afraid of what others may think? Are they indifferent to the questions? Are they just too busy with their work day to form cohesive thoughts on the subject? Do they think I'm a dork for just asking the question? Just food for thought ... though I know I'm a dork. (Edited at 5:27pm ... more feedback to the questions asked are coming on in ... please check the comments for additional thoughts. Peeps are busy with their day jobs, as I suspected or working on shows, etc. Great deduction, Holmes. Thank you, my dear Watson.)

So ... here are the questions I asked our peeps:

1. What makes theatre more valuable than other art forms?
2. Is theatre, indeed, more valuable? If not, tell me about it.
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 are the answers I received ... I'm keeping them anonymous because I wanted to keep it more like a survey.

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

- The complete and total process. The process is what makes it so totally superior. One must completely immerse themselves in it for it to fully be valuable. It is not a singular process, but one where you must collaborate and learn from one another. Yes, an artist can take advice from a colleague on the way a certain painting is going or musical arrangement, but theater incorporates every one and every thing. It is a whole living, moving piece of art from the beginning to the end. In the end, what completely dominates other forms is its demand for a breathing audience. It gives its whole life cycle - from the process to the last audience member.

- Theater is not more valuable than other art forms. Only insufferable theatre geeks believe that it is. I choose not to associate with these people.

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

If I had a gun to my head, then yes. Why? It needs so many art forms to live. I've seen theater done with poetry, music, dance, visual art, movement, masks, sculpture, puppetry, you name it. As long as the theatre lives, these other forms of art live.

- See Note 1

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?

- Seeing a show like might as well tune in and turn on the TV. It does not challenge the mind. You have more invested in a sporting game than you would with Big Traveling Broadway. Yes, it's pretty, but so are Steven Spielberg movies. I, myself, would rather pay $9 to see a Steven Spielberg film rather than pay $50-$75 to see a big production from nosebleed seating. Yet with smaller theater, there isn't a flat screen TV big enough to receive the kind of intimate, live entertainment it would provide. It's kind of why I decided to go to a smaller private school for college rather than being just another number at University of Texas. I wanted to get my money's worth. I knew that being in a smaller space, there would be these moments of connection and reflection that I wouldn't have in a larger arena.

Storefront, blackbox, warehouse theater in Chicago is akin to CBGB rock in the 70's. Wicked, Jersey Boys etc is the American Idol/Celine Dion of stage. I will judge you harshly if you think any of the latter crap has value beyond soulless entertainment. Any theater where you can smell the actors is going to be worthwhile even if it ends up sucking out loud.

- I usually tell people who go see only big house shows like Wicked that smaller theatres have always seemed to have more to offer in the way of story, acting and overall production because it's all being put together by people who do theatre for the love of it. Not the money. Anytime I see a show at a commercial house the first thing I think it, well the acting and the story was sub-par, but at least I got to look at a pretty set for two hours. I rarely feel that way with non-for-profit theatres. They tend to actually move me in ways that big houses have yet to do. There's too much heart in smaller productions to ignore.

OK - here's my spin on the subject. And I'm really taking the audience's point of view, as I understand it.

Why is there value in theatre? Bob pointed out that theatre is dangerous. I agree. It's safe to sit at home and flip through the channels. It's safe to giggle and shout at the screen. It's safe to munch on your popcorn and answer your cell phone during a movie. Ain't so in the theatre. The actors may stop and see you. They know you're there. They could see you after the show. They might ask your opinion. They might solicit you to see something else. I like that. It's like deciding to go on a roller coaster. Once you start, you can't back out. Theatre's for the thrill seekers of the art world. Especially small theatre. If you're sitting in a tiny, blackbox theatre, you're a part of it and there's no turning back. Your yawn might hurt someone's feelings. Your laughter at inappropriate places might make them cry after the show. It's exciting. Other than a live music concert, I can't think of another art form similar to theatre. The faint of heart need not apply.

The beauty and art is temporary, fleeting. I almost think we should charge more because of this fact. The show will never be the same each time you see it. You have live people in front of you and live people taking your tickets and running the lights and taking you to the seats, welcoming you to the show.

The collaboration of so many people in theatre is quite magical and doesn't happen in other art forms ... except live music. There's that live music comparison again. When I see a great live concert, it gives me the same rush as a great live show of theatre. I don't know about you, but it's holy.

Why see, say, a GreyZelda show other than Wicked? I often think of my family members when it comes to presenting the show to the non-theatre people of the world. I have to figure out what our show has in common with things they like. My mom likes moments of hope. She can watch a dark, dreary play but if there's a bit of hope she can walk away with, the show's a success. My dad likes people he can relate with. Are either of them going to want to see The Skriker? I don't think so. The play doesn't fit into those two categories that always seem to entertain them. And that's ok. I don't think less of my family because of that ... I just have to work harder to find the audience that will enjoy it. If an audience member loves Wicked, I'd like to ask them what they like about it and what they're looking forward to when seeing it. The shows we do might not appeal to everyone. Again, that's ok. People aren't idiots if they like big musicals and not small theatre. Cut the loss and look for people who will possibly like the show. You can't please everyone but always continue your enthusiasm and fascination with your own work because that becomes contagious. Keep asking people to come. You might end up producing something that speaks to their interests. Keep up that sense of community.

Someone, maybe Don, mentioned theatre and church. When we were down in Texas recently, we went and visited my in-laws' church. The sense of community within the church and extending outside its walls was so strong. People were volunteering their time, materials and creativity to make beautiful prayer quilts to send to strangers that was in need of spiritual care. They brought in illusionists. They had dinner there almost every night. A built-in theatre. A fun room with a pool table for teens. Retreats for members. Music for members. So many things ... all inspired by Christ and his teachings. People did things without ego, competition, etc. They have faith in their belief system.

It just got me thinking ... so many churches down there. So much money being given each week to keep the church alive. We're a non-profit theatre company. Why can't we and other theatres inspire that type of devotion? I talked about it a little bit with my mother-in-law and she asked if we ever would consider doing biblical plays? I said that we probably would offend most church-going sensibilities with our versions of the Esther story, say. We'd be attracted to the great offenders of the Bible - Judas, The Whore of Babylon, Lilith, etc.

But, doesn't theatre tell the human story, too? That's why people find such truth in the Bible ... so many human stories and experiences to which we all can relate. And people come together to discuss them and praise them ... always with that great sense of fellowship and community.

Which makes it ever so valuable.

This post is inspired by those taking part in a Theatre Think Tank initiative. Please read the related posts by other participants in the effort, including:

Rat Sass
An Angry White Guy in Chicago
Theatre Ideas
Theatre Is Territory
The Next Stage
Bite and Smile by Joe Janes
A Rhinestone World
That Sounds Cool
On Theatre and Politics - Matthew Freeman
Never Trust Your Pet With the Devil Vet
Theatre For The Future
Mike Daisey
steve on broadway
Jay Raskolnikov — half hillbilly, Demi-Culture
The Mission Paradox Blog
Adam Thurman
Paul Rekk
Travis Bedard
Dennis Frymire


GreyZelda Land said...

From another one of our fierce collaborators:

1. What makes theatre more valuable than other art forms? More valuable? Hmm. As a visual artist I appreciate all types of art forms, each for its own experience and affect on my life. Theater for me, has been about how different groups bring great literature to life. I like to experience unique script interpretations, it opens my mind up to different views. It also often times reminds me of why I liked a particular piece of writing, or why a certain book always sticks out in my memory. The audience experience involves most all the senses---viewing sets and costumes; hearing the soundtrack and voice tone; the seating... for touch; different scents, whether it be the freshly painted set or the cigarette smoke blown from a cast member. Not too much to taste except that once you get a taste of local theater you'll definitely hunger for more. hehe. ok that was corny, but so true. Once people venture out beyond the comfort of the Goodman or Steppenwolf, etc, they will see how much talent is out there and will be excited to see their next production!!

2. Is theatre, indeed, more valuable? If not, tell me about it. I would say it is equal an art form to others, it is a vision brought to life on stage rather than on canvas or through music, etc. I do think however, it is a bit more involved and labor intensive than some other art forms in terms of all the elements that go into making a strong production---everything from cast to the set to the stagebill.

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? You really get to see how smart and uber creative people put on amazing work with a very limited budget. Productions at the Goodman, Harris, Cadillac Palace, etc. are beautiful but they have the budget to do whatever they please. Smaller theaters have to be extraordinarily creative and inventive with sets, lighting and music because they are working within small budgets or out of their own pocket. You will also get to experience some of the most talented actors working in Chicago. Again with the Broadway in Chicago shops, it may be nice to see a big name, but when a stage talent is able to bring a character to life and extend into your own, the experience is brings to life what the theater is about. the Actor, audience connection. The smaller venues enhance this experience with intimate and often limited seating. And can I drive home the point once more...once people venture out beyond the comfort of the Goodman or Steppenwolf, they will see how much talent is out there and will be excited to see their next production!!

Scott Walters said...

I loved you musings about the church you attended in Texas. Your mother-in-law focused on content, but I don't think that's it. I think church is more people-oriented than product-oriented. A church like that allows space for the congregation to participate, contribute, and be a part of it. If it is anything like the churches I have attended, after the service the minister greets the congregants as they leave, whereas most of the time theatre people disappear. In short, the congregation is the focus of the institution. Check this outy:

GreyZelda Land said...

Hey, Scott - I just left a comment on the blog you listed.

Ichabod said...

Yeah, I totally dig this thread too. Unfortunately I knew that were I to respond, it would eat up an hour of my time and require some serious cerebration that I sadly didn't have time for. But I'm enjoying the myriad thoughts on "to theatre or not to theatre" , so keep rockin' and rollin'.


GreyZelda Land said...

Thanks, Brian!

thesaurasaurus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GreyZelda Land said...

From another of our collaborators:

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."