Friday, June 11, 2004

Pigs and Pussies

“There’s a fallacy…the ol’ ‘The audience is stupid. The audience only wants to go this deep. Poor us, we’re marginalized because of TV, the great hypnotic blah, blah.’ Of course this is bullshit. If an art form is marginalized it’s because it’s not speaking to people.

“Part of it has to do with living in an era when there’s so much entertainment available, and figuring out how fiction is going to stake out its territory in that sort of era. You can try to confront what it is that makes fiction magical in a way that other kinds of art and entertainment aren’t. And to figure out how fiction can engage a reader, much of whose sensibility has been formed by pop culture, without simply becoming more shit in the pop culture machine. It’s unbelievably difficult and confusing and scary, but it’s neat. I think it’s the best time to be alive ever and it’s probably the best time to be a writer. I’m not sure it’s the easiest time.”
—David Foster Wallace

Fine, I admit it. I’ve never read or seen any plays by Brecht. So sue me. I’ll get around to it some day. Let’s just get that out in the open.

Regardless, I do want to talk a little bit about Brecht’s concept of calling theatre audiences “pigs.” Brecht scholars, am I right about this? If not, fuck it. Let’s just talk about that concept: thinking of theatre audiences as pigs, placid cattle, stupid, passive and worthy of contempt.

This concept perpetuated by theatre-makers needs to stop, and stop soon.

This is why people hate theatre.

I won’t say the name of the play I went to last night, but suffice it to say that show showed that contempt (“Audience as Pigs”) with gusto. As Pete said to me afterwards, “I’ve never seen something that showed such blatant contempt for its audience.” Physically uncomfortable (we had to sit on the floor despite there being plenty of comfortable chairs in the theatre; my neck, feet and back were in knots), with audience participation (in other words, we got kicked by the actors a few times) and a message to the audience which, from what I understood, was, “Fuck you, scum!”

This is why people hate theatre.

The other concept that I’m sick of is kind of the reverse; I’m sick of watching theatre being made by pussies.

People have apprehensions about going to the theatre, and for good cause. Despite theatre being unable to compete with film and television, most plays and productions try to do just that. This is why you end up paying money to sit in uncomfortable seats to watch a carbon copy of a third-rate sitcom (which has higher production values) you wouldn’t watch for free in the comfort of your own home.

This is why people hate theatre.

When I hear Theatre People lament about dwindling audience numbers, lack of funding, lack of support, I can’t help but think, “Well, duh.” Of all the ways to spend your Friday night (reading a book, seeing a movie, going to a bar, watching TV, having sex, doing drugs), theatre is the biggest gamble with the worst odds for payoff, and it’s either made with hostility (where audiences are treated like pigs) or made with cowardice (where audiences are treated like children). Sometimes (oh, joy of joys) it’s made with both.

With all the options people have for their free evening, we, as theatre-makers, have no right to refer to audiences as pigs. Maybe back in Brecht’s day, when there was no “Must See TV” or “Spider-Man 2,” one could say something like that. But now, no. We should be honored by those who decide to see our shows, and not treat them like scum.

But there’s the danger of going the extreme opposite; to apologize to those audiences, to hedge our bets and say, “We know, we know. You would be having much more fun at a bar. Or watching Conan. Or seeing the latest Ashton Kutcher movie. I mean, hell, the season premiere of ‘Six Feet Under’ is on; THAT’S a much better way to spend your evening than this show!”

This is why people hate theatre.

It’s not a mystery, folks. There’s no big surprise and there’s no big corporate or governmental conspiracy. Theatre isn’t rotting from the insides out because of the drop in government funding or arts grants. It’s not because the audience is stupid. It’s because when we (as audiences) go to theatre, we’re treated like shit. It’s become an endurance contest, an obligation, a chore (and a chore that’s not even worthwhile—installing your air conditioner is a much better use of your time). In short, it’s becoming insulting.

Maybe I’m just grumpy because I’ve been seeing a lot of this lately (translation: for fucking YEARS): mediocre, middlebrow theatre being made with either such extreme cowardice or extreme arrogance. Regarding the audience with two sides of the same troika (“You passive scum,” / “You poor fool”).

I went to see your show. I decided (for some unknown reason) to set aside some time to see a play. I’m not a pig. I’m not scum. Don’t call me that.

I went to see your show. I decided (for some unknown reason) to forgo watching the season finale of “The Sopranos.” Don’t remind me of what I’m missing. Don’t actively convince me that I made the wrong choice.

This is why people hate theatre.

A Big Pussy,

James “Oink Oink” Comtois

June 11, 2004


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