Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Entertainment Value

Before I begin, I just wanted to point out that today is Tai Verley’s birthday (she played the latexed stripper and other ensemble roles in The Adventures of Nervous Boy), so we here at Nosedive Central will be celebrating that with her this evening.

Happy birthday, Tai!

Also, the members of Slow Children at Play, who are currently scattered all over the continent, have been emailing each other back and forth writing new sketches and finalizing our set list for the August 12 show. I’m getting pretty excited about it.

* * *

I have to say, although the year is far from up, 2006 is shaping up to be a great year for New York theatre.

When seeing Pig Farm on Saturday, I invited Steven Gridley, a friend and fellow playwright along. Before the show started, he had commented on how much more entertaining theatre was becoming to him over movies. See, the way Steve saw it, movies were what you went to see to be entertained and plays were what you went to see to be enlightened or educated. For some reason though, he was finding the plays he was seeing of late to be far more exciting and entertaining than even the big budget blockbusters (which, to him, felt quite dull).

I knew what he meant.

I’ve been genuinely more excited about seeing new plays I’ve heard about than, say, Mission: Impossible III or X-3.

What’s surprising about this (for me, anyway) is that I’ve always said (and meant) that I’d rather sit through the latest shitty Ashton Kutcher vehicle than through a shitty indie play. This is because the act of simply going to the movies was fun for me, regardless of what I was watching. Sure, I could tell when a movie sucked and when it was good, but being in the air conditioned theatre eating my popcorn and hearing that Dolby surround sound made watching even the lamest of lame movies enjoyable. It wasn’t until I was in my early-20s that I needed more than just the outing in-and-of-itself to enjoy the experience.

That really hasn’t been the case this year. My response to most movies coming to theatres (of course, with some exceptions) has typically been “Ho, hum.” Is this because movies have become shittier? I don’t think so, since shitty movies have always been around (although now shitty exploitation movies have such large budgets and enjoy such large publicity campaigns that any guilty pleasure potential to be derived from them get sucked out). Is it because the film industry has acknowledged its unequivocal defeat from television as the mass medium people care about and therefore given up on trying to offer a fun movie-going experience? Maybe, and although I’ve not had the horrific movie-going experiences that others have, there are opinion pieces everywhere about how unappealing going out to the multiplexes has become to support this theory.

(My best guess is that since movies have become so expensive — cracking the $100 million mark has now become commonplace — that the most expensive ones have just become even more “by-the-numbers” than they were six, seven years ago and again, any sense of “fun” to be gained from these middle- to lowbrow movies are leached out.)

[Update: although for the most part I find his articles and film reviews to be snide, obnoxious and insufferable, Charles Taylor wrote an excellent piece for Salon a few years ago giving his assessment on why big budget action movies have become so dull. I think, for the most part, he hits the nail on the head.]

To be fair, I’ve seen some really good movies this year (I Am A Sex Addict, United 93, Superman Returns). And I still find some appeal in simply going to the movies. For the most part, however, I have been getting more pleasure from going out to see plays in a way (usually reserved for going out to see movies) that I haven’t in a long while.

Pete and I were talking a little bit about this last night, and in our conversation we realized that one thing to note is that a number of plays debuting in New York this year — Broadway, Off-Broadway and Indie — feature violence. The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Pig Farm, Abacus Black Strikes Now, Living Dead in Denmark, even Nosedive’s own The Adventures of Nervous Boy, to name a few, have physical violence playing crucial roles to them, something that didn’t seem quite so common last year or the year before.

Is this actually the start of an actual aesthetic movement or simply a trend or fad? It’s way too early to tell, but if it is only the latter, it’s hardly a trend you’ll hear me complaining about (seriously, give me theatre featuring violence over the leftist agitprop that seemed to dominate the Indie landscape for the past few years any day of the week).

Stephen Kelsey, Pete and my former high school theatre director and now artistic director of the Columbia, S.C.-based Imperfect Theater Co. summed up the problem with theatre perfectly in his company’s mission statement:

“For me, as an audience member, too often, going to theater is like taking medicine, something that one endures just because it is, somehow, good for us. By the same token, an endless diet of empty diversions also quickly loses it charm.” (Emphasis mine.)

So far this year, there have been very few plays I’ve seen that have made me feel like I’m “taking medicine.” With some exceptions (which is, of course, inevitable), the plays that I’ve seen so far this year have been honest-to-Gorsh fun. More fun, I must say, than the movie version of V For Vendetta. Is this because I’ve just been in a really good mood staging Nervous Boy? Is this because I’ve been very lucky to have been led to shows that are worth my while? Or is this the start of something bigger and better for the world of theatre?

Again, it’s too early to tell.

Regardless, I’m pretty thankful that seeing plays of late haven’t felt like the endurance test. Maybe I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and just enjoy that I’ve been enjoying myself seeing plays this year in a way I haven’t in a long time.

But who knows? I could be singing a different tune after the Fringe starts and I see a string of shitty plays made by people who should have been plumbers.

Then I’ll be wishing I had stayed in and rented Mission: Impossible III.

Just Wantin’ to Have Fun,

James “Cyndi Lauper” Comtois


Blogger seraphimcharm said...

One of the things that keep a lot of people from going to the theatre is not knowing what's interesting/good/worthwhile. I know that I will personally take a Comtois Seal of Approval as a reason to see a show, since, for the most part, I usually like the things you dig. Just keep letting us know what you're seeing; that'll get me going out more.


4:43 PM  
Blogger MattJ said...

Great Post James. Haven't had a post like this in awhile on the blogosphere. I completely understand what you are saying about "medicinal" theatre and its downfall. At the same time, though, I can't help but being slightly taken aback by everyone's response to Pig Farm where every single person said that it was simply for entertainment without much ideology and executed well and that was good enough. Now of course that's ok, completely fine. But I can't help but feel like The Roundabout should be engaging with more than this kind of work. And there's always this part of me that wants to distinguish theatre from film and in that sort of ideological way. But, you're enjoying going to the theatre more, and there's something to be said about that.

My rambling thoughts...

5:47 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

I don't go to the fringe anymore because i end up always seeing plays I hate. And I love theatre, and get to see a lot of good theatre but i have only seen one good fringe show and it involved people I already knew. Is that fair? No. But i rarely go to a show I haven't heard something good about. Becuase 9 times out of 10 if I go into something blind, it's not going to be good. And yet most of the time I'm seeing 2 plays a week--at least one a week so by the end of the year, I've seen between 60 and 130 shows. Christ, is that true? This past year it was. and I saw lots of good stuff actually.

but I agree that plays should be entertaining. And I enjoy myself the most when they are also grappling with something as well.

12:59 PM  

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