Theatre As Junk Food
Now with all other silliness out of the way, finally, my entry on theatre-as-junk-food...
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I was rereading my copy of Danse Macabre by Stephen King, his nonfiction book assessing the state of the horror genre in media from the 1950s through the early 1980s, and came across his chapter entitled "The Horror Movie As Junk Food." In this brief chapter, Mr. King rationalizes the (small) soft spot in his heart for really shitty horror movies (citing Robot Monster and The Prophecy). The ultimate argument is that when you're a big fan of something, regardless of the genre or medium, you end up developing a taste for really bad entries of said genre or medium.
He's absolutely right.
Part of this is because when you slog through the mire of dreck trying to find rare gems, you need a sense of humor about the whole thing. If you keep going into something believing every time you're going to find the masterpiece of all masterpieces, you're going to find your heart getting broken many, many times before becoming embittered and cynical.
As much as I like to flatter myself in thinking I have refined aesthetic tastes, I also love really delightfully bad movies (you know, those "so bad they're good" movies?), horrendous music (okay, come on. We're all friends here. Raise your hand if you had - or still have - Def Leppard's Hysteria album or even - God help us - Warrant's Cherry Pie), terrible comic books and God-awful television.
Christ, I absolutely love Billy Madison, despite being aware of how awful it is (and trust me, if you haven't seen it, it's really bad, even by the standards of an Adam Sandler movie). If it's playing on late-night television, I ain't going to sleep just yet (no matter how late/early it's on). I can't help but get pumped whenever I hear Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" or even - stay with me - Steelheart's "I'll Never Let You Go." I still have a strong sense of nostalgia whenever I skim through my old Savage Dragon or Punisher comics.
And I think we're all familiar with my feelings towards that trashy TV show "elimiDATE," right?
So Bad It's Good.
As I contemplated this, I realize that what makes theatre unique from most other media is that there really isn't junk food in theatre. I mean sure, there's bad theatre, and sometimes the perverse fun of seeing a truly awful show is relaying the story to others about the nightmare that was said show. But those shows are not looked upon with fondness. They're not "so bad they're good," they're usually "so bad they're awful."
I was ready to consider Broadway fare as the "junk food" of theatre, but that doesn't quite fit the bill, does it? Broadway theatre is too expensive and too extravagant to be considered a "guilty pleasure" and neither tourists nor regular theatergoers enjoy it in a "so bad it's good" vein.
So no, I wouldn't say that Broadway counts as the junk food of theatre.
How about gay camp theatre? Would that qualify as junk food? After thinking about it, I ultimately decided not really, no. Granted, I'm not its target audience, but still, I don't see audience members of its target audience seeing the works of (say) Charles Busch as "junk food." I don't think any gay man after seeing gay camp theatre is saying to a friend, "You've GOT to go see this! It's. SO. BAD."
Then again, I could be wrong (like I said, I'm not its target audience). At the very least, gay camp, like Broadway, is not junk/comfort food for me.
When I was telling Pete from Nosedive about this, he suggested two things. The first thing was that this might have to do with distribution. Junk food is often mass-produced, mass-marketed and pre-packaged in a way that eliminates any surprise. You know what you're getting when you buy a Snickers bar. You know what you'll taste when you buy a Big Mac. Since theatre is by its very nature not mass-produced, mass-marketed or pre-packaged (in fact it defies such things), the ability for it to be served up as some sort of unhealthy comfort food is contrary to the medium's nature.
Theatre simply doesn't have that Mass Appeal (Title Case Intended).
The second thing that Pete pointed out was that, for lovers of musicals, there is theatre as junk food; there are shows that musical-lovers go to simply because they're delightfully awful. The example he brought up was the huge popularity of the touring production of Hello Dolly in the '90s, which featured Carol Channing (who was in her seventies at the time) reprising the role that made her famous in the '60s.
A woman in her seventies playing a role for a woman at least 30 years younger to packed houses.
Theatre as junk food.
So good it's bad.
So, I will concede the latter point. There are some parts of the theatre world where there are cases of the medium being enjoyed on a junk food level. My confessed ignorance of this aspect is due to the fact that I'm not particularly inclined towards musical theatre (I mean, I'm familiar with them, I was known to have performed in one or two in high school, and I even like some of them, but for the most part, musical theatre has never been particularly "my bag," as Austin Powers would say).
Theatre-as-junk food is most definitely not found in the Off-off or indie scene. When's the last time someone suggested you go see a play because "it was really bad" (and offered to come along for a second time)?
Bear in mind I'm really not saying this is good or bad, right or wrong. I'm not suggesting we fix this or change this (and thereby suggesting we mass-market and pre-package theatre). I just wanted to point out a unique attribute of this medium many of us have chosen to focus the bulk of our efforts on.
I also realize this I'm talking more about the spectator, not necessarily the object itself. In other words, I'm not exactly saying there isn't bad theatre out there that can be seen with a fun sensibility, but that the typical theatergoer that sees said theatre with such a sensibility is rare, perhaps rare to the point of being nonexistent.
Now, those of you out there reading this, by all means, correct me if I'm wrong. If there's a show, author or genre of theatre you go to simply to relish in its awfulness, by all means, let me know. Unless, of course, this means hurting a close friend's feelings by revealing that you only like their work on a shitty, campy level.
Anyway, I need to chat with my fellow Slow Children at Play about Saturday's upcoming show. After that, I'm heading home (to my apartment which has mercifully gotten its electricity back) to watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
Grabbin' a Snickers,
James "Winger Fan" Comtois