Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Wednesday's Post

Here are two wonderful posts by Lucas and Josh that should be read.

From Lucas:

"What baffles me is the amount of energy people will expend justifying off-off-B'way theatre, rather than just making good work. Why complain? The surest way to prove wrong that theatre is dead is to make work that is alive. I don't care if I am designing for a 60 seat black box or a 700 Seat Opera or a small regional theatre. What I care about is that I am doing my best work."

From Josh:

"I think I've hit upon what it is that really bothers me [about theatre].

"It's become a luxury item of the elite.

"It's like caviar, fur coats and health insurance, something reserved strictly for the wealthy citizens of this land of ours.

"That's the problem. And I hate it." (Emphasis his.)

This is a subject I've written about way back in the day and have been circling around a lot recently (particularly with my "Entertainment Value," "Commercial Attributes" and "Theatre as Junk Food" entries), but Lucas and Josh really hit the nail on the head with their respective entries.

Now, granted, a lot of what Josh James is talking about is the actual ticket prices for plays, which are usually too high to allow people with lower- to middle-class incomes to see theatre on a regular basis (although the ticket prices for first-run movies and Off-off shows are getting to be neck-and-neck, at least in New York). But he also acknowledges that in addition to plays being too expensive (i.e., elitist), plays are also becoming jargon-based, exclusionary and disinterested in connecting with audiences (i.e., the other form of elitist).

Theatre is often regarded as a dead, insufferably pretentious drain on one's time and money. And (let's face it, folks) that criticism is not without merit.

A while back, Qui Nguyen and Robert Ross Parker from Vampire Cowboys actually addressed this problem in an interview with In the interview, Robert and Qui said:

Parker: At our school, 20-year-old kids from Ohio were doing Hedda Gabler scene study. And I thought: "What connection do they have to this work?" We felt that these kids had never seen a real piece of theater....

Nguyen: A piece that they really connected to, that was about them and for them, and about this generation....

Parker: That was hot and current and real and not some stodgy old dusty thing....

Nguyen: They were being trained that theater was always these recreations of old plays.

Mac Rogers, in our online dialogue a couple months back, also came up with a possible reason for why theatre artists have such a tough time connecting with audiences:

"When you create student or indie or Off Off Broadway theater, your rehearsal process is just as intense and exciting as it is for people doing Broadway or West End. Having an intense, interesting rehearsal process doesn't cost any money. However, the actual run of the show is a very different experience from Broadway or the West End. The audiences are tiny. Press attention is marginal or nonexistent. There's a feeling of anticlimax. What grows out of this, quite naturally, is a sense that the rehearsal process, being the more exciting part, was the whole point all along. And this is what I strenuously disagree with.

There are a couple dangers, it seems to me. One is that the artists end up spending too much time away from the audience. I'm of the opinion that theater artists need regular contact with audiences. Too long a period of time without that contact dulls your instinct for communion, for what reads, for what manifests in the public arena vs. what you feel inside your head."

Both of my fellow bloggers Lucas and Josh ask what can be done about this, and the only answer I can give is the one I've been giving myself for the past six years, which is to simply write (or direct, or act) the best that you possibly can, produce your work to the best of your abilities, see as many shows as you can, repeat.

My rule of thumb for my own work when I try to look at it as objectively and dispassionately as I can is: is this a show I would want to watch as an audience member?

That's really it.

Although this isn't always the case, the worst shows I've seen are often created by people who wouldn't be able to answer "Yes" to that question above.

(Again, this isn't always the case, since I've seen some pretty inept productions helmed by very passionate people and have also seen very good shows created by people who really didn't want to be there [Air Guitar apparently being the most obvious recent example of the latter]. But in general, this seems to be the best "rule of thumb" that I've been able to find.)

I actually don't have a whole lot more to say on the subject right now. I usually do when I see a string of shitty shows and start to fear that this is all there is.

Anyway, you should check out the two posts.

Hangin' by his thumbs,

James "Luxurious Elitist" Comtois


Blogger MattJ said...

Hey James,

Reading this reminded me of the one very important thing I always forget. Stanislavski's quote "Love the art in yourself, not yourself in art." It's so easy to get caught up in the idea of a "theatre career" as a ladder one climbs. I need to be reminded every now and then, that's it's about being present and doing the work as best you can and making it beautiful. That's a theatre career. If you are doing that consistently, you've "made it." Not that we can't strive for whatever, more money, bigger networks, larger audiences. But presence on bigger stages doesn't necessarily justify or classify the work. Theatre careers, seen through this lens, are based on an ideology of the work you want to make, the ideas move the direction. It is qualitative over quantitative.

Thanks for the reminder.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Thanks, Matt. Yeah, this has always been the best way I've been able to write as good as I can and be as objective as possible when doing the "post-mortums" on previous shows. It's always that tough
tightrope to cross of being both your own best admirer and harshest critic of your own work. I guess when you set out to write The Great American Stage Play, you're setting yourself up for a fall. Likewise with setting out to write The Most Popular Show Ever.

It's been very weird to think of myself as having a playwriting "career," since I would have made more money babysitting (and I don't really see that fact changing anytime soon, which is fine by me). Then again, writing and staging plays has been the only consistent "gig" I've had since I moved to New York back in '99, so that makes it easier to consider playwriting to be my real "career."

I'm usually just floored that I've been able to get my plays staged and have other people besides my mom and dad come see them (and hell, even like them). That's pretty much "making it" to me.

4:29 PM  

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