Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Slay at Theatreforte has asked what the value of theatre is, and many people have been answering. I'm pretty much offering a non-answer here (i.e., more of an explanation as to why I'm not answering).

Do other creators in other media ask themselves this? Nobody asks what the value of music is, or the value of film.

I mean no offense or disrespect to the idea, but frankly, I'm getting pretty sick of having to justify my existence every three to six months. Yes, I've been asked the question before and I've answered it, but I do think I'm pretty done with the subject.

And the thing is, this question isn't being asked by people outside the realm of theatre blogging (maybe this is because people aren't so rude as to ask in parties: "Why the hell do you write plays?"), so I find it more than bizarre that people involved in theatre don't find the values of theatre self-evident. Again: no musician goes, "Why does music exist?" So what's up with the self-loathing amongst playwrights, directors, designers and actors?

(Yes, I find asking this question a form of self-loathing. I could be wrong, and people are welcome to correct me on this, but there's such an air of desperation about the question.)

I'm sure there will be some good, insightful answers to the question in the blogosphere. I just wanted to explain why you won't find one here. I'm tired of justifying my interests, passions and overall existence.

A wet blanket,

James "Irrelevant" Comtois

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Blogger Freeman said...

Basically, buddy, I agree with the sentiment here.

1:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi James,

Fair enough.

I guess from where I stand, it's about finding language that helps us connect our work to new audiences.

That's probably my primary interest (at present) in this whole theatre game: How to connect to new audiences.

And yes, theatre's benefit is self-evident to many of us. But its benefits are apparently not self-evident to the great unwashed masses – all of whom, I should say, listen to music.

So music doesn't need to ask this question. Music has other problems.

But I hear you, if I was a theatre artist proper (as opposed to being a theatre marketer) I might be sick of this question, too!

1:17 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...


2:02 PM  
Blogger Joshua James said...

I agree. One thing I left at Ian's site was, it's not whether or not theatre has value, but whether or not theatre, as a profession and industry, values those who practice it . . .

I think that's a more important question, myself.

3:09 PM  
Blogger jengordonthomas said...

I guess I didn't look at the question as one that had inherent judgment in it, or as one that helped me feel self loathing, or even the need to defend. I know what value it has for me. On the outside, it doesn't appear to have much value to our SOCIETY...or we would put more emphasis and support into it, would we not?

4:09 PM  
Blogger Scott Walters said...

The intention wasn't to ask you to justify your existence, or theatre's existence. However, when the context changes, the answers need to change as well. The art of portrait painting had to redefine itself with the arrival of photography, for instance. So in a society flooded with cheap and easy forms of entertainment, what do we bring to the table that justifies our relatively high entry fee? If we can't answer that question, then it will become increasingly difficult for us to sell tickets. And the fewer tickets we sell, the less the art form will value the artists (if we mean by the word "value" "pay"). So we can insist the value is self-evident, and then scratch our head and spend a few thousand more bucks on marketing when our seats remain empty -- or we can figure out what makes our art form worth the price of admission. Your choice, but if you refuse to engage the question, you forfeit forever the right to complain about audience support! ;-)

4:27 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

The thing is, Scott, I’m not against people asking or answering these questions. Personally, I’m a bit burnt on the “Why do theatre?” question. Bear in mind this is coming from someone who's amidst casting his latest show, so my attention is very much focused elsewhere. (And I kind of prefer it focused elsewhere: I'd rather be working on a show than spend my time wondering "why" I'm working on it.)

As I told Ian privately, I’m reminded of the interview with Dave Sim in the Onion AV Club where the interviewer asks Dave what he felt about some aspect of his gargantuan project (a 6,000 page graphic novel created over the course of 26 years).

His response: "I don't 'feel.' If I 'felt,' I would never have gotten the book done. I'd be off 'feeling' somewhere."

As for the question relating to "How can we get bigger audiences," the thing is' I've answered this before in many previous entries ad nauseum, and my thoughts toward the question haven't moved an inch.

But here are the bullet points:

* How can theatre compete with television? (Answer: it can't. It just can't. Hell, MOVIES can't even compete with television anymore.)

* How can a theatre company gain audiences? (Through perseverance, good decision-making, creating quality work in a consistent manner, and positive word-of-mouth. This, however, is still a complete gamble.)

* How can this be transferable? In other words, how can the success of one company spill over to a struggling company? (This is a shot in the dark, but probably through cross-promotional tie-ins and collaborations. This is still no guarantee, though.)

I’m thinking of at some point writing some entries on the nuts and bolts of self-producing (not unlike the Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing), but sometimes I do wonder how much use that'll be to people (simply because I think those ready, willing and able to self-produce don’t need a "How To" guide, and those that aren't ready, willing or able won't get anything from such a guide). We shall see, though.

5:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

twice now i've started a comment to encourage you to reconsider your stance. It was all about Newt and how the republican revolution made a talking-point pinata out of the arts, and how Jessie used the NEA4 tragedy to almost eliminate govt funding (the most important seed $) for the arts. They did it by constantly reminded folks of the non-value of the arts, and we never matched the volume of their rhetoric. The arts still hasn't recovered.

But the more I think of it, the more I think that you don't have to justify anything. Doing what you're doing, i hope, will be the best medicine.

For myself, my insecure self, I need to belong. I need to feel a part of a community. In this case, the theater community. I feel that the admission price comes with a responsibility to look out for my neighbors in this community, and part of how I do this is by speaking on any panel that will have me, any podcast, or whereever I can make my voice heard to say why theater is vital in our short existence on this planet.

Everyday in the capitalist world millions of dollars are spent justifying why you should buy their product instead of mine. I don't know if I want to copy that, but I do know that my side is the one losing market share.

Not to stretch this out, but I would challenge you on one thing - that other creators do not have to jusify their purpose. On the contrary, I think opera, ballet and classical music have it even tougher than theater. Poetry, fiction and basically any read form is struggling to make their case, and not doing nearly as well as art films and documentarians have. I understand that this is only non-profit forms. For-profits make their case by making a buck - they live or die by that justification, but the arts are all in the same boat(the USS Philanthropy), thinking that the other discipline has it easier.

I don't think that there should be only one answer to the Value question - there should be millions! You answer it your way, and I'll answer it mine. But just know that if anyone ever says to my face - why should i value arts when folks like James are doing it, I'll have your back, and when I'm done with them they will never again wonder why Nose Dive is vital to my community. thnx.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Persona said...

It is also just a question. The justification or defense of poetry, drama, theatre, etc., informs its meaning and purpose (if it needs one) by merely being posed. More interesting: what must theatre be defended against? The answer is your enemy.

6:32 AM  

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