APPLES & ORANGES?
Ed Siegel's Story in Sunday's Boston Globe takes a swing at not just Boston theatre, but all theatre in general. Is he shaping up to be one of those critics who seems to hate the area in which he is working? It would appear so, considering his weird argument comparing theatre to movies.
His call is for passion and artistry to improve, but is it really fair to compare the five Oscar nominees for best picture to the whole of American Drama this past year? It is kind of like the foreign film argument. We go to the video store to rent some of the Best Foreign Film winners of the last decade. Then, after watching them, we proclaim that foreign films are so much better than American films. Well, I have lived and gone to the movies overseas and I can report that 99% of their films are just as terrible as the vast majority of our films.
It is a weak enough argument to compare two completely different medium, it is even worse to compare the best from film to the middle of the pack from theatre. Mr. Siegel uses Ben Cameron's call for value (see my post on 3/21/2003) as a starting point for his thesis.
Mr. Siegel enjoys edgy theatre, and he is right that we don't really push the edge all the time in this town.
"In a speech at a theater community meeting in Boston a few years ago, Theatre Communications Guild executive director Ben Cameron pooh-poohed calls for quality in theater, arguing instead for ''value'' as the key to attracting and keeping theater audiences. Forgetting for the moment whether there is any higher value in the theater than quality, I fear that too many theater directors worry more about pandering to subscribers' desires than keeping theater a going artistic concern."
He then goes on to praise the American Repertory Theatre for taking risks. However, I think the disconnect in his argument comes when he misses that idea that "taking risks and playing edgy" does not equal quality, and could be considered "pandering" as well. The risks that need to be taken are not in concepts, as the ART so often does. Instead, the risks need to be in the themes and or the execution of the production, which he himself says in the article.
We have all gotten to know the definition of "high concept," from the 80's and 90's Hollywood scene. Concept movies were exemplified by the Buddy Movie. High Concept was termed when the concept movies became more complex, as when they would cross genres. For example, when describing a movie, they would describe it in relation to other movies- "It's When Harry Met Sally crossed with Thelma And Louise." Probably the most hilarious example is when the Die Hard movie spawned all sorts of imitators: It's Die Hard on a Boat, It's Die Hard on a Plane, etc. The original creator of Die Hard joked that he knew the concept was finally dead when he attended a pitch session in which somebody was actually trying to sell their project by proclaiming, "It's Die Hard in a building."
The American Repertory Theatre wants to take risks in concept not in artistry. Probably the most famous example was, "It's Endgame in an apocalyptic Subway Station!" High concept is not trying to find an edge, it is a marketing move that is trying to find what is new. And often, classics which are "rethought" end up being cut down, with major parts being excised because it doesn't fit the "concept." (Examples would be the Royal National Theatre's Hamlet, which completely did away with the Fortinbras story line, and the Abbey's recent Medea, which jettisons the tragic heroine's escape.) This kind of artistic carelessness will not help us at all, and is certainly not interested in, "keeping theatre a going artistic concern." This high concept mentality seeps into theART's selection of Adam Rapp as a playwright to champion. Rather than taking on a playwright who could write plays for the wonderfully talented, but oft ill directed, actors in their company, they choose instead to do the, "edgy," work of this newcomer. Stone Cold Dead Serious had not a single, well thought out theme or idea, and so it was a play that was all edge with no steel to its blade.
I do not mean to bash the ART, in fact, I commend them for the company structure which Robert Brustein has set up. What I mean to suggest is that perhaps the danger of theatre is not that we cannot match the movies, it is that I think we are trying too hard to match the movies.
I will be the first one to say that theatre is hitting a brick wall when trying to compete with film in certain arenas. For instance, film now completely dominates the thriller genre. I think that the final dirge was sounded with the artistic and commercial failure of a star packed Wait Until Dark a few years ago. (In an interview with director William Friedkin about his new movie The Hunted, he talked about car chases and how he sees them as a type of art. His reasoning is that it is something that cannot be matched by another medium. Novels and theatre cannot touch film when it comes to the visceral impact of car chases.) In reviewing Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, the New York Times critic started the review by discussing how film simply does the theme of war better. I would say that there are many themes of war and that the stage can do some of them infinitely better than film. The stage is about ideas, the movies are about emotions and immediacy. The stage can never match the movie Glory, but the movies can never match the play TopDog Underdog.
Mr. Seigel wants to hold up The Shape of Things as an example of what will help American Drama? While I think The Shape of Things is an excellent play, I have to admit that the movie version will probably be superior, and more available to people. Aside from the last scene, there is nothing theatrical about the play at all, including the dialogue and the characters. Why is Blue Man Group still selling tickets? You can't experience anything like it on film.
The last sentence of Mr. Seigel's article is probably closer to the point. He says,
"If movies continue to provide those experiences on a regular basis while theater is content with producing less daring diversions, what will be the motivation for paying up to 10 times as much for the experience? What will be the motivation for going at all?" The reason that movies are kicking our ass is not that they are good, but that they are good and available. Multiplexes abound, and television and dvd's bring it right into our home. Economics keep us theatre folks in the city because that is where most of the theatre-going audience is. However, the city keeps our prices high and will, in the end, stop anybody from coming in to see what we are producing. Perhaps the war for theatre must be fought in the suburbs, not in Back Bay, but we are unwilling to fight that fight, it would be long and hard and it would have too many obstacles.