If you keep doing shows like that, keep producing plays that sound like they were written by people who might read Michael Chabon, or listen to the Decemberists, or watch "Weeds," I promise you, more of those people will come to the theater.
But right now they're more likely to see plays that sound as if they
were written by the light of a candle in a Chianti bottle. Plays filled with cringingly unconfident writing that muddies the waters in order to make it all appear deep; writing full of insufferable name dropping and artless declaiming of Big Ideas, with a campy, brittle sense of humor right out of 1959, performed in a teeth-gratingly earnest, over-enunciated style that has become a parody of itself. Richard Greenberg's insistent assertion of his bona fides as a collector of intellectual arcana in "Three Days of Rain," the late August Wilson's dogged refusal to trim his character's verbal output to a level that would articulate their inner lives rather than the playwright's high regard for his own ideas in plays like "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and Jon Robin Baitz' determined obtuseness in plays like "A Fair Country" are symptoms of a theater community that has been too cloistered for too long.
Hasn't our culture moved on a bit since, say, William Inge, and don't
we all kind of take it for granted, for instance, that sexual repression is bad? Why do we need to see yet another sexual awakening story, even if it's by Terrence McNally ("Some Men") or Jon Robin Baitz ("The Paris Letter")? A lot of the better television shows, even back in 2003 or 2004, were weaving what was happening in the world into their stories in subtle, surprising, even funny ways, like it is in life, but the theater gave us two David Hare plays solemnly breaking the news that war is bad and George Bush is an idiot.
Some of you seem to think the problem is with the audience, and that
the only prescription for what ails the theater is to redouble your commitment to doing work that is "important" and "ambitious." I've got news for you: People aren't staying away from the theater because it isn't ambitious enough. They're staying away because it's relentlessly "ambitious," because it keeps insisting on its own unique and righteous importance, despite all sad evidence to the contrary
Do any of you think that there have been enough theater productions of note in the last 10 years that achieve the creative unity, the complexity, the appreciation of moral ambiguity, the timely insight, humor and, most important, entertainment value, of "The Sopranos"? Or "Six Feet Under" or "Arrested Development" or "The Simpsons" or "The Wire," "The Larry Sanders Show" or "30 Rock" or "Deadwood" or "South Park" or "Prime Suspect" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or "ER" or "The Office"?
This is not accidental. It's because the theater has been hijacked. It's been commandeered by grant-proposal writers and dramaturges, by panel-discussion moderators and chin-in-hand bureaucrats, many of whom brook no more dissent than the Bush administration. To even suggest, at any of the endless symposiums that the theater community can't get enough of these days, that the problems facing the theater might be solved by respecting the audience more instead of less, that perhaps, instead of designing condescending "outreach" programs, the theater might try educating itself, and listening to the people it's been reaching out to, is to tempt the derisive wrath of a community whose motto might as well be "You're with us or against us."
This is why the theater many of us grew up with, that was so often moving, funny and fun, has been replaced by a bloodless, sexless, outdated facsimile.
Friday, June 08, 2007
Salon Hits Back As Well
Salon's Peter Birkenhead in his Open Letter to the Theater World. (Yikes. Maybe we shouldn't wish for Salon and Slate to cover theatre more often.)