Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Theatre's Responsibility

Matt Trueman, writing in the Guardian blog, talks about seeing an esoteric piece of theatre involving Gone with the Wind and Hurricane Katrina. He felt a little lost:

Even as I felt adrift in the piece, I was aware of the scalpel's presence, dissecting American history, culture and politics and holding up the innards for scrutiny. I knew it was saying something intelligent, but I couldn't find an entry point. It was like reading a doctoral thesis in a subject I stopped studying at 13: frustrating, baffling and, eventually, isolating.

My incomprehension led me to question how much theatre can expect of us, its audience. Ought it to presume nothing and explain everything? Should it treat us like idiots by playing to the lowest common denominator? Of course not. To insist on such mollycoddling would be to outlaw anything that does more than scratch the surface. However, theatre has a responsibility to be accessible. It is, after all, as much about the communication of ideas as it is about the ideas themselves. The best theatre allows us to share in the artist's unusual perspective and see the world differently.

One commenter on the article has this response:

"However, theatre has a responsibility to be accessible."

Does it? Accessible to whom? This sounds like the argument that Abba are better than Mozart because more people like them. Do Chinese opera and Japanese Noh theatre have a responsibility to be accessible to a Western audience? Does contemporary dance have a responsibility to be accessible to people who've never seen any dance before? Does sculpture have a responsibility to be accessible to people who've never visited an art gallery?

Some works assume a higher degree of cultural capital in their audience than others; that doesn't make it better or worse, just different.

1 comment:

Ian Thal said...

Might it also have something to do with Trueman's lack of familiarity with American culture? I have always consumed a great deal of British pop-culture, and I've never noted a great deal of subtly in the presentation of either Americans or America.

We may speak the same language, but there are numerous cultural and societal assumptions that will not translate immediately between the U.S. and the U.K. There may even be cultural and societal assumptions held by theatre-going audiences in Boston that will not translate well to the general audience in Wasilla, Alaska.

Having not seen Architechting, I have no idea how "esoteric" it would be to a regular American theatre-going audience.

That said, there is room for plays that are accessible to an audience that doesn't attend theatre regularly as well as an audience that has a good general understanding of the theatre canon-- or even demand an understanding of the specific canon from which the play comes. It gets back to your comments about "boundary breaking" or "experimental" plays-- having a good grounding in one tradition does not automatically confer comprehension of another.