I hold a theater degree.
I almost never go to theater.
My friend, also involved in theater, tells me I hate theater. Or more accurately, she will, in a fit of frustration, plead with me “you have a theater degree! HOW can you hate theater”!?
The short answer is, I don’t.
I just suffer from a nasty allergy to bullshit.
Yes, I’m saying theater is bullshit. Or more accurately, I’m saying that theater often reeks of bullshit.
When I say this, I am referring to particular bullshit ideas, bullshit people, and bullshit behavior that comprise much of the theater universe. They are, in no particular order:
* The mistaken notion that theater is dying, on the decline, and going away.
* The largely false nobility of the art and the artists.
* Most (but admittedly not all) of the ‘art for art’s sake’ theater.
* And of course, the bullshit most fresh from the bull itself: theater for social change.
Most of my allergic reaction stems from the second and fourth items. But since theater is a holistic realm all of these are intertwined. So let me address them one by one.
Through my entire time in college it was repeated time and again that theater was a disappearing enterprise. The audience, never actually identified, was viewed as a disappearing natural resource. On the face, this makes a certain amount of sense. Theater used to be the only game in town. But now it competes with television, movies, videogames, and the internet.
But so do books.
So does music.
So does poetry.
And for that matter, each of those things all compete with everything else. In fact, the film industry has recently started freaking out because of a statistically shrinking audience.
It is one thing to understand that fewer people are going to the theater. It is entirely another to look at theater as a dying art under relentless assault from an unfair, uncaring world. Anyone who feels this way about theater, quite frankly, misses the point of theater. Such people tend also to put the following on stage:
I was shown footage of someone’s reaction to 9/11 put to stage. This included two people in sweat suits power walking at various paces. No real explanation. Just two people power walking frantically in place. This was called “theater”.
I once, during class no less, witnessed a man drop his pants and say, “it’s not as big as you thought, is it”? Thankfully, his back was to us and he had his boxers up. But this was still called “theater”.
Edward Albee writes a play about a man who fucks a goat, and because he’s Edward Albee he’s praised as a “theater” genius.
Work such as this is praised for its “risk”. But praised by who? The people who make that kind of theater. The most “artistic” of the theater artists. The ones who say things like “art’s not easy”. They use words like “edgy” and “subtext” and hate the word “commercial”. And when asked about their small audience, they say dismissively, “most people don’t get my work”.
Such people are wrapped up in the false nobility of the artist. The poor turnout actually justifies their work and feeds into their identity, allowing them to romantically struggle to spread some sort of “truth”.
Theater has truth and nobility. But it has been co-opted by too many people who “nobly” use the theater for shocking excess, masturbating on stage (literally or figuratively). It is too often a black hole of introspection, and equally often poorly disguised therapy. Far too frequently it is theater made by the psychically selfish.
And it actually does not matter that the theater audience has been reduced to the elderly, the occasional tourist, and the conservative rich. No matter how large the general audience will be, the only people who will have any interest in these bullshit shows will be theater people.
Well, maybe theater people and the friends and family they can rope into attending.
That is why, from what theater people can see, no one goes to the theater anymore. They’ve actually forgotten what a real audience is, much less how to reach out and communicate with it. And that is the point that they are missing: that theater is an act of communication.
Actually, all art, all art, is an act of communication. It needs a recipient. It needs someone to get the message. But that’s only half the battle. For art to have any real, measurable effect, it must manipulate.
This manipulation can be small or large. The primary manipulation in comedy is simply to make people laugh. But theater artists often have much higher intentions for their work. Enter the socially conscious theater companies, using theater to protest, or preach, or otherwise push some world altering agenda.
Such companies find a script or develop their own around some issue, produce the play, tell all their friends, and still, the audience trickles through the door. But they’ve made their statement. Some people sign the guestbook and go to the websites. And they get a positive review from one or two people in the cause, which is just enough praise to make the next theatrical statement. Sheer optimism shields them from the cold fact that the show has largely failed. If it were an actual protest, how much of the audience would join the picket line?
These are not selfish artists. They do, actually, have the potential to change the world. My problem with them is not their intentions or even their politics, it is that they are horribly, horribly bad at what they do. The shows are tedious and they don’t actually change anything. And the reason is that, although trying to communicate, they don’t understand the difference between communicating to understand, and communicating for effect.
Of course, knowing that difference requires intimate knowledge of the mechanics of communication. It requires that one be a good figurative and literal conversationalist. And it requires the ability to empathize, to see the world through others’ eyes, to get into people’s heads. One must know how to seduce and destroy.
And then, to make bullshit free theater, one must know how to do that using the tools of the stage.
Using the metaphor of the first date, the easiest way make someone feel good is to get them talking about themselves. While few forms of theater have the luxury of a direct dialogue, audiences, like lovers, know when you’re paying attention to them.
How many theater people actually think about why people go to the theater? How many people think about what would be enjoyable to see once they get there? The answer isn’t that hard. People go to theater for entertainment. At its lowest common denominator, it is something fun, or at least interesting. So the first, and arguably most important obligation of any theater artist is to be undeniably entertaining. The “undeniably” emphasis is important. It is why Shakespeare had slapstick for the groundlings.
But entertainment, like charm, only gets you so far. You want people engaged and thinking about your work. The avenue of distinctly bad social change theater is to use its characters as puppets, mouthing the words and opinions of the author. Dialogue becomes a cudgel, pummeling the audience, “BE MORE ENLIGHTENED, DAMMIT”.
In this and other ways, bullshit theater commits the sin of telling instead of showing. It is, consequently, virtually unwatchable. The dialogue is often ridiculous. The actors have few moments to portray real human beings of any depth.
Writers are the ones most often told to “show, not tell”, but it applies to theater equally as much. It is one of those things that is easy to learn and hard to do. And it works because it communicates on a deeper level than words or argument. In The 33 Strategies of War, Robert Greene writes, “what really changes us and our behavior is not the actual words uttered by someone else but our own experience, something that comes not from without but from within”. He continues, “only what stirs deep within us, taking root in our minds as thought and experience, has the power to change what we do in any lasting way”. And he concludes, “if you want to communicate an important idea, you must not preach; instead make your readers or listeners connect the dots and come to the conclusion on their own. Make them internalize the thought you are trying to communicate; make it seem to emerge from their own minds”. He further advises to pay attention to form over content. This is where all the tools of metaphor and symbolism come into play. It is also where true characterization lies. You can have someone say “I’m very very very sick”, or you can have that same man enter the stage in a wheelchair and attached to portable life support.
One can then hopefully see theater has the most impact when it simply acts as a window, allowing the audience to act as observers. There is no need to pass judgment. There is rarely need to explain. Just let things reveal themselves, and let the audience figure it out. Light, sound, space, set, and props are all devices for creating sensory effect and experience. They are best used to control focus and therefore manipulate the audience.
These tools are tantalizingly available to all theater artists, and yet all too often they subject the audience to some bullshit form of shock treatment. (I don’t care if it’s big or small. Pull your pants up, asshole.) Either that, or they abstract their idea into meaningless oblivion. (The people power walking represented New York power walkers and that whole New York minute go go go mentality. Of course, I had to be told this by the performer.) Neither one is entertaining. Neither one is interesting. But it is usually flashy, which is why both get employed at all. The payoff, however, is pyrrhic at best. Any attention it produces is short lived. Any popularity is only within the following that already exists.
And this is where I have to return to Edward Albee. I can’t really talk about his play, The Goat, in a truly objective way. The fact is, I hate it. It actually made me angry. The play, however, did well when it was produced. I read it for a class, and most of the class discussion toward it was favorable as well. So it found an audience both with the conservative rich and also with theater people. I have to ask though, how often can we expect this play to be produced? How many local and community theaters would see past the man fucking the goat? Critical praise for the play focuses on Albee’s use of shock value to ask probing questions about love and loyalty. The play is, in fact, a critical darling. Is this praise genuine, or is Albee such an institution that he has teflon taste? How do the audiences feel about the play? And why write about a man fucking a goat when hundreds of other opportunities exist to explore the same ideas? Even if the play is a true masterpiece, it simply underscores the fact that only a man like Albee can take on bestiality and make it work for anyone.
But if you ask me, it’s still bullshit. I don’t find it entertaining. I don’t find it interesting. I don’t care how “edgy” it is. I resent people telling me how “profound” it is. And I don’t like the idea of going to a show, only to have those known as flighty, irresponsible, immature, egotistical, and emotional try to shove social justice down my throat or tell me something “deep”. I get pissed at the cost of a movie ticket. So if I go to the theater, it better be a fucking good time.
And until anyone can safely make that guarantee I, and the rest of the audience, will be staying away.
Because we don’t have time for expensive bullshit.