Is the emphasis on "show", "business", both, or neither?
By Rachel James (Treasurer/Writer)
A few weeks ago, a quote from film director Arthur Penn about the current state of the theatre began making the rounds. Even though the statement is from 2006, it still rings very true. You can read the entire piece here, but I wanted to quote this little bit:
“The primary challenges of the theatre should not always be getting people to give a shit about it. The primary challenge should be to produce plays that reach out to people and change their lives. Theatre is not an event, like a hayride or a junior prom--it’s an artistic, emotional experience in which people who have privately worked out their stories share them with a group of people who are, without their knowledge, their friends, their peers, their equals, their partners on a remarkable ride.”
I’ve always thought of theatre as a conversation. A live adventure that will never happen again, regardless of how many shows you do. Every audience brings with them a different history, and thus a different reaction to the performance. But somewhere along the way, commercial theatre became more about escapism and less about dialogue.
I bring this up now because we are currently in the busy season of commercial theatre. The period between Thanksgiving and the New Year is the most profitable time for Broadway. My show is in the middle of previews, but many other shows have off-kilter schedules and nine show weeks. For many people, the holidays are a time for rest and relaxation. But if you’re privileged enough to be employed, you work.
This is also the time of year that many shows begin making their closing announcements. The post-holidays dead time is fast approaching. And many shows want to get as many people in before they are forced to close, either from bad reviews, lack of audience, or (usually) both.
At one point or another, if you make your living in the arts, you ask yourself “What am I doing? And is it worth it?”. And if you make money in the arts, there is a commercial element involved, regardless of where you’re working. There seems to be this overriding belief that commercial theatre is made for profit (which, frankly, it is). And if something is created to make money, then, clearly, there isn’t any art involved. Why must this be the case?
Broadway is not seen as art. It is seen as pageantry. It’s seen as something tourists do (said in the most condescending fashion possible). And, from what I’ve experienced, these audiences are not seen as people with their owns pasts and stories hoping to face a new experience; they are seen as money.
I saw a new musical last week. And while I didn’t heap tons of praise on it, I remember telling people how refreshing it was to see a musical where the music was integral to storytelling and helped to forward the plot. As Ryan Bogner pointed out in his post this week, isn’t that was a musical is? And why is this now a luxury rather than a given?
I have seen several musicals this season, and none of them had this. They seemed to have music in order to entertain rather than tell a story. They were the reason people hate musicals. While I’m all for entertaining, I believe what makes the American musical unique is its ability to make music vital to the storytelling. And none of these shows had that. They appeared to just throw spectacle at plot holes instead of addressing them.
I’ve wanted to write about this for awhile - the connection between art and commerce. But even now, I don’t want to say anything specifically negative because I don’t want to contribute to someone else’s demise. People’s jobs are reliant on good reviews and audience attendance. And having opened and closed six shows last year, I’m all too aware of that.
The fact of the matter is, I’m much more likely to think something is mediocre than to think it’s good or bad. Because most things that are produced nowadays are mediocre. They’re scared.
And as you can tell from my previous statement, so am I. Pot... kettle...
People are more afraid of losing money than making art. They’re scared of offending people, and therefore they try to be all things to all audiences. When you try and talk to everyone, you end up talking to no one.
Obviously, I’m not the first person to bring up this issue. And I won’t be the last. The theatre has been over since it first began; The Fabulous Invalid - always dying, but doing it with style. Show business is the “business” of “show”, and we can’t forget either of those words. We also can’t forget that money doesn’t always equal crap, and art doesn’t always equal failure. And, hopefully, we can find the happy medium.
is a native New Yorker and theatre baby. Her plays have been produced by The 52nd Street Project and Starfish Theatreworks. She currently makes a living as a Broadway treasurer.
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