How is Theatre Valuable?

Matt over at the theatrenet’s one-stop shopping emporium Theatreforte and some friends are spending today blogging about the essential question concerning our corner of the art world: What is the value of theatre? This, I feel, is an outstanding topic for discussion, as the one thing the blogs in our galaxy can agree upon is that what we need is a shiny new audience to work for. Without a clear and concise articulation of why theatre is a necessary facet of contemporary culture the odds of converting the uninitiated is slim to zilch.

This is absolutely a marketing issue. Recently in one corner of the nets there were efforts made by various bloggers to summarize their ideals about new theatre, this in response to a challenge to take a break from our usual verbosity and compress our arguments into easily digestable tracts. Not an easy exercise for writers, or for artists period for that matter. Practitioners require scope and 360 degree examination, but potential customers need brevity. If we are to seed a new generation of theatregoers, we need a convincing pitch at the ready at all times, indeed it should be the first item in our tool kit.

And we should be talking about it more. Well, maybe not the bloggers, that’s probably impossible, but anyone who works in theatre should at every chance be preaching the gospel of why they love their art form, to the point of annoyance. I think a lot of theatre people, at least in Vancouver, are a bit closeted about their passion, maybe because of an awareness of a common perception of it as being boring and staid. That’s not ever going to change until we’re out about it, and nerdishly share that passion with everyone we come into contact with. At least until theatre is branded as the new “everybody’s doing it” thing and enjoys the popularity that we all know it deserves.

So thanks to Slay and co. for inviting us to take a look at the essentials. Here’s a first draft crack at my elevator pitch for theatre as the new black…

What is the value of theatre? In a word: immediacy. Stella Adler said that theatre is the spiritual and social X-ray of its time, and therein lies its value; it has the ability to connect to its audience, to their immediate concerns, their hopes and fears, in the most direct way that an art form can; it is entirely visceral. Being in the room with the artist while the art is being made makes you implicit in the process, part of the dialogue. Theatre is not about the past, or the future, it is not about New York in the sixties, or Elizabethan England, or five minutes ago, it is about the right now, the very moment that the players and audience members inhabit as representatives of their immediate community, and the common rhythm that this generates. Everything that they discuss together is about the things that are affecting them right now. Theatre is impossible to experience passively, and therefore it is our sharpest instrument to carve out change, whether social or personal. Its direct relevance to its community and the communion that it elicits is the reason that theatre has been around, literally, forever. It brings us face to face with each other, and ourselves.

Meh, a bit chewy, but a good start. What about you guys? Why do you dig on theatre?

25 thoughts on “How is Theatre Valuable?

  1. Hi Simon,

    I like this elevator pitch. And I agree immediacy is a good word. North American culture, now more than ever, needs tools to fight the trends of passivity.

    I wonder if the pitch could be aggressively shortened to your last line: “It brings us face to face with each other, and ourselves.”

    Daniel MacIvor answered a similar question in my 10 questions interview with him back in August ’07.

    I asked:

    Do you have any unifying theories about theatre and its relationship to community?

    He said:

    “We need it to see ourselves. There should be a theatre in every neighbourhood. Like 7-Elevens.”

    We need it to see ourselves. To me, that about sums it up. And it’s a nearly identical sentiment to, “It brings us face to face with each other, and ourselves.”

    But that’s me, I’m already sold on the benefit.

    Do, “we need it to see ourselves”, and “It brings us face to face with each other, and ourselves,” clearly communicate the benefits of this product?

    What do you think?

  2. I love that MacIvor line. Couldn’t have more eloquently summed up every playwrights dream. I’d rather think about theatres as seven-elevens than cathedrals – stocked with utility rather than mysticism. And I’m honoured that you’ve compared one of my thoughts with his, thank you. I think his is the better positioning line though. It’s tighter.

    I think they’re both really just echoing Shakespeare’s line about holding up a mirror, some might argue that that is the last thing a society needs and they’d rather go to the hockey game to get some space, I’ll continue to argue that we can make entertainment self-reflective and improving. It may be grandiose, but I believe theatre holds function, and therefore heady responsibility in community.

    I agree with you, if I may quote: theatre is civic engagement.

  3. Identity — like you both just said. Like I said in my interview. The exciting thing about it is that identity is in play right now — in a tumultuous way; a way as earth shattering as ‘cogito ergo sum’ was back when. All this cultural geographic humantastic flux is dizzying and unsettling, but it is also giving theatre new stuff to be about and to hold up in contrast to the old stuff which it is still about. Identity.

    Now I have come to believe that true identity is about ethics – which I define as a soup of values made of stewed human nature — in other words, a dangerous thing.

    Identity is not personality, not culture, not externally imposed morality. It is interesting to make theatre about the conflict between morality and ethics, or internally generated values. Lot’s of times the best theatre is about how our nature (ethics/identity) just cannot reconcile itself to our morality and/or culture.

    One more thing — Theatre needs to be frivolous and joyful and downright goofy sometimes. The world already has enough ugly, mean, downright bad stuff. If it wasn’t for sheer silliness to balance the picture, life would be completely untenable.

  4. “If it wasn’t for sheer silliness to balance the picture, life would be completely untenable.”

    This should go in the dictionary to describe the word “Absurdist”.

    Hey – random idea: why don’t we wage a theatre-wide “War on sports.” By identifying “sports” and the enemy of “theatre” we’ll be setting up just the kind of adversarial discourse that sports people love. We’d get on the news, sports shows, we could picket outside sporting events with placards that say, “Sports suck. Theatre rules!” and we can chant, “hell no! theatre won’t go!”

    Just a thought.

  5. I’ve been thinking about the question: “How is theatre valuable?” We have been discussing why – which is a bit easier in some way — and we seem to have established that comic relief is immensely valuable and that revelations about identity are immensely valuable.

    How?

  6. Hi Ian — (BTW your sports idea is brilliant, hilarious and will probably work).

    I guess Simon’s use of the word “How” makes me think of how theatre works on others. What can it do to people? What can’t it do? Are we rearranging people’s thoughts? Their feelings? On a cellular level? Actions?

  7. I think the how comes down to the construction of narratives and frameworks through the convincing tablets of myth, story, and comedy. These narratives change the way we think, because you can frame a very convincing argument in two hours.

    A friend of mine uses the example of I Am My Own Wife’s effect on a young boy grappling with understanding homosexuality in a world where the narrative isn’t really written:

    “one kid wrote very directly and beautifully about how Jefferson’s performance in Wife had made him realize that all the bullshit he’d been fed about how homosexuals are different, bad, damned, etc. just isn’t true. ”

    In today’s world, theater operates POWERFULLY in small doses.

  8. Nick, that’s great. One of the best comments on theatre’s value I’ve read today.

    Jess – I like to think of theatre as arranging people’s thoughts. If you’ll bear with the distinction.

  9. I don’t think the “why theatre” question has been really addressed yet. The discourse so far is the kind of discourse that artists have with each other— insiders with a shared experience.

    What do you say to the average Joe? If you’re looking to expand and develop new audiences what is the distinction that theatre has from other art forms?

    I love theatre. I support a family of five with my single theatre salary in a great company, but what do I say to Joe?

    Joe loves sports. Why? He feels he’s part of something bigger than himself, he feels part of a community (locally and nationally), it keeps him in the here and now, he is taken on a twisty-turny that keeps him on the edge of his seat, it introduces and bonds him to people who would have otherwise been complete strangers, he experiences the human drama of “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”, and he values it so much, that he’s willing to give a substantial part of his hard earned cash to support it—- sometimes paying hundreds of dollars for a ticket…..a ticket to an event that involves him, thrills him, NEEDS him, and will never be repeated.

    So what do I tell Joe? That theatre is a mirror? Really? Joe loves films. He’s the kind of guy that cried at the end of Titanic. Joe says, that he feels moved and engrossed in those stories. Do I tell him that films don’t need him? That theatre is expressly dependent on his involvement? Do you think that would lessen his love or value of film? And as for that young man who was moved by the performance of WIFE, do you think he’s revelation would have been any less if he saw it on film? Would THE BREAKFAST CLUB have been any better or effective if it was on stage?

    What separates theatre from dance? A concert? A circus? A good lecture or seminar?

    If we want to seriously approach new audience members then we need to look at theatre from their perspective. Folks who get knots in their stomachs waiting for the next episode of LOST (not to mention all the social interaction that goes on between episodes), folks who actively involve themselves in reality shows like DANCES WITH THE STARS or AMERICAN IDLE. What do we tell them when they ask “why theatre?”

    I hope I’m not sounding rude or dismissive. I’m involved in donor and audience events all the time and I know all the “theatre is a mirror” conversations that theatre people love to have, but those are only good with people who share the theatre experience. What about Joe?

  10. Hey David, no, you don’t sound either rude or dismissive, you’ve distilled what I see to be the fundamental issue regarding the real work we have ahead of us as theatre artists. And I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think one of the biggest reasons theatre remains a Fringe entertainment choice is because its practitioners hardly ever consider what might appeal to the members of the community that don’t already love the form, assuming instead that if its something they like, well, so will everyone. It’s easy to see where this conceit breaks down.

    I don’t want to replace any of Joe’s choices of entertainment, I want to be added to them. Hell, I want to see more live hockey and no one’s going to stop me from my regular two hours in a movie theatre with my large bag of freshly popped crack. What I need to do is find someway of talking to Joe, ask him what is on his mind about his corner of the universe, then go away and produce a play that will blow his mind. And if I have to comp him his ticket for his first play, I’d better be prepared to do it, and buy him a beer afterwards so that I can hear what he thought about it. And then, maybe, after Joe’s seen seven or eight plays that move him, he’ll be into seeing that old Sam Shepard play that I want to do so badly. For me.

    I love how perfectly your description of Joe’s love of sports maps onto my love of theatre. It may even be infectious.

  11. “Theatre is a mirror”

    This statement is valid because there are those that would give power to it. These people however are fooling themselves and the Vancouver theatre climate can vouch for that. How often do we see full houses of new theatre goers in Vancouver? How many people talk about theatre (via watercooler) like they would sports, film, television? The truth is as this discussion proves, a vicious minority.

    Vancouver theatre is not a mirror. It is an art form that few pay any attention to. And I dont blame them! The talk about “how do we appeal to joe?” is a pretension. It suggests that we are different from Joe because we wish to create theatre (or at least that was my interpretation). Why not suggest that we are all ‘Joe’ and find a form of theatre that explores all aspects of how shall we express it …. perhaps all aspects of ‘the joe’ phenomenon.

    An example of this is Richard Wagner’s “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “Total Artwork”. This concept, a cross-border synthesis of all art forms, creates a comfortably broader scale of patrons in that it appeals to everyone. Theatre in my eyes is about community as well but a greater sense of community than just theatre. Theatre is entertainment. Sports are entertainment. Television, film, food, music, dance, poetry are entertainment.

    I say we all focus a little less on theatre (if theatre is about community and seeing each other eye to eye) and more on building an entertainment community. “If we build it they will come!”

    This answers the questions posed… I think… or perhaps continues the conversation spawned by these questions…

  12. Hey David, good to hear from you. You’re quite right, theatre isn’t the hot watercooler talk here in Vancouver (and from the similar discussions around the internet, not in many other places either). I think ‘Joe’ in the scenario introduced here represents the vast number of people here that didn’t grow up with the tradition or language of theatre, so it never occurs to them to seek it out, which, let’s face it, you really have to do if you want to find something worth seeing. The onus has to fall on us, the theatre artists to get our marketing into their face, so they’ll at least consider it as an option. It is certainly a daunting task with the light a long way down the tunnel, but for me, all I’m built for is theatre, so I’ll work away at that over in my little corner of the entertainment community, and trust that the poets and dancers and musicians are doing the same. And telling as many people about what they’re doing as possible.

  13. Oh man you said it! In fact I often struggle with understanding the vocabulary, within ‘the language of theatre’ presented by other theatre artists.

    When I think of how theatre is valuable some interesting questions that come to mind are: what theatre is valuable? Or what theatre makes proper use of the medium and propagates itself or creates interest for itself? I remember a response to the interview we had revolved around focusing less on putting bums in seats and more on the art form and truth behind intentions. Is there a difference? Where is the line drawn between this cross-industry ideal and the reality of our existence as ‘only theatre artists’?

    Now as I think about what I have written I cannot qualify my words with specific tangibles, like Shakespeare’s RJ on the Football field or the theatrical debut of the complete first season of Lost all as an installation piece around a watercooler. But its certainly an area I hope to see more people explore to escape the confines of theatrical norms.

    Truly a hot topic indeed.

  14. How would you get an someone from Georgia to go to a hockey game with you? What’s the point of a sport that no one watches?

    Not meant to be insulting, I originally hail from Michigan where hockey is a big deal, and the Wings are a pretty tough ticket to get. In fact the only times I was able to see Stevie Y play live was once I moved to Chicago.

    Living in Chicago, few care about hockey thanks in large part to having the worst owner in professional sports and the treatment of Blackhawks fans over the years.

    Are there parallels between getting someone not familiar with hockey to become a fan and someone who’s not familiar with theatre to be a fan?

  15. Oh man Tony, for a Canadian that’s easy to answer. You get them into the arena for the hot girls and beer (or good looking hockey players and beer, depending on their proclivities), and they stay for the speed and power. I’ve seen a lot of pro sports live and none of them can match the unbridled ferocity of our national sport (okay, our national sport is actually lacrosse here, but everyone thinks it’s hockey). It’s 300 times more impressive rinkside than it is on TV, and it’s impossible not to be impressed by the grace and skill of players at a pro level no matter what country you’re from, because these guys have been playing it every day of their life.

    The parallels to converting people to theatre fans here are emerging, even if we have to get them to the theatre with the promise of beer.

    Dave – the notion of self-propagating theatre is a very worthy topic indeed, it’s at the nature of a conversation over at Travis’ site about building a congregation for your company’s work. And there’s a great company in Victoria called Atomic Vaudeville who started a monthly cabaret show with a mish-mash of theatrical styles that turned into one of the hippest, cult-followed tickets in town, it’s been going for years on the strength of its own snowball effect.

    Now that’s an artistic mandate.

  16. I’m a huge hockey fan. To be honest, given the choice to meet Peter Brook and Scotty Bowman I’d probably take Bowman any day of the week.

    But how much easier of an answer was that, than how to get people to theatre?

    Many of the same adjectives can apply to both (with the right shows.)

    Especially, IMHO, “It’s 300 times more impressive rinkside than it is on TV, and it’s impossible not to be impressed by the grace and skill of players at a pro level no matter what country you’re from.”

    Is that an answer for value?

  17. Good God, Bowman or Brook? I honestly have no idea right now who I would choose. There’s a lot of things I’ve wanted to say to Scotty for a long time. Hmm…

    And the key to this is, in my humble, your use of the qualifier “with the right shows”. Therein lies the real question of value.

  18. “with the right shows” could easily be with the right teams.

    Watching the Thrashers play on a regular basis probably wouldn’t make any fans anytime soon :)

  19. TONY – Interesing question. I recently attended a hockey game with someone who asked me to go. Hockey and most organized sports are never something i have cared for or followed. I will have to agree with Simon however in that i knew i’d have a blast (women, beer, power, speed etc…)
    The line is clear enough for me when it comes to seeing great theatre. I drool with anticipation when waiting to see a show that I know explores topics and conventions I am interested in. This adolescent anticipatory droolage, I think, is a similar sensation to that of the avid hockey nut making his way to his seat with a half-pint in one hand and an ‘edition de luxe’ in the other… maybe thats the line. thats the convincing factor that will pull Johnny Cannuck to Shakespeare and what pulls my young theatre bones out to Johnny Cannucks stage.

    oh man, i need a beer now…

  20. There is nothing wrong with Joe – he only behaves and values as society has taught him.

    People do not need to be converted to theatre – they need to be awakened. Remember your childhood? All the world was a stage and you’d use anyone as an audience. Then something happened. That “something” is the problem. We, as a society, only seem to value a human’s inherent nature for theatrical expression in children. Finding new theatre audiences is difficult because we are targeting adults.

    Theatre is the one art form that cannot be created in solitude – only through community. Changing our value systems, choosing to participate in our neighborhood communities, altering the way we raise our children, this is how we will bring theatre back to the centre of our communities’ social infrastructure. Only then will the audience drought cease.

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