There is a profound joy to be a part of an industry that is essentially undaunted by economic strife and political turmoil. Theatre is certainly impacted by these events, but the purity, the purpose, the resolve is sustained and often fueled by adversity. The strength of the community is tested time and again and yet artists gather, who strive to affect an audience with vision hope and inspiration. There is little to get in the way of this movement, but sometimes an errant notion arises.
A quiet whisper runs through the soft underbelly of the theatre community. It is condescension, a presumption of superiority. A hushed insinuation that there are theatres and then there are Theatres. The stuffy hint that some may not be as worthy as others. For an art form that exists to serve humanity this is a sad course. For what purpose does theatre have if not to illuminate the human condition? And how can one shed light on humanity if the starting position is prejudice?
Are there some plays that outshine others? Absolutely! Does that entitle the company or the producer to crow? Probably. Should that entitle them to insinuate that they are better then others? No, a resounding no, perhaps even condemnation for the insolence.
The mere implication of superiority is an extension of our cultural thirst for a class structure. Our founding fathers sought to transcend social class, and we have struggled to establish one ever since. The one place it should never have a chance is in theatre. Not size, not budget or even experience dictates brilliant work. The passion of the artists and their ability to work together to communicate a human truth to the audience determines the success of a play. To imply otherwise diminishes the art as a whole.
Venerable artist have their share of the mundane, and great writers have written terrible plays. Shakespeare even managed to pen a couple of clunkers. Seen a production of “Henry VIII” recently? The term miscast is attributed to popular actors as well as to the unknown. If a theatre company produces no bad shows, it is almost a certainty they produce no great shows either. It is in risk that theatre finds greatness.
So, knowing all this, why is it that some want to establish associations based upon their perception of merit? Plainly stated, a suggestion is being floated that some theatre companies have a handle on theatre that is so superior to others that any association with the lesser would be a detriment.
Elitism is by nature a divisive tool. Theatre should have no room for an us-or-them mentality. The comparison of theatre and religion has been made more than once in these pages. To continue with the analogy, implying or asserting superiority in cultural institutions is not dissimilar from when churches choose to separate the desirable from the shunned. The consequence can be situations such as Proposition 8. Segments of society are dismissed at best, or worse, persecuted and attacked. If elitism is encouraged in theatre, it moves a step toward accepting segregation. Institutionalizing and justifying segregation in a media setting has precedence — it’s called propaganda.
The very growth and maturity of theatre is based upon an open association. In Los Angeles, we have a special opportunity. A city filled with those that have succeeded in the entertainment industry and a wealth of those that hope to find their way. The results are magical brews of famous and unknown combined together to produce a vast range of stage productions. Some of the most magnificent magical productions this writer has ever witnessed have taken place on stages barely larger then a postage stamp, where the audience was so close to the performers that they may as well have been on the stage. Conversely grand productions with haughty pedigrees have on occasion provoked slumber. The magic is in the effort, not in who participates.
When you see a listing of theatres within this publication, it is a statement of those that choose to work with us, to build a stronger community. A community that seeks access to as large and as a diverse an audience as possible. It is not a suggestion that these theatre are better then those not listed. Are all the theatres represented of equal merit? That is for you to decide. What we encourage is that you go and decide for yourself. If you see a good play, tell a friend, if you see a bad play tell a friend. But don’t let someone in the industry tell you what’s worthy of your time. For what they hide may be more interesting than what they show.
Groucho Marx once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” Was this self-effacement or a comment on exclusion? Whichever the case, it’s worthy to note, it’s often what we’re not supposed to see that is truly stimulating.