For several months, the news-media has been consumed by the Charlie Sheen story. Don’t leave yet, this really is about theatre – We, the theatre community have our own version. It’s Spiderman, Turn Off the Dark. Three months into previews, nine years after inception, $65 million spent, and now a new creative team is being brought in to re-tool and re-present previews in the spring! How are the two situations similar? They’re both about publicity, not the art. Sheen is going on tour to extol his adolescent persona, and Spiderman continues limping along as the train wreck that everyone is dying to see.
Now let’s not condemn either effort, as art is only as good as those who are willing to sacrifice for results, but is this really about art? For that matter, how much of modern major theatre is about art? How much of it is about spectacle? Have we as a culture become so callous with our diversions that we now want to impose circus on theatre? The gladiators of football no longer amuse, it’s time to bring in the clowns of Cirque?
The intent in not to demean the value of all these varied entertainments, instead it’s to look at how theatre is being ad-hocked. We live in a culture where very little is sacred, so splash and circus and noise are supposed to entertain. While theatre is about entertainment, it has loftier values. It is to inspire, to inquire, to bring our spiritual blood to a boil and then to allow it to simmer and finally cool. Some elements of spectacle can assist in this process, but how many versions of acrobats doing the same stunts in time to different music brings us to emotional epiphany? And isn’t that what Spiderman really promises?
More and more commercial theatre is being taken over by corporations that want to sell you something. None of it has to do with dramatic theme, all of it has to do with bottom line. Souvenirs at the theatre and in malls, tie-ins with movies, product endorsement, music distribution, and if there’s time and energy left, give it a little heart.
This all matters for a number of reasons. First – we are subject to the marketing that is foisted upon us. The adjectives of the marketers’ lull us to believe that the pap that is being served is theatre. It’s an aspect of theatre, and in the grand description it can pass for theatre, but then so was the entertainment in the Roman Coliseum. But it does not speak to the art that theatre has become. Secondly, it steals the space of theatre. Not just the stage, but the hearts and minds of those that have yet to know what theatre can be.
We, the discerning theatre audience, are also faced with a dilemma of value. In hope of discovering brilliant theatre, we rush to see Spiderman or some other spectacle, will toss down $200-plus for the privilege, and when we’re done, we will feel as empty as if we’d just spent a long evening listening to the rants of Mr. Sheen. Meanwhile, now feeling abused for our ticket dollar, we take it out on the intimate theatre by insisting that we find tickets for half off their asking price – a ticket price, which seldom exceeds $35. How does that make sense?
Keeping theatre alive, meaningful theatre, is a task that lies not just with the artist, but with us the audience. We must be willing to pay the price of a ticket. Theatre is a fragile flower. It blossoms for the sunshine of audience awareness and withers with the burdensome wind of finance.
Ultimately, it is our responsibility to determine what we will see. While artists will continue to expend their resources to create works that transcend us, their ability to deliver that project to us is limited entirely by our willingness to pay for it. The rent must be paid, the electricity does not come cheap. They, the intimate theatre need our patronage. They need our support. So before you commit to the next spectacle, be it a circus, or be it horses, or be it Spiderman, remember the small theatre around the corner that works tirelessly to remind you of all our humanity.