By Jason Rohrer
According to Aristotle, theater is supposed to provide catharsis, a purging of negative emotion, resulting in a refreshed body and mind and, therefore, a more productive citizen.
So when’s the last time you got all that out of a trip to the theater?
In order to perform that valuable function, a play has to galvanize us, to make us think and feel in ways that ordinarily would not occur to us. Many theatergoers, by voting with their ticket-buying dollars, would seem to have responded, “But I don’t want to think while I’m being entertained. I think hard all day: at work, and when I’m raising my kids and dealing with my spouse, my in-laws, my mortgage. I don’t need that kind of stress from my down-time.”
First of all, spiraling ticket sales (more about those later) may not reflect the above mindset at all. But assuming they did: well, what if theater helped you to deal with your everyday stresses? Even better, what if it allowed you to see difficulties as opportunities for personal renewal?
Part of the problem lies in seeing theater as down-time, as mere entertainment; another is in thinking of recreation (look at the word: it re-creates you!) as something that happens at rest, usually on a living-room couch but occasionally, for social purposes, in a large room full of strangers. However, the sense of inclusion that comes from attending a play, that communion so important to us as humans, is only a piece of what should reward the playgoer. Another absolutely necessary component is stimulation, and that element has faded so much that we may not appreciate it when we see it.
When we watch a story predictable enough that we can see the end coming (within a couple of mild twists and plot points), we are moved away from active participation, toward sleepy consumerism. Our minds work best not when we are constantly reassured that we have the answers, but when we are challenged to come up with those answers ourselves. Prodded awake by a story that confounds our expectations, we exercise and discipline our minds in a way that is both exciting and, conversely, relaxing. As a result, we become more competent to handle the surprises in our daily lives.
Okay. Then why doesn’t more theater do that for us? Why do so many theaters’ seasons feel increasingly bland, predictable, and inoffensive? If you can get theater-makers even to admit that this tendency exists, some will excuse it as “responding to evolving tastes.” “We’re just giving the people what they want,” they’ll say.
Well, since statistics show that live theater attendance has declined dramatically in the past thirty years, it’s unclear that anybody’s getting what they want. The financial meltdown has accelerated the trend: four million fewer Americans attended plays between 2002 and 2008. Several Los Angeles theater companies have closed for the 2012 season due to financial hardship. While those companies’ shows are not necessarily to blame, the overall national downturn suggests that fewer people are willing to pay for the privilege of being unimpressed.
Over recent decades, a growing number of desperate theater companies have produced what they hope will be crowd-pleasing projects. Two distinct varieties of this development:
a) Plays that feel like television shows and movies. Theoretically, these shows broaden the appeal of theater by imitating what audiences already recognize as entertainment: ninety-minute plays, performed in a realistic style, without much in the way theatricality of the text, which is very straightforward and leads to a simple happy or tragic ending. Characters trend toward the one-dimensional, and dialogue usually includes clichés like “we’re not so different, you and I” and “this is not a game!”
b) Plays that narrow the target audience by focusing on topical themes that panders to people who already go to the theater. This theory intends to present issues and characters important to season-ticket buyers: plays about the aged, plays about gays, and plays about plays. A play about Tennessee Williams’ declining years would seem inevitable, but in fact he already wrote a few of those.
In either case, the result is more theater that looks like something you’ve already seen; anyway, the experiment is not working. The percentage of Americans who attend theater remains flat or is in decline. Of those who still come, though (that’s you) look around – how many feel they’re getting the full theater experience?
So yes, many productions argue that they’re just giving you what you’ve asked for. But here’s the rub: if they’ve been giving it to you for years, to a great extent they’re the ones who have created your appetites. You may have decided that you like a certain kind of show simply because, of the few options you have left, it’s the least annoying. This limping system isn’t a giant corporate conspiracy; more like a panicked attempt to stay relevant. But it is a slump toward convenience, a laziness of creative thinking that discourages consumer decision-making by reducing the number of options.
When we demand more of our theater experience, we cultivate a healthier theater community. Applauding shows with hackneyed elements only encourages more of the same. There are still lots of great shows out there; see them! But when you see a bad one, tell your friends to stay away just as loudly as you would tell them to see something you loved. Get involved: be discriminating with your theater dollars. Help choose your next ticket by reading critics who have strong opinions about what makes theater better, and by supporting theater companies who surprise you instead of putting you to sleep. Write to your favorite theater and request more of what you want, and discourage what you’ve had a bellyful of already. After all, the audience is the ultimate arbiter of what gets made, and if we take that responsibility, the biggest revelation we get when the curtain goes up may be the potential of theater itself.