Recently there has been a rumbling, a conversation in the zeitgeist, pondering the value of theatre. There seems to be some contention about whether theatre is entertainment, or a forum of change. At the center is the age-old conflict between art and entertainment. Which comes first, and which is the master. Does one have a dominant position, and should that influence the other. And more to the point of this writing, how does that influence theatre.
It is without question that theatre is a high art. It is a collaborative effort by many artists in which the end product is greater than the parts. At least that’s the intention. By self-defining as an artist, the practitioners are led then to an existential question – as an artist, what are my responsibilities? Do I serve a vision, express my story in a fashion that will have some impact, and do I take into account the wants of my audience so that there’s some hope of influence, not to mention financial support.
I’m sure there are artists out in the world who are so dedicated to their vision that nothing stands in the way of their expression of that purpose. And on the other hand, I’m certain that there are many who aspire to be artists, but find their vision put on the back burner in an effort to prosper.
Now we would be remiss in not recognizing that theatre is a powerful tool for effecting change. Does it happen instantly? No, it happens in degrees. Attitudes are affected, insight is gained, and empathy replaces contempt. However, is that the prime function of theatre? As artists, can we seriously believe that we can ask audiences to plop down their hard earned money so they can be changed? Or are we more likely to attract audiences by offering them something beyond change.
There is a simple rule that I have heard hundreds of times, first when I was studying theatre, and later by fellow theatre creators, “The first rule of theatre is to entertain!” It’s a fundamental part of the business model, and yes theatre is in business of filling the seats. To do that, theatre must entertain.
We have nearly infinite sources of education: from schools to the internet, information and opinion are readily accessible to all. Morality is fed to us in churches, quoted in politics and drummed at us by any of the countless charities that seek our support. And while we find a value in all, seldom is there entertainment to be found in pursuit of intellect and morality?
What most people want is to be entertained. To have their attention diverted from their own daily existence, and be amused or engaged in a world not of their own. If we look at the cinema, it has proven over and over that when times are tough, attendance goes up. That is why film is so universally popular.
Why is it that sports spectacle draws the attention and support of a huge cross section of populations? Because it’s diversion, it amuses, it distracts us from what we are, what we do, allows us to reflect on what could be, it engages the ethereal Muses.
If nothing else, theatre does precisely that. It has the capacity to amuse, to distract us from ourselves, and to take us on journeys that we would personally never consider. By the sheer proximity to the artists, we are drawn to believe we are a part of the world on stage. In theatre, much like sports, we feel as if we’re living the experience. Film and TV try mightily to replicate that experience, but by its very nature there is an impenetrable wall. A perfect example would be when an actor speaks directly to the audience, referred to as breaking the fourth wall, in theatre it is common and usually embracing, on film and television, it’s distracting and usually off-putting.
Because of the noted power of theatre, and because it in the very nature of an artist to express their vision, the conflict between art and entertainment comes to a boil. Theatre has always been an experiment in cultural observation. From early story telling to satire, there has always been an edge, and an unspoken contract between the artists and the audience. A tacit understanding, that while amusement or diversion is the primary function, there may and probably will be an underlying message.
The real art of theatre is more than the individual talents of the theatre practitioners. It is the art of communication between the pool of the artists and the audience. It’s a delicate balance, and one easily uprooted when message becomes more important than entertainment. Theatre artists must come to terms with their responsibility to entertain, to divert and to amuse the audience. Their ultimate success will be the reward of that effort.
In short, if the message or vision is the most important expectation of the artist, theatre is probably not the right medium. If engagement and dialogue and bilateral conversation are the goal, there may be no better place than theatre.