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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Art Vs. Commerce: Is Art Getting Its Butt Kicked?

Welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston.  It is Wednesday, March 13th in the year of our Lord 2013.  I hope all of you lovely readers are doing well. 

I will try not to go off into a rant, but I cannot promise. 

I would like to begin by saying that I am not convinced there is a major difference in so-called "high art" and so-called "low-art", but I do believe there is a difference between practicing a craft with integrity and practicing a craft without.

I should begin by telling you something my old playwriting professor, Gladden Schrock, always told me:  theater is a vulgar medium.  By vulgar I do not mean crude--- by vulgar, I mean that it is a medium for the people, of the people.  Theater, by its design, is for all people, rich and poor, Queen or groundling.  To me, this is an unshakeable axiom.  If you disagree, perhaps you should stop reading right now. 

I am going to say something shocking here:  theater does not require a great facility.  Art finds a way.  Theater can be performed in church basements, on street corners, in drained swimming pools.... the list goes on and on.  For theater to work and connect, one needs only imagination.  It's true.  I'm not kidding. 

The problem is, well-meaning people develop grandiose ideas that theater must have a building that is a temple, a facility that looks wonderful on paper for their community.  Fancy lights!  Comfy chairs!  This way, people will come!  And yes, I want to stress that a theater should be a temple, but that does not mean the temple must be grandiose.  A grange hall putting on Neil Simon or a church basement putting on Tennessee Williams becomes a temple of the theater, even if for a short time.

So a community of actors, directors, stagehands and amateur designers all get together and find a space.  They decide to put on a season of plays.  They have dramas, comedies, a classic (maybe even Shakespeare), a musical... and, lo and behold,  Mr. Hapgood P. Artssupporter and his lovely wife who just WOULDN'T miss a show, gives a sum of money to this wonderful facility in town because "art is so important to the community".  "The wife and I especially like the comedies and musicals," Mr. Hapgood P. Artsupporter tells them as he hands them the check, "Never did understand that Shakespeare, though."  

Well, money is necessary to keep up a good facility and any organization.  And, Mr. Hapgood has a point:  the Shakespeare classic WAS the lowest attended show of the season.  And, you've got an overhead, and, dammit, this facility is important to the community... I mean, ART is important to the community!  (I am not trying to scold, I'm really not--- a nice facility is great for the community, but shouldn't what is housed in the facility have just as much pull as the building itself?)  But we can't survive on half-empty houses and a handful of advertisers... we need a steady stream of donors, maybe even an underwriter or two for our season at this important non-profit facility. 

So, let's cut the Shakespeare.  Next season, we will do some comedies, a musical or two, a serious drama, and maybe a farce (if people like the comedies, they should love the farces!).  Still a nicely balanced season, something for everyone, which is what theater is all about anyway. 

Mr. Hapgood and his wife brings their good friends, the The-ate-erLovers, who absolutely LOVE the theater, and want to hand over some money as well, because "art is so important for the community".  "Really loved that farce, and all the musicals," Mr. The-ate-erLovers says, "Great for the community.  That production of 'Streetcar Named Desire' was awful heavy, though."

Come to think of it, "Streetcar" was the least attended show.  True, it was the most raved about show of those who attended, but raves don't pay the bills.  And, this facility has become so important to the community over the last few years... we don't want to lose it!  We need to get people out.  We need to justify the ticket prices! 

You see where I'm going with this. 

It is very easy for any theater--- regional, community, what have you--- to ride the slippery slope between art and commerce.  To make allowances for what will sell well, or what you believe will sell well. 

I may be crazy for even saying this, but resist the urge.  Create good theater--- that is the number one goal.  Get people used to Chekhov and Shakespeare.  It doesn't happen overnight.  And, even before you worry about a permanent facility, put on theater wherever you can... get people hungry for it... then worry about a facility, overhead, etc. 

Yes, so often it feels like we are living in a society where people do not wish to be challenged anymore.  Where reality television runs supreme, where we are so scared of making our audiences think, that we'd rather just feed them white bread over and over again, because at least we know they like it. 

Sadly, this is not the purpose of art.  Yes, art should entertain, but it should also inspire.  And yes, money is important to survive, obviously, but what is the point of a theater surviving if it is compromising its very purpose and mission?

There has to be room for everything.  A community theater needs to push itself, needs to allow itself to grow.  It cannot fear a production that doesn't have sold out houses.... hopefully, the big farce at the end of the season will help make up for it. 

And here's the deal:  eventually, audiences will buy their own white bread and eat it at home.  There are so many screens there to occupy their time and help them to keep from thinking for awhile.  Make the live stuff a NECESSITY.  Make the live stuff VITAL.  Inspire, provoke, but, most importantly, CREATE.

Maybe just try putting on a Pinter instead of your tenth Neil Simon.  Maybe try an evening of new voices instead of holding "Little Mary Sunshine" over for another week. 

I'm not going to lie... Art is getting its butt kicked by commerce almost all of the time.  Let's try to give art a fighting chance, particularly in the theater.  Leave commercials to TV and 3D remakes for the cinemas. 

Let theater be about art.  And then, when people who are seeking art open their wallets, it will be in your modest or surpreme facility.  And either way, it will be a temple.

Thanks for reading.  If you want to learn more about me, follow the links at the end of the post.  If you would like to subscribe to my blog, you can enter your e-mail in the space at the top of this page where it says "submit". 

Hope you are well.  And please remember:  Art is permanent, money is temporary, and, yes, theater is a sport.

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