I should know better; Twitter has become a means of coarsening dialogue and spreading disinformation and propaganda, and is directly responsible for the political upheavals and general insanity for the past few years. So I really should stay away from the site, and ignore everything I see there. But that isn’t possible; if nothing else I’d need to log on once a week to post the link to this very blog you’re reading now. Plenty of theater practitioners and theater companies I respect post regular updates there; in order to keep track of them, I need to force myself to wade through the rest of twitter.
Recently, a friend of mine, connected to the theater world, voiced a concern that many of us have been feeling – that as much as we want to get back to live theater after close to a year and a half of the Quarantimes, he had some misgivings about how that return was shaping up. Whether we wish to admit it or not, I think a lot of us are having these sorts of misgivings as we hear plans for theater to come back as if the seismic changes of the past several months never happened. We worry that producers are only paying lip service to the calls for diversity and inclusion so passionately raised last summer; we worry that ambitious new works are being ignored in favor of stubbornly forging ahead with revival plans made in a very different climate. In the case of my friend’s remark, the worry is that all of the innovations we’ve been forced to make in creating remote theater – which have had the happy side effect of making theater available to people who otherwise couldn’t afford the ticket price, or whose schedule or mobility issues made attending impossible – would be cast aside in the rush to reopen, without any thought or provision for those who’d actually benefited from these innovations.
As is wont to happen on Twitter, my friend’s remarks prompted all manner of misunderstandings, recriminations, and accusations. The one that’s stuck with me is the person who exclaimed that she didn’t want these remote accomadations to continue because she thought that the physical act of going to the theater should remain “special.” That if it was something you could just log into while reclining on your couch, the essential magic of a live performance would be tarnished. Left unspoken was the implication that any barriers to economic, be they physical or economic, were a small price to pay for keeping that magic in place, for keeping it all special.
My friend, being a better man than I, declined to engage further. However, I’ve got a weekly blog post to write and there’s not much by way of actual productions to discuss, so let me state my controversial position here:
Theatre should NOT be special.
I’m not saying that theatre isn’t or shouldn’t be wonderful, that its transformative properties and ability to engage with difficult subjects don’t border on the magical. I’m not being cynical, my capacity to experience that magic dimmed by years of working in the theater, knowing how the tricks are performed, and being disillusioned by them. No, what I’m saying is that making theater a rare, occasional thing – an expensive and rarified treat – makes the quality of what’s being performed worse.
The Greek dramas were performed at yearly festivals, to which all of Athens would come. Commedia dell’Arte was performed by travelling troupes to the general public. The Globe theater, where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, was frequented by London apprentices taking a break from work, with vendors and prostitutes working the crowd. The mid-20th century plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were written for a middle-class audience who were able to make Broadway a regular habit, and expected to see their concerns reflected on the stage. Every period of drama which has proven to be influential and artistically vital, to have stood the proverbial test of time, has corresponded to political and economic circumstances where the general public had the wherewithal to actually see that drama. It spoke to their lives because it was a regular part of their lives.
The opposite? Grand and opulent spectacles performed rarely, and catering exclusively to the wealthy? They’re not a sign of a thriving theatrical culture. They’re typically a sign that that culture is in decline, their decadence and divisions unable to be sustained.
So no, I don’t blame anybody who’s reluctant to risk a still-raging pandemic to see an overproduced jukebox musical. If I wanted to witness a sign that my culture was in decline, I’d spend my day on Twitter.