Saturday, June 09, 2007


Last semester in one of my classes, a student reported that she had been speaking with various people on campus who were not involved in the theatre department, and their view of the department was that it was isolated, elitist, cliquish, and not part of the university community. One group was frustrated because the students were so committed to working on our mainstage shows that they didn't help with the Vagina Monologues performance that occurs on campus, for instance. Overall, there was a sense of hostility toward the department, and a lack of interest in supporting it.

Some students too a "well, fuck them" attitude, and others were very upset at the way they were perceived. VERY upset. It led to a very useful discussion about the internal demands of the department, and how it should operate within the larger community.

I was reminded of this incident when I read Peter Birkenhead's "Give My Petards to Broadway" over at It can be a real eye-opener to see how people outside the theatre community view the theatre. Apparently Birkenhead is a former theatre person, so I guess he can't be counted as an "outsider" completely. Nevertheless, I think there is a lot of food for thought in his exasperated essay. In fact, many of the things he says echo things that he been said here and elsewhere in the theatrosphere:

  • You seem to have trapped yourself in a system of theater creation in this country that is positively Soviet in its unwieldy, self-satisfied stuck-ness.
  • You know that people who write for film and television aren't just doing it for the money anymore, right? They do it because their work won't be developed to death by an endless supply of places with "mission statements," because they know they will have more artistic freedom, more fun and more opportunities to do the kind of interesting work the theater once provided, about, you know, recognizable people in dramatic situations, struggling with the human condition.
  • You have just got to get out more. I mean, the same elements that are considered avant-garde in the theater today were considered avant-garde in 1918. The theater still thinks dissonance is a daring musical gesture, and that nonlinear storytelling is new. It's embarrassing how proudly it seems possessed by not only the aesthetic, but the ethos and issues of another era.
  • Some of you seem to think the problem is with the audience, and that the only prescription for what ails the theater is to redouble your commitment to doing work that is "important" and "ambitious." I've got news for you: People aren't staying away from the theater because it isn't ambitious enough. They're staying away because it's relentlessly "ambitious," because it keeps insisting on its own unique and righteous importance, despite all sad evidence to the contrary.
  • theater has been hijacked. It's been commandeered by grant-proposal writers and dramaturges, by panel-discussion moderators and chin-in-hand bureaucrats, many of whom brook no more dissent than the Bush administration. To even suggest, at any of the endless symposiums that the theater community can't get enough of these days, that the problems facing the theater might be solved by respecting the audience more instead of less, that perhaps, instead of designing condescending "outreach" programs, the theater might try educating itself, and listening to the people it's been reaching out to, is to tempt the derisive wrath of a community whose motto might as well be "You're with us or against us."
  • These days it seems like every other interview with one of you guys includes two or three unabashed pronouncements about your work's importance. Way too many of you plead the case that theater people are great artists, unfairly ignored by a television-watching world that is too ignorant to appreciate you. Which makes me wonder: Why are you asking for attention from people you look down on? It seems to me you should stop the us vs. them, and join the party. Because, and I say this only as someone who cares, you would do yourselves and everyone who loves you a big favor if you just broke down and got cable.

Now, I'm sure there are many points that can be disagreed with in the details of Birkenhead's essay as well as the shows and people he admires (as of this writing, there are 38 comments to his post). And I suspect his admiration for television may bring hoots of derision as well. Nevertheless, for those of us who create theatre, or teach young people to create theatre, there may be great value in considering Birkenhead's screed.


Anonymous said...

FYI - It's, not

I actually think Salon is much better than Slate, but somehow Slate gets all the recognition.

Anyway, it's an interesting post. And interesting that so many comments are focused on the Sopranos instead of the main point that theater is driving good writers to TV.

Scott Walters said...

Jeez -- thanks! I'll change it.

Yes, the comments seem to be focused on whether or not The Sopranos is a good show, which also is an indication of where the reader focus is. It will be interesting to see how the theatrosphere responds.

Freeman said...

Scott -

You're a member of the theatrosphere. What do you think?

I don't mind this. It seems very much like the opinion of someone who soured to the industry and found his tastes weren't reflected in what he was seeing. The plays he quotes as sub-par aren't exactly powerhouses. "Three Days of Rain?" "A Fair Country?" "Some Men?" He's not exactly picking on plays that have a ton of defenders. It's hard to take anything very seriously that says "Sure 'Doubt' was ok. Sure Angels in America and Spring Awakening are good. But man, did you see 'Three Days of Rain?' The theatre is dead!"

How about "Frost/Nixon" and "Coast of Utopia" and "Avenue Q" and The Drowsy Chaperone?" I'm not even bringing up stuff that's Off-Off Broadway or in the Regionals. There might be a lot of good TV shows, but it's easy find stuff on TV that's far far worse than "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."

Is all theatre really about sexual repression and the Bush administration? Hardly. It's a sort of dismissive piece, intended to get reactions more than be accurate.

th23 said...

Theatre is dead, dude.

I came to theatre, young and full of hope, the same way I came to Berkeley.

Of the all the lies that I have been told, theatre is the biggest.

Just like Berkeley. There's nothing left but soy lattes, cheese board for the tourists, and an empty Cody's.

Televison and in particular HBO is hot!

Freeman said...


Berkeley sounds like a massive disappointment to you.

You can't think of one bigger lie you've been told than... theatre? You're lucky. As a child, I was told that when I die, I go to a magical puff of cloud and hang out with my relatives. That really screwed me up.

Scott Walters said...

Hey! It's OK for ME to say that, th23, but when YOu say it, them's fightin' words! *L*