Saturday, April 07, 2007

Papermill Playhouse

A few short words just to keep a hand in (I am in techs for The Philadelphia Story), which opens Wednesday.

Matt Freeman recently posted about the possible closing of the Papermill Playhouse, and opined that "If this theater, in its location, isn't able to support itself, we're all in big trouble." I agree with the concluding sentence -- we are all in big trouble -- but I don't think we are in trouble for the reasons Matt gives. To me, the possible closing of a theatre like Papermill is alarming because it seems to indicate that the apathy for theatre has now reached beyond the "serious" theatre to what had until now been seen as the rock-solid purveyors of "splashy revivals of musical theater classics" like Papermill.

In the comments, I mused that "couldn't it be that the Papermill Playhouse isn't offering anything that people value anymore? I mean, just what does "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" really have that people need and can't get cheaper through Netflix?" The key phrase was not about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but rather the phrase about Netflix. My point is that such theatre -- indeed, all theatre -- is getting commodified. In the business world, "commodification is a process that transforms the market for a unique, branded product into a market based on undifferentiated price competition" (wikipedia.com). In my opinion, light entertainment as a market has been commodified, and we are witnessing a race to the bottom of the financial pile -- what will deliver the "light entertainment experience" for the smallest financial outlay? Netflix has set up shop in the bottom, and Hollywood first-run, mainstream movies has claimed the second rung. In this competition, the theatre simply cannot compete.

One might point to the recent information that Broadway had its best year of ticket sales in decades this past year. True. But do people attend Broadway theatre because they crave the theatrical experience, or because it is a tourist-y thing to do, like visiting the Empire State Building? Sans that cachet, can the Papermills of our society hope to experience the same surge in attendance as Broadway?

The answer -- or at least, one answer -- is not, say, Mac Wellman or Sarah Kane -- this is not a discussion about edgy versus mainstream. The race to the bottom is not about content, but rather business model. No, the answer resides in theatre's relationship to the audience -- its place within the life of the community. If we regard our work as a commodity to be sold, then we enter the entertainment market and and join the race to the bottom. But if we regard theatre as part of the gift economy, and establish ourselves in a relationship with the members of the community who are drawn to the theatrical experience, then we might, perhaps, disconnect from the commodification race. As long as the theatre does "productions" within the "show business" paradigm, without close and personal connections to our audience, I believe we will find our audiences dwindling. We must develop a new model or, in answer to Simon and Garfunkel, the theatre will really be dead.

Not long ago, one of my fellow bloggers (and I would swear it was Matt or Isaac, but I can't for the life of me find the post) posted something about a writer who was making his novel available royalty free for anybody who wanted to adapt it to the screen. There was a collective gasp of admiration for a guy who was putting his money where is beliefs were. This guy noted as his inspiration Lawrence Lessig's writings The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, and Lewis Hyde's book "The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property." I owe this writer a great debt, for he inspired me to read Hyde's book myself, which has led me to a much different way of thinking about the arts. That, and Jan Cohen-Cruz's Local Acts: Community-Based Performance in the United States and Robert Gard's Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America have had an enormous influence on my recent thought. I recommend them highly.