On the heels of Tom Loughlin's "The Ides of Theatre," which discusses the appalling high school musical competition in New Jersey, built to propogate the Myth of the Broadway Eden, comes this trailer from HBO, forwarded to me by Brian Santana, for a new show called Taking the Stage. As you watch this trailer, listen to the Wal-Mart rhetoric the promotes, without blinking, the idea that it just isn't good enough to be anywhere else except New York:
This is just the kind of propaganda that must be fought. It isn't that these dreams should be squashed, but rather the idea that it is a sign of triumph to take your talents from your home town and pedal it in New York or Los Angeles. That to be an artist in Cincinnatti is somehow a failure, a sign of a lack of talent. And arts teachers in places like Cincinnatti School of Creative and Performing Arts, as well as arts schools across America, use this propaganda as an excuse to abuse students and turn them into unthinking automatons who have no sense of life outside of the arts, and whose entire worldview is contained within the walls of a theatre.
However, as Leonard Jacobs says, don't blame Broadway for doing a great marketing job, promote and alternative. Part of the job of the <100k style="font-style: italic;">Fame-like performing arts schools and colleges and universities. There is a greater purpose to the arts.
As Wendell Berry said in an interview, "In a disintegrating, shallowly pluralistic society such as ours, the artist's role gravitates toward a kind of nonessential entertainment, which merely distracts from things that matter. In a truly grounded, locally adapted culture, the artists would be the rememberers. They would memorialize great occasions, preserve necessary insights and so on." TV shows like Taking the Stage, through its focus on the grueling nature of "training," tries to add weight to the distracting non-essential entertainment, but like the pathetic A Chorus Line, which ends with all the individual dancers melded into a faceless, superficial dance number, it is hard to get away from dehumanization that is the final product.
To HBO's credit, they also air documentaries like the brilliant and inspiring Autism: the Musical, which I recently watched. It is the story of parents of autistic teenagers who discover that performance in a musical helped their children express themselves more fully, acquire social skills, and grow as human beings. There needs to be more of these shows to balance out the Taking the Stage's, the American Idols, the Grease: Your the One That I Wants. The arts can serve a much more profound, purposeful, and crucial role in real life. Wendell Berry describes one version, Autism: The Musical describes another, and there are many, many more waiting to be documented. If the Wal-Marting of the American Theatre is to be stopped, we need to document as well as create.