Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Woods Are Burning, Boys!

Tom Loughlin provides an "opti-realist" response to the American Theatre magazine's question about theatre 25 years from now. Be sure to have a good, stiff drink to hand when you read it. It is thoughtful, clear-eyed, and honest.

Overall, I agree with his diagnosis. This Broadway-dominated system, whose foundation was initially shaken by the regional theatre movement of the 1960s before it co-opted the movement into serving as a replacement for the pre-Broadway tryout towns of the mid-century (see Moss Hart's wonderful Act One for a vibrant description of that system), will continue its slide into artistic irrelevance, becoming little more than a northeastern Disney World. Regional theatres will become less and less regional, more and more financially untenable, and as artistically bankrupt as Broadway.

While I love Tom's Nebraska analogy of looking down for the spring, rather than up, I would disagree with his belief that "Theatre over the next 25 years will become smaller, less consequential, and highly undervalued by society at large." Smaller, yes, if it knows what is good for it, and as a result artists will rediscover the true magic of theatre, which has nothing to do with opulence and everything to do with imagination. Repeat Peter Brook's first sentence of The Empty Space as a mantra. But it is hard for me to imagine theatre being any less consequential than it already is, or any less valued. I think we have already touched bottom on that one.

Instead, what I believe will happen, once smallness is embraced and magic reclaimed, is that the theatre will rediscover the fact that its lifeblood is not drawn from the mass culture, but from the local culture. Instead of taking its business model from commerce, it will look to local churches as an inspiration for a new relationship to the audience. Back in October 2005, I wrote about this idea. As Tom notes, theatre education will have to change in recognition of the different skills needed to work within such a model. Saying "education" and "change" in the same sentence does funny things to my mouth, but it will happen eventually. Young people will have to be taught to see themselves as facilitators, community members, builders, rememberers, celebrators, healers, and as people who help the community to reclaim its higher angels, embrace its own imaginations, and live up to its potential.

Do I think this will happen, or is this what I hope will happen? Both. I think the collapse of the current paradigm is inevitable and will have to be filled with something new, and that the movement toward local economies described in books like Bill McKibben's Deep Economy and Lyle Estill's Small Is Possible will embrace the theatre as well as the rest of the economy. (I particularly recommend the latter book as incredibly inspirational.)

But the groundwork has to happen now, while the current paradigm maintains its wobbling dominance. Because once the woods are finished burning, we will have to begin to plow anew, and do quickly before the forces of greed and superficiality begin building a theme park on the site.


Tom Kephart said...

"a northeastern Disney World"

Yes, indeed. Yet there's the audience, and there are the young people who will (perhaps) carry theatre forward. So while we justifiably gnash our teeth at an "artistically bankrupt" Broadway, we have to maintain a connection to that pop theatre. For many young would-be performers and techs, theatre = Disney, and crying out from the wilderness to attract them to the "rest" of theatre is difficult without understanding what interests them now.

As teachers, we need to stay aware of (and perhaps even involved in) that Disney culture, at least long enough to lead a few of these potentially talented newcomers to something beyond what's being offered on Broadway. I'll be directing a production of "High School Musical" this summer, not because I'm a huge fan, but because the kids who will be part of it are, and hopefully I can use my bully pulpit to get a few more involved in better work in the future.

Perhaps it's akin to evangelism, though I hesitate to give it that much of a shine. But in order to get young people to understand their potential roles as "facilitators, community members, builders, etc." we need to reach out to them where they live now.

I hope it works. Either that or I'm gonna have Disney songs stuck in my head all summer for nothing.

Scott Walters said...

Well, I think there are a lot of ways to attract the young, and I'm not certain I feel I know The Way enough to reject anything. That said, the approach you are taking , TO ME, seems akin trying to convert people to a religion by having sex parties during the summer!

Tom Kephart said...

Well, I don't *think* we'll be having any sex parties, but....

I'm kind of starting from scratch here in my corner of paradise. We did two one acts by Edward Albee in February and only one out of the twenty or so young auditioners had ever heard of him (he wasn't in "Wicked", unfortunately). I hope that by finding a core group of young people interested in theatre by working with them on something they are interested in, I can develop a longer-term respect for theatre that is deeper than that offered by Disney. Who knows? It may not work. I'm certainly not planning on doing this more than once (though I once swore I'd never direct *any* musical, and look where that's gotten me).