Monday, June 2, 2008

Theatre as art?

"The word theatre comes from the Greeks. It means the seeing place. It is the place people come to see the truth about life and the social situation."
- Stella Adler, actor and groundbreaking acting teacher.

The dramatist's function is (1) to earn a living for his family and himself and (2) to try to entertain people for a few hours."
- Lee Adams, Tony award winning lyricist, writer of Bye Bye Birdie among others.

There is a fine line between "entertainment" and "art". I would argue that for good theatre one is not possible without the other, but it is rarely that simple. It is a constant balancing act that every theatre
must perform, how do you stay artistically and socially relevant, and still make sure there are "butts in the seats?" As a community theatre, we have anther layer to that question, how does one best represent the community. Is it best to play to the largest common denominator, make sure we are pleasing the majority of our audiences? Or do we strive to represent as many different aspects of the community? What I mean by that is do we do crowd pleasing shows every slot of every season, or do we try to reach audiences that have not felt welcome in the past? Audiences that do not like musicals, or even comedies, audiences that would love us to produce "cutting edge" work?

One also needs to throw in the less appealing but very important factor of economics. Civic Theatre, like most theatres in the United States, is a non-profit theatre company. This means that the primary purpose for our work is fulfill our mission.
Civic Theatre's mission is to enhance the artistic and cultural environment of Greater Lafayette through theatrical productions and educational opportunities. Everything we do at Civic Theatre is towards that mission. Of course it is vitally important that we are good stewards of the money we receive, and that we are smart as business people. The freedom though is that not everything we do is required to make a profit. The bottom line, although very important, is not the primary goal. Of course part of being good stewards is making sure that the company stays economically viable and sustainable. This too should play a role in our programming and artistic choices, the question is always how much.

I certainly have my opinions of what shows I would like to do. However it is my job to help select the shows that I think are best for Civic Theatre and most strongly work towards fulfillment of our mission. I am a person that likes to be challenged by theatre. I think that good theatre will challenge my preconceptions and make me question what I believe. I do not think that good theatre tells me what to think, or leaves my vapidly sitting like I am watching the latest trashy reality show on VH1.

Is this to say that I think that comedies and musicals are not as important? or as good? Certainly not. I truly enjoy a well written comedy or musical. There is certainly nothing vapid about Private Lives, or Greater Tuna. I think that many "cutting edge" shows fail, not because the offend, or shock, but because they have forgotten to be entertaining. It won't matter how brilliantly a play tells its message if half the audience walked out at intermission, or fell asleep ten minutes after the houselights went down.

So how does Civic Theatre do in striking the balance? What makes "good theatre"? I have offered a little bit of my philosophy, but like good theatre, I will not give an answer, only ask questions. Is theatre relevant? Why? or Why not? The theatre is a "seeing place" but I believe it is also a speaking place. A great dinner conversation that begins the minute you walk in the theatre and does not end till you fall asleep that night.

1 comment:

Steve Martin said...

I believe theatre is relevant today because there is something powerful in watching live people in front of you. The different highlights from this season's productions —— the girls screaming in The Crucible, the women of Crowns putting on their hats in unison, the outrageous plan behind A Very Bad Day for Brandon Butterworth and more —— wouldn't be as powerful if they were broadcast over TV or in a movie theater. The audience sees real people in front of them, and I think the actions affect them more.

And yes, theater has to be entertaining. Perhaps a show wants to educate to enrage or argue a point, but if it doesn't capture the audience's interest —— and not necessarily howling with laughter, I've seen shows that grab interest but leave their audiences completely silent —— those extra layers aren't going to surface.