Friday, January 9, 2009

That's entertainment

A few years ago Civic Youth Theatre staged a production of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, wonderfully directed by Civic Youth Theatre Director Melanie R. Buchanan. The show deserved the large audiences that filled the theatre each night of its run.

When I attended the show, my seat was beside a man and a woman who had brought two boys – around age 10 – to the show.

"We hope it will be educational for them," the man told me before the show began.

Looking at the two boys sitting just one row in front of me, I could tell they were not looking forward to an educational experience on a weekend evening: they were slumped in the chairs, and started playing with a plastic robot.

But then the actors came on stage, and the boys' body language changed. They sat a little higher in their seats and their heads were directed at the stage. When there was swordplay on stage, they stood and leaned forward. And when characters died, it was like a drill had dropped onto them and riveted them in place (figuratively).

An evening of education clearly wasn't what the boys were looking for, but an evening of entertainment thrilled them.

People who claim to attend plays because they're interested in the educational aspects - grand thoughts and philosophies - have it all wrong. Plays and musicals can offer insight and provoke philosophical debate, but the primary goal of all the arts is to entertain.

By entertain, I don't mean their sole purpose is to have audience members rolling with laughter in the aisles. What I mean, rather, is that a play or a musical must keep the audience rapt, must engross them. Sometimes an actor knows the audience is into a show because of raucous laughter, but sometimes silence hints at the same thing.

When an audience is engrossed in a show, that's when deeper themes and thoughts may shine through and actually stick with audience members. No playwright consciously chooses to write about only his or her philosophy on life. A playwright writes about people, actions and series of events that lead to an inevitable conclusion, all the while (hopefully) entertaining the audience to the point where they will choose not to play with plastic robots. A director does not consciously choose to direct the play's theme, but its actions. An actor cannot act what a character thinks, but what the character wants and strives for. Theatre is about people and their desires first, grand ideas and large philosophies second.

This isn't to say that plays and musicals don't offer themes that can lead to thought and discussion. One of my favorite plays is Angels in America, a 2-part, 6-hour epic that dramatizes relationships in Reagan-era and AIDS-era America. It offers very strong thoughts about love, responsibility and forgiveness; it makes damning accusations about people who betray loved ones and themselves. It is, indeed, a work of art.

More to the point, Angels in America is entertaining. There is a theatricality to the production that astonishes audiences, including an angel crashing through a roof; the whirlwind use of multiple settings including Manhattan, Antarctica, the Kremlin, Salt Lake City and Heaven; concurrent scenes that turn the stage into a split-screen television; and completely surreal and hilarious dreams and hallucinations.

Civic Theatre of Greater Lafayette has staged several productions since I started volunteering that included what some may call "deep" themes, including Fiddler on the Roof, Amadeus, The Diary of Anne Frank, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Crucible and this season's productions of Proof and The Giver. Yes, audiences were affected by these shows and their themes, but they would have been bored to tears and tuned out if it weren't for entertaining, engrossing direction and performances by Larry Sommers, Dan Beaver, Abby McClure, James Grammer, Madeleine Bien, Julia Colby and Aaron Brehm among many, many others.

So the next time you go to the theatre, relax, take your coat off, sit back and enjoy yourself. An evening of entertainment awaits.


Mark Allen said...

Really well said, Steve.

Theatre can and should be very educational. But the #1 objective should always be to entertain.

You would be surprised in my 30+ years of theatre how often I have had this come up in debate.

Steve Martin said...

I think the argument of theatre being educational comes up more than a bit in the classroom, at whatever level it is set: college, high school and even grade school.

It's become cliche for folks to say they didn't think they would like Shakespeare because they were forced to read it in class. Cliche, yes, but true. When people see his plays on stage (and I think this can be said about almost any play) the context for language and action become a bit clearer. Audiences can relate to dramatic action more than readers can, I think.

jessica nadine said...

I couldn't help but think of Randy Pausch when I read these comments. He wrote "The Last Lecture," a national bestseller supplementing his final lecutre at Carnegie Mellon before his death. A concept he taught was that of a head fake. He believed that the best education is done by using a head fake. I think it is important that the audience is educated but I believe that education should be something the audience acquires without their realization, much like I am sure the children playing with robots did. While the child might recall the interesting sword fight, he will also recall the funny wording and action of biting a thumb at another person.

Steve Martin said...

Jessica, I like the analogy you shared: Dr. Pausch's "head fake" of education. The arts and culture can indeed educate, but it can be done subtly as the "head fake" analogy success -- done without the audience's realization.

Lis said...

Love it.
I think we do lose sight of the value of entertainment...I think anymore critics and people who claim to "truly" appreciate the Arts dismiss certain works because they lack importance or depth. But there is an equal and completely different value in appreciating that work for its ability to pull you forward in your seat.