Thursday, August 16, 2007

High-minded elite (More RVA Mag)

That’s a loaded phrase, for sure, but to be honest, it’s not out of line with the reputation theater has had for a lot of people for a long time. But if that’s still where your head’s at, then you haven’t really been paying attention. At least since “Rent” hit Broadway in 1996, theater has rejoined the cultural mainstream. Need proof? How about hit movie adaptations of musicals like “Chicago” and “Hairspray.” The ongoing mega-popularity of experiences that mix theater with music, dance, and even circus, like Blue Man Group and Cirque de Soleil. And how about one of the most popular cultural experiences of recent history: High School Musical. Tonight when the sequel premieres, tweens, teens, and even older folks (like me!) will be enmeshed in the world of theater. Sure, it’s theater on TV but, hey, it’s still theater. And there’s no way to construe the audience HSM II will draw as high-minded elites.

I could mention the burgeoning hip-hop theater culture that is emerging or the gripping new plays like “Topdog/Underdog” that are starting to be appreciated not just on the fringes but in the mainstream. But Le Synge Bleu has already touched on that. What I’ll point out is that theater will always be an essential and ever-renewing cornerstone of popular culture because it is at the theater that people get the first taste of performance. Whether it’s a part of the kindergarten assembly or a skit done for the aunts and uncles at Thanksgiving, people who have a hunger for acting out usually hit the stage first. So even when people grow up to be movie and TV stars, they look back fondly on their days in theater, sometimes heading back for a stint in a high-profile role (Past: Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, etc.; Future: Claire Danes). Sometimes putting loving or satirical nods to theater in their work (ex.: the recent Shrek the Third movie). And, as David Leong's ground-breaking training program that works with lawyers and doctors at VCU shows, theatrical skills can be vital or at least helpful in many other walks of life beyond stage or screen.

I think theater could do more to gain traction with the culture at large but, all things told, I think it’s doing pretty well. Still, Tony, you ask the question, “What can I do?” which I’ll take as an honest request for suggestions. Next post, I’ll try to address it.


Frank Creasy said...

Dave, I'm sure you'll have an intrigueing post upcoming about the relevance of theatre to the average citizen today. Mr. Harris posted a comment in all innocence and good faith, and that is commendable. Clearly, folks following this blog and others like it are primarily those who love the theatre. So I find no reason to verbally pummel him or anyone else struggling to find a reason to enjoy theatre today, lest they have to put on a tux or an evening gown (which you'll rarely see at ANY theatre event in Richmond, Mr. Harris, I can assure you!)

But let's admit first off that while we encourage people of ALL ages and walks of life to enjoy theatre - because we honestly believe EVERYONE can find something relevant to their lives in most, if not all, theatrical productions - that it's not everyone's cup of tea. Yet the impression I've gotten from Mr. Harris is that he's not yet tasted any of what Richmond theatre (or theatre generally) has to offer. Dave, I'm sure you can expand on that far better than I can. But Mr. Harris, since you seem to be in touch with visual arts, I'll just make a simple analogy I hope you'll find relevant. In the visual art world, we've all seen photographs of a Van Gogh or a Renoir. But seeing an original hung on a museum wall - looking at the individual brush strokes, and how they create the overall effect - trying to get into the mind of the artist as he created this incredible vision just inches away from you - now, THAT'S quite a different experience altogether. It can be profoundly moving, even for someone who's never studied art.

A good theatrical experience should do that and much more. It should produce an immediate human reaction shared between performer and audience member, one they both recognize and enjoy without ever having met one another. Those reactions can include the infinite array of human emotion, from uproarious laughter to intense sorrow and everything in between. That connection, I believe, is missing while watching television or movies.

Theatre alone can bring together groups of strangers to share such fundamental human touchpoints by telling a story through live performance. Mr. Harris, I think that's why you should give Richmond theatre a try. I hope it will enrich your life in the way it has done for so many of us. If not, clearly you're a man of intelligence and sensitivity who has various interests and pursuits otherwise - but having said that, I'd be very surprised if you found the theatre any less compelling than those of us who look forward to the next new production with great joy.

Andrew Hamm said...

I think you will find that most theatre artists in Richmond are not terribly interested in producing drama for the "high-minded elite." Those who are would do well to find another market to work in, because there simply isn't a lot of traction for them here.

One of the reasons I'm so proud to work for Richmond Shakespeare is our constant striving to provide what I call a "populist" Shakespeare experience. (The irony is that we attempt to do so by adhering to well-researched original Elizabethan theatrical practices, but that's neither here nor there.) Even a really "deep" play like Doctor Faustus is primarily a hell of a lot of fun, secondarily an elite artistic experience.

Theatre that is intended for cultural elites interests me not at all. That doesn't mean I want to do nothing but Simon comedies and Rogers and Hammerstein for my entire life (for the record, Simon and Rogers and Hammerstein are freaking geniuses), and I do put deep levels of meaning in my work, but it's entertainment that comes first and foremost.