“I just want to be entertained. When I go out to the theater to see a show, I just want to laugh and have a good time and forget my troubles.”
Well, who doesn’t? Theater can be a great transporting escape. Why do I feel these sentiments are an abdication? More disturbingly to me, you hear it from community play reading committees charged with selecting the seasons of the local theater companies in the form of “Our audiences won’t go for that” when presented with challenging, relevant material.
The reason I sometimes take issue with the opening statement is because I feel it’s a specious argument. It’s saying that as consumers they are in the market for a fun show rather than a political, issue-oriented, informative drama which they consider a drudge. A dutiful, lesson-filled slog. We all know the most thrilling artistry exists on several levels at once. For me, in order to reach greatness, works need to engage us on a civic, spiritual and emotional level. One of the strongest, quickest and most indelible ways to an audience’s emotions is through laughter and it’s increasingly difficult to write a great play today without humor. Some of the greatest shows in the history of show business are radical social statements challenging the status quo of the time with brilliant song and dance. Musicals like “Show Boat,” “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Hamilton.”
What I hear the audience member saying is that they do not wish to engage with the world. They would prefer not to look at themselves, their neighbors or their communities with a critical eye when going to a play or musical. What I hear is they look for a distraction when they are looking for entertainment. A farce, a thriller, a classic devoid of the social circumstances that gave birth to it. They vote for artifice.
A friend of mine, Peter Delocis (a featured performer with The Mopco Improv Theatre), responded when I asked him how Donald Trump had affected improv comedy: “I think the short answer is: audiences are sick of hearing about Donald. I haven’t experienced that before in my years (decades) of performing, but I truly think people are sick and tired of Trump and can no longer find humor in his erratic behavior like they used to. He wore us out. Colbert, Kimmel, et. al. have better luck with this, but I set Trump suggestions aside because I can no longer make them fly. It’s just not funny. It’s infuriating, saddening, disappointing or stunning. The well of my funny is dry.” And their shows are selling out. I get that. He does not inspire me to be jocular off the cuff.
Theater has taken the lead in addressing what’s going on in the country and it sometimes seems like it’s hard to find a new play that isn’t directly engaged with issues that are currently rivening through our republic. Not since the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s, which brought us the theatrical works of Tony Kushner, Terrence McNally, Paul Rudnick and more, has theater been pushing the national debate forward. In December’s trips to NYC we took in “What to Send Up When It Goes Down”, “The Jungle”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Springsteen on Broadway”, “Network” and “The Lifespan of a Fact” among others, some with a direct named criticism of this administration but all responding to it, its party and their policies.
Greece—the birthplace of theater and, not coincidentally, democracy—theater was a community event, a year-end festival that awarded prizes to locals who crafted plays. The plays that survive from this time are frequently critical of those in power. You get to vote more than just once a year in November. I look forward to being entertained this year.
Patrick White most recently opened “Gloria” at ACT in November 2018 and teaches an adult acting class for all levels Saturday mornings at the Albany Masonic Lodge. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org