I’ve been driving around back roads in upstate New York during this holiday season. Today as I headed towards Lake Placid to go ice skating, I saw a series of dilapidated houses and I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who live there. I kept wondering, “Has anyone in that house ever seen theater? Does it mean anything to them?”
I think about this a lot at home. I see someone coming out of their south Philadelphia row home just a block away from me and I think “Is there any play that I could make that guy would want to go to?” I wonder about what kind of thing I could create that this dude might pay money to go and see. It’s a little hard to imagine. But I want to think that’s possible. That the thing I make could be useful to that guy.
What percentage of people in the US saw a play last year? I can’t find any data on this in my 10 minute online search. But it has to be really small right? 10%? 5%? 1%?
What’s the equivalent number for people that have watches a television show in the last year? 95% Probably more, right? 99%? 99.9%
Can I make plays for people that aren’t exactly like me? Because that’s most theater audiences. For these folks in out in the boonies there closest performing arts center is 40 – 90 minutes away. That’s where they can see Theater with a capital T. With lights and sound system and people performing the latest Broadway tour. What does theater mean to them? Is it Broadway? Is it red velvet seats? Is it Edward Albee’s Zoo Storey?
But is that actually “theater”? If not than what is theater? Who is it for? What is its core?
Mostly, it’s citified urbanites who like to take in high culture? It’s people who can afford a seasons subscription. It’s a beautiful lobby in a city center with printed tickets and programs and a snack at the intermission. Is this who I making this stuff for?
I spend a lot of time defining what my art is. I spend less time defining who I want my audience to be. In theory we all use bloated language and talk about the universality of our message but that’s a lot of crap. My theater is mostly useful to well educated people. People like me. Probably not racially diverse. Probably liberal. And likelier than not a fair bit older than myself.
I know that the people seeing my plays are NOT my neighbors. Or the folks out here in the sticks. And that’s a little worrying. If the apocalypse comes and movies and television are over will I still be able to make work without a fancy light grid and sound system? Will what I do carry on? What’s at the core of the thing I want to share?
Ugh. I don’t know. It’s the day after Christmas and I just wanted to go ice-skating.
This is at the center of my confusion lately: what theater is good for and how to make it the most “that” that it can be. But then I think, man, can’t I just make the play I feel like making?
Ok, how about a dictionary diversion: What is “theater”?
You can read the web page. But let’s dissect it quickly:
Numbers 1 – 3 define it as a structure or place. Which makes sense. Traditionally, we do think of “Theater” as a building, a structure. But, beyond the place I think there’s something deeper than that to explore.
Number 4 uses “dramatic literature” and specifically “plays” as a definition of what theater is. And again, this might be a part of what it is, but for me I think there’s something more than that. The second part of #4 says “dramatic representation as an art or profession (aka ‘drama’)” which starts to get closer.
I think my favorite piece of the whole thing rests in the fifth attempt to explain the word theater which I will quote in its entirety:
5 a : dramatic or theatrical quality or effectiveness
b : spectacle: something exhibited to view as unusual, notable, or entertaining; especially : an eye-catching or dramatic public display
c : entertainment in the form of a dramatic or diverting situation or series of events
Isn’t this last definition what we hope all of our “theaters” might be? Something heightened in its dramatic quality or effect, eye catching and entertaining in its display?
It’s a feeling, a connection, an experience of event – something that occurs between humans regardless of place that helps us process who we are. And that should be possible whether or not I have a performing arts center with a booth and a grid and dressing rooms right? That should be possible whether my audience is 10 or 10,000.
It should be possible to create a moment of dramatic effectiveness that isn’t dependent on a place or a script, that is about an intangible need to connect, to create and to share.
It should be something that I can share with my Philadelphia neighbors, right?
I want to believe in a theater that can be useful, even up here.