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Curb Your Hysteria

November 26, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, In a Perfect World, On the Theatrosphere, Teachable Moments

It’s amazing how fast the vibrating glow of hopefulness that was the post-election Chicago Theater scene chilled to a blind panic once the first shows started to shutter their doors. I miss that hopefulness. Miss it desperately, actually, because it seems that it wasn’t given a chance to unpack. I miss the stiff-upper-lipped approach that Barack proposed in his acceptance speech – “we have a lot of hard work to do, and we’re gonna get this done.”

In the last week, I have received about four e-blasts from medium-sized, and highly respected theater companies in town asking for emergency donations – in which they either explicitly or implicitly imply that they’re about to shutter their doors. Things are certainly bad, but as the communications of impending disaster started piling up, I couldn’t help but wonder… With people losing their jobs (including theater jobs), houses, ability to feed themselves, and get through one of the leanest holiday seasons of our lifetimes, is funding theater in the same ways a priority for the communities that we are part of this month?

So that’s why I think the Zeitgeist today belongs to the clear-headed Dan Granata.

You can’t spend any amount of time starting into the heart of darkness that is our aggregated numbers [on the Chicago Theater Database] and not seriously rethink one’s personal ambitions for a life in Chicago theatre and our collective goals for the community as a whole. So if there’s a “secret agenda” to the CTDB, it’s this: to help us move into the Fourth Age of Chicago Theatre….

The storefront movement has thus far failed to become a bonafide transformational model because we have no concept of what defines us beyond “small” and “underfunded.” We have no idea what success looks like for Storefront Theatre that doesn’t involve becoming a Regional Theatre (or, much less likely, a Commercial Theatre). And if you don’t know who you are or what you are trying to achieve, you can’t make the decisions that will take you there.

Dan’s not the only one rethinking the trajectory of theater this week and best how to come together to offer something productive for our patrons. Ye Olde Hat Tippe to Butts in Seats for taking a comment of mine and running with it:

One observation I wanted to make that no one really preempted was that despite how broken (and increasingly going broke) the existing system of funding the arts is, it seems to me that since about the beginning of the 20th century the arts world has been given the breathing space to discuss these issues on a large scale.

This may be news to those actors, musicians and visual artists who are waiting tables, watching kids and working as customer service reps at insurance companies for as their first through third jobs in order to support their creative activities.

And offline, I got a wonderfully thoughtful email from someone who saw my disappointment (actually, some random patrons’ disappointment) with Dirty Dancing and other big-box spectaculars running in Chicago as a big old missed opportunity:

The theater has become an attraction for its own sake. What does that mean for us in the theater, we who are so proud of our content? How could it be good news? It will be good news if we can succeed in identifying the attraction, capitalize on it, and then maintain the new audiences it brings as we head into the next inevitable step… But most of all we should never think of audiences as nuisances, rabble, or masters, but as partners.

Update: Benedict Nelson, the commentor above, is an excellent blogger from Chicago who I was previously unaware of! For Shame, Nick of the past! Check out his blog, The@re and his thoughts on why to defend the revival and what classics offer for the content of theater today.

Given the level of panic in the American bloodstream right now, I don’t know if this is an effective time to forward a bill to your patrons – instead, it’s is a time to reconnect people with what they get from the theater. Let’s break it down: we’ve had hundreds of productive posts about what exactly that is on the theatrosphere in preparation for moments like this. If the human landscape of an economic meltdown is depression, loneliness, panic, hopelessness, and hysteria, Theater offers the power and agility of communal imagination that it wields is a powerful tool to fight those forces of societal atrophy, and we are people who know how to create moments that jolt people out of their normal thinking habits and see things from a new angle.

Let’s face it: Theater artists are the BEST at being poor and continuing to function.

So what do we need to do to survive in a time like this? We need to fix our biggest weakness as an industry – our failure to learn from our mistakes, and the mistakes of other companies. We must lead with creative ideas of producing theater, which, I swear to you, already exist – this isn’t a matter of reinventing the wheel, it’s a matter of identifying what is already out there and saying “YES, this will work.”

We need make the theater a warm place to be again, rather than some additional source of guilt and financial drain. We need to support the efforts of each other, and identify and fill the needs of our patrons. We are people who know how to throw the best parties in dark times (post-Weimar Germany, anyone?), because we focus our energies and resources on the creativity of the party rather than the expensive trappings of the party.

And if you can’t afford to produce? Re-concept your show and relocate until you CAN afford to produce. You can do it. I believe in you.

My personal guru, Lynn Baber, says to our students at Cherubs every year: “You have to give focus to get focus.” So with that in mind, if you’re reading this and wondering, where do I donate my spare bucks before the holidays?: Don’t donate to my theater right now. We’ll survive, and we’ll still have another great show for you to enjoy in January, because we’ve been very careful with our money and our debt load, and we know how to make a pretty amazingly good soup out of leftovers.

But speaking of soup, please do put your money somewhere where it will do some good for people in your neighborhood this holiday season. More people than normal are hungry, and facing foreclosure or bankruptcy, and we can help them get back in touch. Invite your theater family over for thanksgiving dinner. Hunger makes people hysterical, and makes social problems much harder to solve. It’s time to take a breath, be thankful that we have enough, and help solve these problems with society through art in a lasting way.

While you ponder, let’s all stop being so serious already (I have a big problem with this). That’s why I hope to see something different this holiday season in between shows – WNEP’s SCHMUCK DIE HALLEN or the Neo-Futurists’ A Very Neo-Futurist Christmas Carol.

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3 Comments to “Curb Your Hysteria”

  1. Here’s the brief essay in its entirety, thanks for the quotation.

    When the cinema was young it was, with the peephole and the x-ray, part of a group of new mechanical attractions marvelous simply as technological feats. So at first, it was of little moment what was depicted onscreen, the remarkable thing was really its essential trick: to make a picture move. Any picture would do—the Lumières’ children playing on the lawn, a man on a bicycle, a train pulling into a station. It was the medium itself that was the star, and the material it used was only good inasmuch as it highlighted the possibilities of the medium.

    Eventually the novelty wore off, and the enterprising projectionist eventually looked to narrative to capture and hold an audience’s attention. He began by sequencing his random clips in such a way as to tell a vague kind of story, supplying himself a spoken narration. Finally he began looking for complete stories told on film. Because they were constructing narratives by means of actors portraying roles, the cinema found a guide in the theater. This older brother had two millennia worth of material to use and a bevy of willing talents and techniques that quickly were devoured by film.

    Film was economical. With a projector, a screen, and a train ticket, a single film could generate profits for years. Movie tickets were then, as now, cheaper than theater and a film could be shown a dozen times a day without the actors keeling over from exhaustion. Furthermore, the cinema was quick to discover its unique abilities—the cross cut, the close-up, temporal (over spatial) continuity—and it became not a mere mechanical attraction, no more a simple sleight of hand, but an art.

    As an art it began to distance itself from the theater. The critic André Bazin, for example, argued carefully for preserving the distinction of the two, even and especially when used in conjunction. German Expressionism of the 1920s to this day remains criticized primarily for its theatricality—its use of unnatural sets and makeup. As the cinema rose to the foreground of culture and imagination, the theater lost its seat as the popular art and retreated to itself, to its private harem of enthusiasts and educators.

    But today the next phase is beginning, and it is a bone-achingly exciting time because the ground under the theater is shaking. You’ll laugh, but on the buses and subway trains of Chicago there’s an ad for the new stage musical at the Cadillac Palace theater—an adaptation from the film Dirty Dancing. The ads read: The Classic Story Onstage. Onstage. The ad campaign consists of an assertion of a miraculous medium. The theater has become an attraction for its own sake.

    What does that mean for us in the theater, we who are so proud of our content? How could it be good news? It will be good news if we can succeed in identifying the attraction, capitalize on it, and then maintain the new audiences it brings as we head into the next inevitable step. Well, what does compose the theatrical attraction? Considering that Dirty Dancing is a musical perhaps it offers song, dance, and a certain kind of spectacle. It would be easy to think that what the theater needs to survive, then, is to dedicate itself solely to musical productions. This isn’t quite right, because the film of Dirty Dancing has music and dance—of a different sort surely, but it’s difficult to believe that the entire reason someone would be willing to pay $40 for a show they could rent for $4 is just to finally hear Baby sing. What the theater offers is the living encounter. And since it really is this simple, inherent aspect of the theater that promises to save it, then it truly can be saved.

    The cinema’s inherent attraction was technological and so, like all technologies, this attraction faded. Indeed cinema has become so pervasive in our culture that its miracle is entirely invisible and the medium exists only for its content and its position as a cultural commonplace. The attraction of the theater, however, is not technological and can be experienced afresh at every performance. At any performance the actor could stare you in the eyes and call you out by name, or you in the audience could rise out of your seat and embrace the crying orphan onstage. It is only a communal will to complete a story that keeps these things from happening.

    Rather than scoff and gag at the money being spent on the ‘theatricalizations’ of cinema which have so suddenly flooded the marketplace, we need to convert this event attendance into habitual attendance, focus the theatrical experience on the encounter, and scale back inessential features that drive up ticket prices and distract from this essential attraction. Overdressed theater is like a film of a still photograph—it misses the whole point.

    This isn’t to say we have nothing to learn from the cinema. We need to try new methods to advertise theater to new audiences. Filmed clips of plays online will never work. Never. We should try ‘trailers,’ bits and scenes performed live at other shows around town. We should emphasize ‘local’ before that grows stale (if its not too late). But most of all we should never think of audiences as nuisances, rabble, or masters, but as partners. I don’t think we need to fear that theater will disappear completely, but if we don’t capitalize on this fresh moment and the attraction evidenced by these new adaptations, the theater will continue to slink unnoticed in the purgatory of ‘high art’ with jazz and contemporary painting as it’s lonely neighbors. The theater can decide today to be vital: let’s.

    Benedict Nelson,

  2. Thanks for calling me and others out with your essay, Benedict. Revising my attribution above!

  3. “Theater artists are the BEST at being poor and continuing to function. ”

    Love this, love it. Theatre will always survive. It’ll change for sure, and there are certainly companies who won’t survive the fall out. Probably because they’re more interested in getting a dollar from their customers than connecting to their customers.

    Theatre will never die, no matter how hard things get. That’s perhaps why I love it so.


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