In honour of World Theatre Day 2010 (March 27, 2010), renowned Canadian playwright Brad Fraser challenged me to write an article “with the objective of getting the many people who don’t attend the theatre to attend the theatre without resorting to the “There’s something for everyone” trope.” He asks, “Why is theatre relevant and why aren’t more people shelling out their money to see it?”
photo by harley. make-up by pru olenik
Dear People of the World: Come Play With Us
My grade seven English teacher introduced us to the works of William Shakespeare by having us stumble and struggle through his strange and twisty words aloud. We read A Midsummer Night’s Dream this way twice and I watched as most of my classmates came to the conclusion that Shakespeare and plays equated extreme boredom. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that inherent in this text were all the ingredients for a hilarious and whimsical theatrical experience that had the power to speak to any generation through the centuries. William Shakespeare didn’t write these plays to be studied as Literature; he wrote them for his theatre company to perform for a rowdy audience filled with working class men who stood through the entirety of the play, eating, drinking, and sometimes throwing rotten fruit at the actors. Shakespeare plays were originally the opposite of pompous and bourgeois; they are teeming with sexual innuendo and the comedies are hotbeds for the same sort of physical comedy made famous by the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, which have since been adapted for American sitcoms. Shakespeare’s themes and ideas about freedom, gender, war, power, sex, love and individuality were so modern that he had to bury them within the subtext of his plays to escape harsh censorship laws where playwrights could be imprisoned, tortured and mutilated if their plays were found to be morally or politically unsafe. Skilled directors and performers have the ability to draw out the progressive and rebellious nature of these plays and this drains them of their tedium and pretentiousness.
High School English Class so often does Shakespeare a massive disservice. No one wants to spend an exuberant amount of money on theatre tickets if they are going to be bored. Theatre is risky business and it is far safer to stay home and watch television where the channel can always be changed or download movies free of monetary investment. Why should you go to the theatre? For me, the theatre has three significant advantages over television and film which justify my leaving the house and investing a little bit more for my evening.
Firstly, the contemporary theatre in Canada is, in general, remarkably free from the constraints of censorship. This is an issue that I don’t think we typically associate with our television sets and yet because TV is a multimillion dollar industry, the creators and programmers are continually limited in what material they are able to broadcast by their advertisers, investors and the political entanglements of each network they are affiliated with. The theatre in North America is struggling against a debilitating reputation that the theatre is elitist and boring or opulent, escapist and hollow because this is the perception that not only is perpetuated in many schools and in popular culture, but also by the theatre community itself as it allows stifling productions of plays written thousands of years ago and glitzy Broadway mega-musicals to completely blindside and overshadow the majority of work created in our Nations’ theatres. The reality is that the theatre actually allows far more leeway for controversy, for ambiguity and for explorations of politically and socially relevant issues because it is less concerned with pandering to the majority. The most exciting and dynamic stories in your city are most likely being told on a stage.
Secondly, while it is true that it can be argued that the film industry has definite advantages over the theatre in its ability to use special effects to capture a stunningly realistic portrait of our daily lives, Hollywood films differ from the theatre in that they are primarily created by an editor. A screenplay is not offered up to the public as the sacred work of one writer, but rather, is often the pieced together work of several writers, improvisations and hasty rewrites, which rarely reflect one writer’s artistic vision. In the same way, Hollywood actors perform each scene in isolation and out of sequence which means that their performance does not have the same dramatic arc that theatre actors experience onstage. I don’t mean to undermine the filmic process here, but there is something entirely different and, I think, vividly more impressive, intimate and fascinating, about watching an entire performance spring to life before your eyes. With skilful writing, playwrights are given the power to create entire worlds because their work is so highly valued. Capable performers are given the opportunity to submerge themselves richly into these characters which so often produces exquisite results. These experiences are shared equally with the audience, because the audience is so intensely present, and this is something that cannot be recreated.
Thirdly, everything is funnier when you watch it first-hand. I never laugh harder or with more joy and mirth than I do while watching the most talented Improvisers in Toronto make up the cleverest, craziest antics in the world right before my eyes. The energy that radiates from Improv is infectious and addictive and cannot be captured by any other medium.
The theatre is far more accessible than you may think, although it is often poorly advertised and cloistered away in the shoddy bits of the newspapers, most Canadian theatre companies offer several Pay What You Can (PWYC) performances for each of their shows. These are terrific opportunities for those who are not familiar with theatre companies or specific playwrights to sample an array of different styles of theatre in an economically efficient way. Each theatre company has its own website and their mandates usually give a clear indication of what sort of theatre you can expect from each one. If you are still sceptical, I recommend easing yourself into live performance via Improv or Sketch Comedy. These shows are often between $5.00-$10.00 and tend to have a closer connection to mainstream popular culture than many plays or musicals. It is important to do some research into these companies as well since comedians come in a wide array of skill levels.
On this, World Theatre Day 2010, I wish to dispel the myth that theatre is conservative and dull, that it is unfashionable and elitist, frivolous and pretentious. I encourage everyone to seek out a play or a performance style that reflects a vision of the world that they can relate to and engage with. Great theatre is empowering, invigorating and inspiring. It is my wish that someday the theatres of the world will be places where everyone will feel welcome and that these homes for humanity will help us all to share our unique insights and observations with one another and to celebrate the fact that ultimately we are all connected in our desire to dream, to create and to play.