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The Art of Discomfort
February 26, 2010 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Last spring Young Jean Lee, an American playwright and director, spoke plainly on the state of American theatre to the Nation. She described it as "our most backward art form."
posted by Tlery (34 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
She mentioned that it's so expensive younger audiences aren't going, so the money in hollywood that draws those audiences seems to be drawing the most talented writers, too.

I wonder what can be done about that. It seems to me that putting on a live performance at the broadway level is necessarily going to be more expensive, per performance, than a movie ticket price would allow. I don't know if that could ever change.
posted by shmegegge at 8:55 AM on February 26, 2010


come to think of it, I'd love to hear Astro Zombie's thoughts, as he's the mefite I know of who has first hand knowledge of working in modern theater.
posted by shmegegge at 8:56 AM on February 26, 2010


She mentioned that it's so expensive younger audiences aren't going,

This is actually not true. See the success of Wicked, RENT, Hairspray, Billy Elliott, etc.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:01 AM on February 26, 2010


I hate that Norman Rockwell is the go-to signifier for 'schlock'. All his many imitators, sure, but just because he painted for money (and therefore didn't just follow his heart wheresoever it led), that doesn't make him a hack.
posted by Rat Spatula at 9:07 AM on February 26, 2010 [8 favorites]


...so the money in hollywood that draws those audiences seems to be drawing the most talented writers, too. I wonder what can be done about that.

Well, there's this to consider: a live stage performance can't be downloaded with absolute fidelity through a 1 gig/second line. The theatrical royalty system will never make anybody rich, but the baseline economics won't be compromised by the dropping cost of information transfer. The same can't be said of Hollywood writing gigs.
posted by Iridic at 9:15 AM on February 26, 2010


I heard Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You," and the image popped into my head of all of these women in traditional Korean dresses miming gruesome suicides and then scuttling around the stage like crabs. It doesn't really make any sense when you hear it, but when you see it onstage that song goes perfectly with the image.

I love Young Jean Lee.
posted by StopMakingSense at 9:21 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Like most Hollywood-caliber movies, Broadway-caliber theatre ought not be considered the standard by which we set our expectations for the artform.
posted by hermitosis at 9:43 AM on February 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


I could not agree more. I'm a movie person, Mrs Browl likes theater and we both like opera...but both are suffering from being too expensive and inaccessible (although in fairness, San Francisco Opera stages several free events each year that are hugely attended, like streaming premieres to the baseball park). Fabulous things are done with set design, costume etc., and wealthy people donate heavily...but I'd be just as happy with a bare stage.

The main problem I have with theater in recent years is that it feels like not enough acting and too much emoting. I don't know whether this is down to the actors or the material - it's hard to act when characters make long semi-expository speeches. I was trained in childhood for theater acting, and still act occasionally in films I am crewing on or producing and a lot of the theater I see makes me feel like I'm back in drama class, and there's only so much you can do if the text of the play calls for an artificial-sounding monologue.

One of the reason Shakespeare plays endure is because they have plots and action in addition to deep characters and sparkling language, and it's the reason his plays transfer to the screen so easily.
posted by anigbrowl at 9:50 AM on February 26, 2010


She mentioned that it's so expensive younger audiences aren't going,

This is actually not true. See the success of Wicked, RENT, Hairspray, Billy Elliott, etc.


To be fair, much of the success of these shows is not really young people, per se - it's tourists (with perhaps the exception of Rent). Most of the young people that go are rich-ish college kids from Connecticut who take the train into Manhattan on the weekend and see a show.

When I first moved to New York, there were still these things called student tickets. The seats were usually either the front row or the back and they were $20. This has all but disappeared. It's been replaced by the lottery, where anyone at all can show up two hours before the show and put their name in a drawing for the $50 tickets.

tickets are $50 to $100

Try $75 - $300.

the really talented writers are going to Hollywood

It's part about the pay, sure. It's also largely about the market (compare the number of new musicals a year...4, 5? ... to the number of new movies).

But it's mostly about the producers. Because bway shows are so expensive and risky to mount, there are no artistic risks taken anymore. Investors want a show that's sure to sell to the tourist crowd, not the young art crowd, which means shows that feature songs and stories people already know. Writers aren't leaving for Hollywood: Broadway has become Hollywood, quite literally. It's rare these days that a new musical is produced that either 1) isn't based upon the music of an already existing band or musician, or 2) isn't a staged version of a movie. Which is, by the same token, why production costs are so high. People go to the theatre now expecting to see a live movie. So we blow shit up on stage (huge amounts of production capital goes to insurance), we raise Idina Menzel up on a cherry picker, we have flying cars. But the stage is not meant to be a movie screen - but that's what the tourist expectation has become.

Just 20 years ago, composers and writers were still visiting wealthy people at their apartments, demoing songs live in the investor's living room, talking excitedly about the show's potential. These days, if you have an idea for a show, you first have to create a studio-quality, orchestrated demo cast recording, a potential marketing platform, etc. I mean, just to pitch a show is super expensive. No wonder all the creative young writers have moved west.

To put it in perspective, putting on a show in the earlyish 80's, say something like Sunday in the Park with George, cost in the ballpark of $100,000 to stage. Wicked was put up for a cool $14 million. That's some insane inflation.

We can only hope that the sort of broadway that has become Broadway prices itself out of the market, and we can return to trying to use the theatre for what it's for. That, however, is not likely. What's more likely is that Broadway will consist of less and less but bigger and bigger shows (in the early part of the century there could be at any given time a hundred musicals on Bway at once - now it peaks at around 14). Tourists will continue to pay the big money to see them, because 'that's what you do when you go to New York,' plus people have a hard time working their way out of midtown.

And too Disney? Come on. Disney owns almost every show that goes up on Bway. What do you expect? Is it surprising that every show is basically the same plot with saacharin songs sung by belty Tisch grads that all sound the same?

Broadway is over as far as serious theatre is concerned. Has been for a long time. It's just a freak show and an investment opportunity at this point. It isn't worth saving.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:51 AM on February 26, 2010 [7 favorites]


although in fairness, San Francisco Opera stages several free events each year that are hugely attended, like streaming premieres to the baseball park\

The big difference is that Opera is almost always a 501c3 NPO. Bway is a for-profit business.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:53 AM on February 26, 2010


When I first moved to New York, there were still these things called student tickets. The seats were usually either the front row or the back and they were $20. This has all but disappeared. It's been replaced by the lottery, where anyone at all can show up two hours before the show and put their name in a drawing for the $50 tickets.

Not sure where you're getting your info from, but no lottery, or rush line, is more than $28.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:57 AM on February 26, 2010


come to think of it, I'd love to hear Astro Zombie's thoughts, as he's the mefite I know of who has first hand knowledge of working in modern theater.

I've increasingly been moving away from theater. I am a fan of the medium, of course, and remain a patron, but I'm just not finding financial or artistic opportunities in it that really speak to me. I mean, I still get hired to write a play about once or twice per year, and I still work with theater conferences nd whatnot, so I still have my toe in the water. But it no longer feels like it is my pool.

I've written a couple of things about it:

An essay on why I think the Internet may, essentially, destroy American theater, and why this isn't a bad thing.

An explanation to playwrights why its unlikely they'll ever see anything resembling any real money in theater, and probably should not even expect any productions of their original plays.

I'm a bit pessimistic. I know there will always be theaters, but I think unless American theater has managed to dig itself into a hole that is increasingly likely to discourage the creation of new work and is unlikely to attract new talent, who can invest the same amount of time, energy and resources into non-theatrical projects and see a much better return. The only reason left to do it is for the love of the art, and as American theater loses its audience, there are going to be less people who love it enough to want to make it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:02 AM on February 26, 2010 [7 favorites]


Not sure where you're getting your info from, but no lottery, or rush line, is more than $28.

Info from experience. And no, you're not correct. Many of the SRO and lotto tickets are indeed less than $28 - but, for example, SRO for Billy Elliot is $41.50.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:07 AM on February 26, 2010


And to put in in perspective, I have recently become part of a band. We play filthy hillbilly music. Our facebook page already has twice (or more) as many fans as most local theater companies. We play between one and three times per week, and so I would say the band, in the past six months, has been seen by more people than have seen my last three plays combined. As a playwright, I tend to make, oh, a couple of hundred to a thousand dollars per production of my play. I get between one ad two plays produced per year, so, in a good year, I'll make, maybe $1200-$1500. In the entire year. For something that took me months to write. As an actor, I have never gotten paid. Ever.

As a band, we make between $50 and $150 every time we play. After six months. When we're still barely known in this town.

If you're creative, and you actually want to be able to support yourself with your creativity, there are few opportunities in theater, and most of them are going to be office staff or stage manager or PR professional, which is rarely satisfying creatively in the way playwrighting or acting or directing is. So there's a lot to take people away from theater, and little to keep them.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:08 AM on February 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's like going to Disney World: the art-world equivalent of Norman Rockwell.

Fucking snob.
posted by Scoo at 10:09 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure that there is "something to be done" about the draw of Hollywood and I'm actually pretty comfortable with that. Articles like this tend to get under my skin a little because I work in theatre professionally and sometimes it feels like there’s this relentless hand-wringing every time you start to do your job. In fact, I think that there's a way to look at this situation where the draw of Hollywood isn't a bad thing.

For example, when you're putting on a play, you're asking a lot of people. Tickets are going to be more expensive than a movie because there's no way to mass-produce. If you want to do something new, there’re no trailers or television advertisements to let potential audience members see if they like the sort of thing you're selling. You're asking them to give you 30 bucks or more, block out 2 or 3 hours, and trust you. And anyone who’s been to a fair amount of theatre has reason to doubt you. We, as an industry have not always fought self-indulgence and mediocrity as hard as we should have. So if you saw In Bruges, maybe you’d like to go see Martin McDonagh’s new play. If you’re remembering that time when you paid 40 bucks and all you got in return was 90 minutes of nude yodeling, don’t worry- this is by a writer from that cable show you like.

It’s good for the artists too. I’m a lighting designer and when I’m not working on a show, I light trade shows for Microsoft and theme parks in Asia because I have to pay my bills. But I think I’m a better designer because I’m constantly designing. I can also make contacts when my budget is in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and leverage that to get cheaper or donated equipment when the budget is a few hundred dollars (this helps keep ticket prices down and quality up). It seems like a much better arrangement than if I waited tables or temped in between. And let’s be honest, if you paid me enough to live on for every show, well… now we’re back to Broadway ticket prices (and a successful Broadway show breaks even).

I also don’t really share the view of how the talent pool works. I don’t think it’s like a job fair where film gets a big flashy booth and attracts all the good talent while theatre has a sad booth in the corner that accepts the dregs. The entertainment world in general is very fluid and when one particular industry may be having a bad year, another may be doing well. So even if someone says that they only want to write screenplays from now on, the screenplay market may not agree, so it’s smart to write plays or television and keep your name out there and keep working. So quitting theatre for the sweet, sweet cash (even if you wanted to) is harder than it seems.

So where are we at? If you pay the artists a living wage, you have to increase ticket prices and ticket sales, so you better shoot for the middle and make it widely appealing. And if you don’t they have to go work someplace else sometimes. It’s ok if you didn’t like The Lion King. Go see The Shipment. Sometimes it just feels like theatre critics and writers would be the type of people to go see Transformers II and pronounce film dead.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 10:09 AM on February 26, 2010


Broadway is a tiny fraction of theater, and even there some excellent new shows are being produced. (I was a big fan of Passing Strange for example, which I saw at the Public, and I'm pretty sure The Pillowman played the Great White Way.)

But the real vitality of course is in regional theater and off-Broadway. I recently married a theater person and have seen more plays in the last three years than in my entire previous life. There is tons of great and strange and vibrant work done, at least here in Portland. (Memail if you want recommendations).

Tickets are not cheap -- maybe $10-50, depending on the theater, but as cheap or cheaper even than well-known bands and comedians. And the edgier, more interesting stuff is on the lower priced end of the spectrum - less than a movie + popcorn & soda.
posted by msalt at 10:13 AM on February 26, 2010


Theater should be a "backward" or conservative art form. It's about community. Ritual. Sex. It needs to be weighted toward familiarity, concensus and restoration of community. Somehow it got mixed up with "progressive" politics, shock-art, and anger, becoming a ritual of self-affirmation for the wealthy -- just before it dropped dead. Now the function of theater has been taken over by the WWE, school and professional sports, mega-churches, and politics. Drama and comedy (as functions separate from the theater) have been taken over by television -- and television is doing a very, very good job at it.
posted by Faze at 10:15 AM on February 26, 2010


I've never understood the appeal of big budget Broadway-style musical theatre as it currently exists. You dredge up movies that are decades old, remake them and that's The Hot New Thing?
posted by you just lost the game at 10:18 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would make the case, Faze, that your comment demonstrates a spectacular unfamiliarity with the history of theater, but I don't really have the energy to offer a remedial history of theater 101 course. If you would like to research further, there are many, many good books that can demonstrate that sometimes theater is progressive, sometimes reactionary, but there is nothing in its history that demonstrates that it should be as you claim.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:21 AM on February 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


just because he painted for money (and therefore didn't just follow his heart wheresoever it led), that doesn't make him a hack.

"3 a : a person who works solely for mercenary reasons : hireling b : a writer who works on order; also : a writer who aims solely for commercial success"

Uh, I have nothing against Norman Rockwell, but that's exactly what it makes him.

posted by adamdschneider at 10:46 AM on February 26, 2010


... sometimes theater is progressive, sometimes reactionary

Well, let's put it this way: the progressive, political and "shock 'em out of their complacency" functions of the theater are all being fulfilled with great flair by other media, like movies, gallery art, comics and -- most obviously -- the web. What theater might do today is use its vast accumulated knowlege to produce some smart, sexual spiritual healing. I leave it to the professionals, and the thousands and thousands of theater majors out there to actually execute this.
posted by Faze at 12:08 PM on February 26, 2010


It's like going to Disney World: the art-world equivalent of Norman Rockwell.

The thing is, subversive shows like say, Avenue Q, being shown around the country do actually reach folks who otherwise wouldn't have their value systems challenged. Broadway can be the starting point for art like that.

Ms. Lee appears to have a particular focus on this subject that starts and ends at Broadway, when her perspective and thinking could be much broader and have more impact, culturally speaking.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:16 PM on February 26, 2010


a person who works solely for mercenary reasons

Yeah, just like Dürer.
posted by Rat Spatula at 1:08 PM on February 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Theatre's roots go deeper than Broadway, as lots and lots of people have pointed out. But there's something frightening and exciting about it, even when it's lousy (hell, especially when it's lousy); you voluntarily lock yourself in a small room with a lot of people, and watch other people (metaphorically) tightrope-walk in front of you, taking the chance that they'll land on top of you if they fall.

I teach drama -- in an English program, so I'm not teaching acting -- and I always have to haul my first-year students to an actual production every year. Every year they say "can't I watch the movie?" and "well, it's just the same if I read it" and every year I have to tell them that I won't read the scene analysis if the canceled ticket stub isn't stapled to the paper.

And every year most of them turn up gobsmacked: it's like going to a live show when all you've ever heard is autotune. I like doing this to them. Theatre is expensive, but I remember every live show I've seen, while movies tend to blend together.
posted by jrochest at 2:05 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a film maker who started in theatre, it seems to me that theatre is seeing the same thing happen to it (and, frankly most of this happened a long time ago) which happens to all popular art forms when the zeitgeist has passed them by.

Look at something like opera. Back in the day, this was popular entertainment, listened to across class lines (although the audiences may have been watching different shows.) Now, it's mortibund re-stagings of the same old things at high prices for the blue-haired "elite." It's no longer pop art, and hasn't been relevant to a mainstream audience in well over a century or more. But it hasn't died.

Jazz was underground, subversive, popular entertainment. Its moment passed and now it's mostly upper middle-class white people listening to it. (Yes, I know that I'm super generalizing with all of this, but nevertheless the demographics of the audience have radically changed.) But it hasn't died, it's just stopped being popular, and therefore the audience and the kind of work done changes.

Theatre also used to be pop art, popular entertainment. Shakespeare was enjoyed by the masses (the rich too, but let's talk about populism for a moment,) it was mainstream entertainment. Now that just isn't true. The entertainment place that was once filled by theatre is taken up by film and tv. And even film doesn't have the place that it once did. Before TV caught on, people would go to the movie theatre and watch a cartoon, a short film, a b-movie and the a-movie. They would spend half a day watching films. Now that same entertainment place is filled with Tivo or surfing the web.

Popular art forms move on. Theatre will continue to exist, even if it's just at the non-profit and community theatre levels, but its time has passed. The fact that it's just the blue-hairs watching it is consistent with what happens to popular art forms when they are no longer popular.

Theatre people starve. A buddy of mine (who works in Reality TV now for good money) used to live in New York City, trying to make it in theatre, and was temping at a cancer research center. Two of the temps he worked with were currently performing on Broadway at the time. When the epicenter, the place where people should be making the most money as a theatre actor can't pay enough that people don't need day jobs, it's not a fiscally sustainable art form. People move to Hollywood because film and TV pay enough money that you don't have to eat Ramen anymore. That's not a bad thing.

Art forms evolve, times change. Theatre is just not relevant the way it once was, and that relevancy isn't coming back.
posted by MythMaker at 2:45 PM on February 26, 2010


Theatre will continue to exist, even if it's just at the non-profit and community theatre levels, but its time has passed.

I bet people were saying this in 1560 as printed books became popular.

My guess is, theater (and standup comedy and improv) will continue and thrive, because electronic entertainment will be cheap and special effects easy to make even for kids, eventually. But the one thing that can't be replaced is electricity of a live event with real people in the room with you, reacting to you.

When anyone can view any movie or video ever made instantly in their home, an event where you had to be there will have real cachet.
posted by msalt at 3:15 PM on February 26, 2010


Berkeley, California has lots and lots of theater that ranges from Pay-What-You-Can (Shotgun Players) to $71 (Berkeley Rep). Why does theater = Broadway? It seems like saying people can't afford haute cuisine if the French Laundry's too expensive for them.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:21 PM on February 26, 2010


Lots and lots being relative, I realize. I just have a lot of theater-going friends who seem to see a few shows a week.

I'm not that into theater for all the reasons jrochest likes it. I have seen 2 productions in the last year, one of which I adored, but I was nearly frogmarched into the theater to watch it.

For perspective, watching the Olympics is too excruciating, too; seeing people fail depresses the heck out of me.

posted by small_ruminant at 4:26 PM on February 26, 2010


Poetry still has it worse in America.
posted by bardic at 9:15 PM on February 26, 2010


Maybe Young Jean Lee should get out of New York once in a while. There is theater outside of Broadway. Come to Chicago and check out the variety of theater here. You can check out a wide range like The Neo-Futurists, The Goodman, Steppenwolf, Babes with Blades, Living Canvas, BoHo, Quest... There are big stages with fly space and wings, and little store fronts that seat 15 people. I've seen great and terrible shows at both and usually for a good price.

There is lots of talent out there working, making real art.
posted by MrBobaFett at 11:43 AM on February 27, 2010


Oh, I'm not saying it will disappear, but once upon a time, theatre was something that everyone would attend. Heck, look at things like vaudeville, even in the 20th century people used to go out to live performances with much more regularity. Now, considering that the average television set in the United States is on for 6 hours, 47 minutes every day, the same impulse to go out to live theatre just isn't there. People are more likely to go out to see a live music show than theatre.

Let's look at the numbers. This isn't for the same year, but it's some hard numbers: 60.2 million theater admissions vs 1.47 billion movie admissions (PDF link). That means that for every one play ticket sold, there were almost 25 movie tickets sold.

This difference is why most film and television is professional, where people can make a decent middle-class living from it, and why most theatre is non-profit, and most people simply cannot make a living from it. Yes, the experience may have a certain quality because it's live, but an awful lot of live theatre sucks.

Or, to quote Hugh Grant:
"I personally find going to the theatre is enjoyable about one time in 20", he told World Entertainment News Network (WENN) last week. "The other 19 you're just going, 'Oh, come on. Let's get to the end of it and have a drink'"
posted by MythMaker at 12:05 PM on February 27, 2010


Faze, am I to understand that you experience The IT Crowd as an example of Brechtian epic television?
posted by stammer at 4:08 PM on February 27, 2010


Well, if HUGH GRANT says it isn't compelling, it must be worthless.
posted by msalt at 9:46 PM on February 27, 2010


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