by 99 Seats
I don't really have a lot of respect for contrarian arguments. Honest, I don't. But when I read both Matt Freeman and Rob W-K's take on this piece by Howard Sherman, I suddenly found myself thinking, "Yeah...no. Not at all. I gotta call b.s. on this." And so...um, shenanigans. I'm calling shenanigans.
It's just such, well, sentimental, glossed over claptrap. Sorry to be harsh about it, but when faced with sentences like...
And when children invent their own dramatic scenarios for their parents, I’ve never heard of one saying that they’re making their own movie or TV program – they somehow know they’re putting on a play.
...it's a little hard not to harsh on it.
Now, in my time, several folks have intimated that I'm, well, mean, even cynical. I can't totally disagree. But let me say this right now: I love theatre. I love working in theatre, doing theatre, I love theatre people, theatre history, lore, I even sometimes love theatre gossip. I think it's an important art form, and a unique way to reach people and all of that. Something truly amazing happens with bodies in space, sharing a vision of the world. I can and do wax poetic about the work we do and why we do it. I've made it my life.
But I simply can not take this piece seriously. Not in the slightest. Worse, I think the attitude that pervades it is one of the things that's keeping our theatres and our artists from doing their best work. There is an out-of-touch, above it all, blinkered arrogance to the whole post. Maybe it was because he was writing it on a plane over "flyover" country. I don't know Howard Sherman. His piece seems entirely sincere. Which kind of makes it sadder in my eyes.
Rob highlights this section (I'm going to quote it at length):
4. Yes, it’s expensive to attend in most cases, but when was the last time you bought a ticket to a sporting event or rock concert. Inexplicably, people endlessly discuss how expensive theatre is, but they’re not as quick to say the same of some other forms of live entertainment. I think this is rooted in the idea that theatre is elitist and so this argument is trooped out to reinforce the stereotype, when other entertainments are at least as expensive or even more so. Ironically, sports and rock are priced high in order to pay outrageous sums to a relative handful of people who are often distant figures rarely making a personal connection with their audiences. Theatre is expensive in order to support a distinctly human interaction that is incredibly labor intensive at every level, but if you want to have a moment with your heroes, just take a quick survey of any venue where it’s performed and find the stage door. You’ll see your heroes, maybe even speak with them and get an autograph or a photo, instead of discovering that, say, they’re already on the way to their airport so they can fly home and sleep in their own bed, while you’re still trying to get out of the parking lot.
This reads to me like someone who doesn't follow or understand either sports or popular music, and, frankly, seems to congratulate himself for that. And so he gets it entirely wrong.
The theatrical exceptionalism in the idea that theatre is a "distinctly human" experience, different from a sporting event or concert, just makes my skin crawl. Like I said, something wonderful happens when you put people in the same room and take them to the same place. That counts for a Broadway show, a Knick game, a rock show. There are wild difference between the three, though, but one of the biggest is in the quality of the experience. What Howard gets all upside down is how the quality of the experience actually is.
Last week, I went to see The Mountain Goats at Bowery Ballroom, the first night of a three night stand, and the first NYC shows in a couple of years. The audience was so engaged, it was actually kind of scary. From the second the show started, they were calling out requests, some for the hits (well, what counts as a hit in the world of indie rock), some for obscure deep tracks. It got to the point that John Darnielle, the singer-songwriter who essentially is The Mountain Goats, started talking back, telling one particular insistent fan, "No! I'm not going to play that song. I don't remember it." And the guy called out the key! To which, JD said, "Don't yell out the key. I don't remember the chords, I don't remember the lyrics, I'm not going to play it!" That's a tight, tight connection between fan and star, isn't it?
Whenever the question of price comes up, someone trots out the whole "people drop lots of money on music or bars, so it's not like they're poor" argument. It completely misses the point. The question to ask is why? Why do people who would never drop $40 bucks on an Off-Broadway play feel comfortable dropping $100 to see Prince? Because of the quality of the experience. Theatre is falling down on the quality of the experience.
Concert ticket sales are suffering. Album sales are suffering. No one says that music is dying. When your team is bad, your ticket sales suffer. Baseball isn't dying. I don't think theatre is dying, but I think it's time to retire the entire idea of the fabulous invalid, sitting high above other experiences as a special thing, meant to be nurtured and given love and support for simply existing. Our theatres are failing and they're failing because of the work they're doing. Not just because the country is full of philistines.