Farewell to Theater

Traditional big-box theater in America is at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to reforming its structure. Even though the relevant numbers have been crunched as tweaks, gimmicks, and roll backs have been accepted, there still is the implicit resolve among the old school that “Beyond this point we can go no farther.”  This barrier to change affects how the content of plays speaks to the non well-off (which is increasing) and under 60 theater goers.

After 50 or so issues of American Theater Magazine it is clear that your group has highlighted all attempts at tech, finance, and education innovations without changing theater itself. Your roots go to the past and significant change is in constant negotiations with several generations of what has worked in the past. When writing about how theater is done in other countries, I have nothing but good things to say. But other countries do not share our past. In any event, Americans may not be able to duplicate their success.

Since it all comes down to money, I would like to offer my two cents about why reform is limited when working from the top down. An approach of creating from the bottom up would look very different than trying to pinch pennies out of multi million dollar budgets. I include the 99 seat theater class that appears to be bargain versions of that same form and substance.

Don’t get me wrong. I saved several valuable articles that the magazine has printed that would also be valuable to those thinking (and working) outside the three-walled box. More of those type of articles have not appeared for some time. Maybe you’ve said all you have to say on what we both have in common.

But serious core reform seems to be hampered by what remaining traditional sponsors and aging subscribers expect, even as building and operation costs escalate and attention spans plummet. Because this is not where I’m going, maybe theater isn’t my end all be all. Maybe I should be traveling the multimedia road. Of course, TCG incorporates multimedia while refusing to yield the center. But a true multimedia approach has no structural bias. It is a true bottom up, continually changing experience.

I’ve been part of other genres that refused to yield the center when their time had passed. Cable public access TV refused to make a full transition to internet multimedia platforms so is withering away without a replacement. Public poetry readings rarely have more people in the audience than readers waiting their turn to bore, I mean read. Meanwhile the slam poets on Button Poetry are getting between a hundred thousand and a million views. These changes are not a passing fad.

It would not surprise me to see several structures and genres working in an ever changing flux together. Those who have been big fish in the traditional theater pond and ignore this change are going to find that their pond will be getting smaller and smaller until it is just a mud hole.

This head in the sand attitude about structure spills over into content offerings as well. For content cannot be isolated from current events and the broader experiences of the public. Likewise, current events cannot be separated from the real people that make up the public. The public is not always well informed and often overstocked on fear, anger, and class bias. But they are the public. Who is your audience?

I couldn’t help notice that several of your magazine issues have been obsessed with thinly disguised shock and disbelief about Trump being President. Since the Orange One never attempted to fool anyone about who or what he was during his campaign, I can only conclude that the motivations of a large segment of the voters are irrelevant to the official theater establishment. I know many people personally who voted for him and why. No, I wasn’t one of them. But I am not out of touch either.

In an effort to seem more broad minded, the rather forced ‘Enter Stage Right” article was printed. What was called “conservative theater” was mostly a reaction against things in the status quo that weren’t working. Bernie Sanders offered an equal popular solution against things in the status quo that weren’t working but he was shut down by the DNC, not the forces of Trump. The non ideologues who were so done with the status quo saw themselves stuck with Trump. I see the same fallacy of false alternatives in American Theater.

The irony is the “99 seat theater” class has aped the big theater gang instead of breaking away on a separate course. My recent experience was last years “Nittany Theater” contest which bent and twisted the terms of a small grant to do pretty much whatever the Hell they felt like doing. The writers who were sucked in by the advertised noble theme of the contest were just nobodies in some insipid Summer Stock’s ruse to get some free publicity. The message is, small is sometimes even smaller.

The bottom line is I will not be renewing American Theater since I would be reading more obituaries of people I never heard of than inspiring innovations in the performance arts. I’ll be finding my way to the future in other places.

Culture 3.0

Culture isn’t what it used to be. Thank goodness. But it isn’t like the old archaic forms of expression aren’t putting up a battle. But they are soon to be history and are only able to maintain the illusion that they are still relevant by the loyalty of old money and old bodies. Without the tiresome habits of network TV watchers, MFA program promises, broadcast radio, producers of tedious monstrosities called “the full length play”, record company contract serfs, art gallery wine and cheese parties,  chapbook poetry writers, and formula special effects vehicles we call movies.

They all pretend not to notice the future digging the graves for past genres, even as they jump into the hole to help them. These are the people who cannot change, so of course, pretend nothing has changed. As long as there are enough gurgling incontinent season ticket buyers and nostalgic sponsors, it pays to milk the game to the end while emerging culture can be snubbed as a side show staged by impudent upstarts.

But its not like cultural investors haven’t hedged their bets by buying into the new technology. They’re just not conveying the mantle of culture to the unworthy till an institution can dominate it. That doesn’t mean the originators and developers will not have made their mark over a 30 year period. It just means they will be coopted by the same opportunists who threw up roadblocks to progress until they could dominate the new forms.

Its hard work pretending not to notice what is staring you in the face. No one goes out anymore to listen to poets read out of notebooks except their friends and other poets waiting their turn. Its boring listening to talking podiums read what you can read for yourself at home off the internet, while smoking or drinking whatever you want in the comfort of easy chairs and consumer electronics. The loyalists sneered at the performance movement called slam poetry while that movement itself is being pressured for even more cultural change to stay relevant on the edge.

This change is not a distant glow and low rumbling, open to interpretation about what it is and when it will arrive. No, change has been screaming and yelling on the front porch, pounding its fists on the door to be let in for quite some time. The ruse of being unaware of this unwanted visitor is belied by the barring of the door and directing the old school to enter thru the back door, as if it were the new front door. As if the reaper wasn’t forcing a game change fast enough by himself, the price of this exercise in futility keeps skyrocketing. Its like, demand falls off so you double the price for customers who are getting poorer and poorer.

Alright, I have a personal agenda and contempt for tribal snobs. In addition to kicking slam poetry up a notch and replacing both studio movies and network TV with an expanding (and cheap) internet scene and satellite TV, I have a long standing grudge against full length play based theater and all the class pretense that goes along with it. Yes, I know there used to be a counter theater. But that was then. This is now. Sitting through a full length isolated-from-current-issues-play is cultural waterboarding plus tasers.

Live theater as we know it is dead. As soon as life support becomes too expensive for the survivors to maintain this pointless illusion, the plug will be pulled. Make no mistake about it. Video and internet productions increasingly outstrip the four-wall rituals we call theater. So is there no hope for live theater? Yes there is. But first, we must assume the American Theater phantasm is only perpetuated by brain eating pundit zombies, academic whores producing MFA programs, sponsor sell-outs, and class traitors. Having eliminated this part of the problem the solution is obvious.

Remember, the average person, and many above average people, are perfectly happy with sitting at home in their 1500 dollar easy chairs, in their underwear, drinking their favorite cold beer at store prices, watching their gas plasmas with killer sound systems on broad band cable and satellite TV, as the internet belches forth millions of classic, free, or low cost offerings that they can talk about, or not, on hundreds of culturally related sites. The soon to be extinct cultural gatekeepers think this is irrelevant. This comment is based on long and painful personal experience.

I propose a new model for live performance that will not be based on a dying past. The model is split between salons and venues. The salons are close knit associations of compatible artists and writers who perform and interact with their peers. Participation is by invitation only. The purpose of a salon is not primarily entertainment. It is cultural interaction between peers. This should be the first exposure of new work, not institutional endorsement after admission by gatekeepers.

The model for public theatre venues is more aggressive. It assumes that plays should be fringe festival length – not over one hour. Other cultural forms will have to fill the evening out – music, stand up, skits, or group raps or slams. If serious food is not next door, an appealing menu must be part of the venue. The nite out will be one stop or not at all. Real time streaming to the web and chat will be a must for the under 50 crowd.

Ideally, the food/alcohol component of the venue will also serve as an after event discussion forum. Think: absurdism, surrealism, true performance slam forms, That is, if we are serious about getting people out for live cultural events. These after hours soirees will be the democratic replacement for self serving theatre boards and grant fed institutions.

This is what is necessary to hold on to the live community part of cultural expression. Most forms of expression, globally and locally, will be on the internet or satellite. That is a given. The big question that few people are asking is “are we going to do what is necessary to keep the face to face part of cultural alive and relevant.”