Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Thoughts About Theater

Merry Christmas to anyone reading this blog who celebrates. Also, Happy Hannukah to my fellow Jews who are now four days into latkes, driedels, and other arcane artifacts of Judaica.

Just wanted to throw out there that my friend and I have been talking along lines that were started by me and my father about the future of theater. My dad's view (from the perspective of a computer programmer and the founder of a tiny internet startup) is that the problem with theater right now is its inability to scale--there are high costs getting in and an artificially limited return (a 99 seat theater can only make Ticket Sale x 99 x however many nights--and Showcase Code might add further limitations, etc. etc.). His solution, as an internet guy, is to follow the logic that created Theater on the TV and create Theater on the Internet. Richard Foreman tried something like that this month, live-streaming rehearsals of his upcoming play.

There's something to that, and there's something not to that. After all, the one thing the theater has going for it is liveness--which is why I'm objecting to fourth-wall twentieth-century isolated creations (by the way--my own productions so far have failed to do that to a certain extent, although Orchestration was one such experiment--I kicked the audience out of the theater at the end. It made more sense in context). Broadcasting over TV or over the Internet kills that in the same way that the fourth wall does: it crystallizes it, and kills the danger of doing something dangerous.

Of course, Saturday Night Live, Whose Line Is It Anyways, Mock The Week, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report still manage to capture something of that. They have live audiences, and they're responding to their live audiences to allow a bit of chaos.

So that's one route to go, in terms of scaling.

But another place to look is the music industry. Music has two prongs: one is the music itself which, like film, is a recorded product easily distributed; the other is the live performance, the concert. In music both of those scale. Why? Because we in America have a concert-going culture. So local concert halls, if they have a good enough reputation, can count on being full on a Friday night. And they can bring bands on tour.

Why does this system work?

1) Bands are easy to tour: a decent concert hall will have most of the equipment they need, so they just need to bring themselves, their support team, and their instruments.
2) Most bands are not tech heavy or visual heavy--so long as the acoustics are in, the rest of the show is purely their musical talent.
3) Concert halls are simply fun places for young people to be: they can do whatever they like while the music is going on, and they can drink copious amounts of alcohol if they so choose. It's a social event as much as it is a music event.

So if theater ensemble wanted to tour the way bands did, they'd have to do a few things:

1) They'd have to strip away all of the complicated technical elements so as to have the simplest set-up possible.
2) They'd have to have a flexible set-up that doesn't require a formalized system of etiquette.
3) They should be comfortable with an open bar.
4) They'd have to be in conversation with the audience.

Who does this? Improv groups. Jazz ensembles. Rock bands. Stand-up comics. All viable forms of performance. A stand-up comedian does not rely on internet or television broadcasting to survive (although once he becomes successful, this is a viable way of becoming a huge figure). An improv group doesn't need lights and sets to make their comedy funny. And rock bands don't mind trashed audiences. Any theater ensemble that can shed the dead weight of tradition enough will find itself light enough to travel, and light enough to be viable.

Of course, there needs to evolve a system to handle this sort of touring. Small music halls or Improv performance spaces can accommodate other forms of performance, so long as we assure them that it is worth their while.

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