I make an on-going effort to get my non-theatre friends to attend the theatre. I have convinced some of them to join me in buying season tickets to different companies. I have invited others to join me for individual shows. When I travel, which is often, I take my friends in cities around the US to see the shows at their area theatres. I am sad to report that my efforts to turn my friends into regular theatre-goers have been largely unsuccessful. They have canceled their season tickets; if we do go to the theatre, we go to shows of their choosing, not mine. And when I travel, my friends are quick to propose that “we just meet for dinner instead.”
When I asked my friends why they wanted to cancel our season tickets (or not go to the theatre at all) they gave me a variety of answers. Here are some of the things they’ve said: the plays didn’t “grab them,” the shows were “boring,” or they wanted to feel “moved” but didn’t. One complained that the plays didn’t have an “aha” moment;” another said that they wanted “something more;” yet another said “where’s the take-way?” They also said that when they go to the theatre, they want to be “left with something,” and the plays (and musicals) we were seeing didn’t leave them with anything.
To be fair, over the years, there have been some shows they loved: The Piano Lesson; In this House; Honeymoon in Vegas; Bethany; Jersey Boys; All The Way; Two Trains Running; and Rasheeda Speaking. But these were few and far between.
The bottom line? My friends didn’t have a good time at the theatre. And, I have to admit, many times I didn’t either.
I have heard these same sentiments expressed by my theatre-and-writer-friends as well. Many confess that they’re not going to the theatre much these days. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard: “TV is better,” “the best shows are on TV,” “the best writing is on TV,” or “I’d rather stay home and watch TV.” Our conversations invariably turn to the compelling stories and characters found in shows like Breaking Bad, House of Cards, or Homeland. These shows, and others like them, are spawning the liveliest cultural conversations taking place in the country. I take solace in the fact that most of these TV shows are being written by playwrights.
So what is going on here? And how can we change it? I want to avoid the obvious issues of money: people watch TV because it’s cheaper than buying theatre tickets. While cost is an important factor, I don’t think this is a money problem at heart. It seems to me that something deeper is going on that has to do with the marginalization of the theatre in the larger culture. We are turning to TV because it offers us a good time; it gives us a good story; it moves us; it leaves us with something—in short, it touches us in a way that theatre does not.
To begin the conversation about how we can put the theatre back on the cultural map for the general public, I’d like to look backwards. I recently studied early American theatre and performance through America-in-Play, and rummaging through the dustbins of early American theatre history opened up new ways of thinking about the theatre that might offer us some clues and insights.
I made several compelling discoveries in our theatre history. The first is that we have an extensive folk drama in America that consists of comedies and farces and the early playwrights that wrote them played a seminal role in forming our national identity. (Who knew?!) Second, I learned that theatre-going was central to early American life. (Who-knew again!) And third, I was surprised to discover that serious drama had an important place on our populist stages of long ago.
Let’s start with the comedies. Written shortly after the Revolutionary War, our early folk comedies share two features: The first is a character named Jonathan, a rough-hewn, uncouth, uneducated fellow from the backwoods of America who plays a recurring role in many of the plays. The second is a repeating story (a comic situation, really) that chronicles Jonathan’s travels to New York City where he encounters refined, aristocratic English types. In these plays, unschooled Jonathan is always pitted against a foppish overly-educated Englishman and outsmarts him.
What is significant about Jonathan is that he was the first American character to be created on the American stage. He appeared at a time in our history when the American identity was being formed and we were attempting to define for ourselves who we were as a nation and a people. What is significant about his repeating story, to my mind, is it’s comic underpinnings. Humor, it appears, is part of the American DNA.
What is most exciting about Jonathan is that he was created by playwrights! Born in the theatre, he quickly leapt off the stage and entered the culture to become of staple of American humor and the subject of cartoons, songs, political essays, and newspaper editorials. (Rourke 22-32). Early America embraced him. In the end, he was a character made by many hands. Each region created their own versions of him. There are Vermont Jonathans, Southern Jonathans and Kentucky Jonathans. The character was informed by many cultures as well: Irish, German, French, Hungarian, Spanish, African and Persian. (Rourke 19, 25) He later morphed into Yankee Doodle, and then he morphed again into Uncle Sam. The pictures we see today on the “Uncle Sam Wants You” posters are Jonathan.
The reason that Jonathan played such a central role in creating and developing our national identity, is because theatre was central to early American life; everyone from every segment of society, educated and uneducated alike, attended on a regular basis. At any given performance you would find “young, old, rich, poor, masters, servants, papists, puritans, church men, statesmen, apprentices, poor workingmen, Negroes and prostitutes.” (Levine 24) George and Martha Washington attended regularly. The theatre housed, under one roof, a microcosm of American society. (Levine 25) Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre comes to mind, as does the Theatre of Dionysus.
Theatre in early America was populist. This means it was also unruly. The American audience was a noisy crowd—so noisy you would not have been able to hear the sound of opening candy wrappers. As one person observed, “The upper galleries reeked of onions and whiskey, and the crackling of nuts and the crunching of apples saluted my ears on every side.” (Levine 25) The audience was also vocal. If they didn’t like an actor, they would boo, hiss or stomp their feet. One British observer noted “the egg as a form of dramatic criticism came into use in this continent.” At one performance of Richard III in California in the 1856, the audience was so displeased with the actor portraying Richard that the Sacramento Daily Union reported:
“ Cabbages, carrots, pumpkins, potatoes, a wreath of vegetables, a sack of flour and one of soot, and a dead goose, with other articles, simultaneously fell upon the stage. The barrage woke the dead Henry, who fled followed by Richard, his head ‘enveloped in a halo of vegetable glory.’” (Levine pg. 28)
Conversely, if an audience liked an actor, they would stop the show and make him sing a popular song. It was not uncommon for the audience to demand that the actor playing Romeo “take the poison twice.” Early American theatre was interactive theatre—in the extreme.
In addition to being unruly, our early theatre was also sophisticated. Shakespeare was often the main attraction. A typical night performance looked something like this: The evening would begin with an American farce, followed by the first two acts of Richard III. Then, the jugglers would come on stage during intermission, followed by Chinese dog tricks. Then, the rest of Richard III would be performed, ending with strong men doing physical stunts.
This format for theatrical performances was in place for over a hundred years until a class system began to emerge when Shakespeare was removed to expensive theatres for the educated (and wealthy) class and taken away from the common folk. The notion of a “legitimate theatre” or an “art theatre” took hold in America, which sought to present Shakespeare and other plays in their purity, without the jugglers and animal acts.
The idea behind the art theatre movement was that popular forms of entertainment were dangerous because they had the potential to infect and destroy higher forms of art. People looked upon Shakespeare as sacred and pure and the theatre as serious and lofty. Entertainment became a dirty word; American folk comedies disappeared from the stage. A cultural hierarchy developed which continues to this day. People were excluded through dress codes and ticket prices and strict rules of behavior were implemented and enforced.
Several things struck me as I was exploring this early American material.
The first is that when the theatre turns its back on the popular audience it loses its power to impact a culture. The reason that Jonathan had the impact he did was that theatre was at the center of early American society. It wasn’t reserved for the educated and wealthy. It was attended by everyone.
I’m hard pressed to think of a single playwright (or theatre company) today who has that kind of impact. The cultural hierarchy that drives the contemporary theatre means that we have removed ourselves from the general audience. The result is that we don’t impact the culture significantly. In the words of Ronald Davis, theatre has become “a symbol of culture, not a real cultural force” like it used to be in early America.
I also realized that the ability of the theatre to impact a culture is directly tied to the amount of pleasure it provides. The day that theatre stopped providing the audience with a good time–with entertainment–was the day they stopped coming and the day we lost our power. It is also the day the audience lost their willingness to embrace serious works. Don’t forget that the centerpiece of those early unruly theatre performances were plays like Richard III and Hamlet.
Walter Kerr writes about this in his book The Theatre In Spite of Itself. “The movement of theatre toward greater and greater seriousness and toward the responsibility demanded of it as a “high” art form has cut it adrift. We have paralyzed the theatre by our insistence that it take itself too seriously.” (Kerr 18)
It also occurred to me that perhaps one of the reasons television is at the center of American culture today is that TV programming has replicated the format of early American theatre performances. A perusal of prime time programs reveals the same diversity found in the early American theatre: there are sitcoms (farces), serious dramas and variety shows. There are animal acts, too: Stupid Pet Tricks on David Letterman. Obviously, this is a format that works—it has clearly captured the attention of the contemporary audience just as it captured the attention of our forebears. If we want to win back our audience, perhaps we should consider reviving it in some way.
I propose that we go back to the future by using early American theatre performance as a guide. Let’s put the jugglers back in conversation with Shakespeare. Let’s give the audience a good time! And how about producing more comedies? And when we’re doing serious drama, why not open them with comic “curtain raisers” and bring back the animal acts during intermission?
The high brow/low brow distinction has not served our theatre well. It has relegated playwrights, and the theatre, to the margins. And it has sent our audience members back to their couches where they can watch more entertaining, diverse and compelling stories on TV!
This doesn’t mean we have to lower our standards or ourselves. On the contrary, it means we have to expand and get better at what we do. Zeami, the Japanese Noh master insisted that the Noh artist must be equally committed to pleasing the audience and achieving artistic mastery. These two things may feel contradictory but they are not mutually exclusive.
There are always two audiences present, Zeami tells us: those who see only with their eyes and those who see with their hearts. It is the job of the theatre artist—and the playwright—to aim for both. “To perform in front of an audience of people with different tastes and to capture the heart of them all is the basic task of theatre.” (Zeami xxxiii)
To put this differently: if theatre wants to be a cultural force again, we must pay attention to what Kerr describes as the “natural appetite of the audience for a wide, constantly changing, unpredictable menu.” And don’t eliminate the sweets, he warns. Eclecticism and a hodge-podge of high and low forms is not a menace to the theatre’s well-being or purity; rather, it is a sign of simple joy in the medium. (Kerr 22)
That joy keeps the theatre alive—and gives it the ability to leap, like Jonathan, off the stage and into the culture.
Kerr, Walter. The Theatre In Spite of Itself. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963.
Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow, Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Rourke, Constance. “Corn Cobs Twist Your Hair.” American Humor: a Study of National Character. New York: New York Review Books.
Thomson, Lynn M. “A New Contrast: the Origins of America-in-Play.” The Yankee Peddler, volume one, issue one, America-in-Play. March 2007. http://www.americainplay.org/newsletter01.pdf
Zeami. On the Art of the No Drama. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Deborah Brevoort is the author of numerous plays, musicals and operas. Her plays include The Women of Lockerbie, Blue Moon Over Memphis, a Noh Drama about Elvis, and The Comfort Team, about military spouses. She is the author three comedies, soon to be published by No Passport Press: The Poetry of Pizza, The Blue-Sky Boys, and The Velvet Weapon. Her musicals include Crossing Over, (Amish Hip Hop) with Stephanie Salzman, King Island Christmas, with David Friedman and Coyote Goes Salmon Fishing with Scott Richards. Her work is published by DPS, Samuel French, Applause Books and No Passport Press. She’s an alumnus of New Dramatists, a cofounder of Theatre Without Borders and one of the original company members with Perseverance Theatre in Alaska. She teaches at Goddard College, Columbia University and NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program.
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.