Sunday, April 11, 2010

Give 'em what they don't even know they want

In the Wall-Street-Journal, Terry Teachout laments the lowest-popular-denominator script-massaging that takes the edge out of potentially edgy material like a musical built upon the cynical nonconformism of Charles Addams' cartoons.
"Such are the ways of big-budget franchise theater, in which the goal is to give the public what it already knows it wants," Teachout says in his review of the new production with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth -- a musical, apparently, without very good music.

Better art, of course, gives the audience what it doesn't know that it already wants. For example: Mormons, Roy Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg, an Antarctic drug fantasy and HIV-positive gay men, all tossed into a five-hour, two-play brew that summed up half a century and more of American history? People would have scoffed at the very attempt before Tony Kushner produced Angels in America. Or earlier: an episodic dream play about a family in denial, with the narrator-figure revealing his own ugliness alongside his idealism? Not standard fare in 1945, but then The Glass Menagerie, like all great plays, broke molds.

And then this article by Chloe Veltman in the New York Times, which describes the Bay Area as a breeding ground for more adventurous musicals, citing several examples.

Artistic directors and their boards often argue the need to play it conservative, gotta sell tickets, these are tough times, recognizable titles sell, maybe we'll try something more adventurous when the economy turns around.
Except the good times never roll, and American theater is always in a state of crisis.

Which brings us to the part where Bobo is going to get himself in trouble.
Honky Tony Nonsense, Annie Get Your Stupid Gun, Forever Staid and Plaid, Criminally Bland: The Musical, and a Very Special Evening with the Minnelli Fossil: Giving the audience what they know they want, duplicating past pleasures while driving more nails into the coffin of theater's irrelevance.
Metamorphoses, Spring Awakening, Lips Together (if this was 1992, which it isn't), boom (if Interplayers adds it) and would somebody please do McDonagh's The Pillowman?: giving playgoers something they don't yet know they want.

I know: too tough a sell.
But consider, after the economic dust settles: the buzz that Bobo hears (no corroborating evidence just yet) is of more and more Portlanders and Seattlites, etc. moving into the area. Theater can't just be for gray-haired people with mortgages.

Which is why Michael Mayer's attitude -- and a new way of measuring theater's effectiveness, on which more in a moment -- are inspiring.
Mayer, who won a Tony in 2006 for directing Spring Awakening, is quoted as follows in the theater section, p. 79, of the current, 4/16/10 Entertainment Weekly (with Chewbacca on the cover; seems not to have it, however). Mayer is directing Green Day's American Idiot, which opens on Broadway on April 20; he's been working on adapting the album for the stage (and adding four songs from 21st-Century Breakdown) for the past two and a half years.
Signicantly, says EW writer Simon Vozick-Levinson, the creative team of American Idiot "stayed true to the album's copious profanity, snarling attitude, and distorted guitars. Mayer isn't worried about how audiences will react. 'No one ever thought, 'Oh, we've got to make it safe for Broadway.' I love my Carousel as much as the next person, but the supertraditionalists are not the majority of the theatergoing audience anymore. It's time again for Broadway to have music that is what people are listening to now.'"

The tyranny of conservative old farts over theaters' programming choices has got to end. Escanaba in da Moonlight is hardly high art, but it is very well done at the Civic, and surely it proves (I heard belly laughs all over the house on opening night) that audiences in Spokane are not such straitlaced prudes that they can't uproariously enjoy sex jokes, fart jokes, a smattering of off-color language, and depictions of hare-brained schemes.

So how about local artistic directors employing the following survey?
The gist: measure audience members' emotional involvement with a show, by means of a questionnaire (which you can access here and here and here). (It was developed by the Independent Theatre Council; visit
Right now in Spokane, as means of evaluating a given production's "success," we have box office numbers, reviews by two middle-aged white guys, and word of mouth. The third's unquantifiable, and what if the first two produce mixed results?

The questionnaire asks, in a particular form, questions such as: Were you absorbed? Did you learn something valuable? Did you notice time passing? Did you notice the reactions of other audience members? Will you discuss the show with friends afterwards? and so on.

Note, in the comments, the skepticism: It's still a subjective measure. It'd be better to set up a video booth. If somebody was bored by a show, they're less likely to fill out a questionnaire -- hence you get an over-representation of positive answers. And there are no directions, even should local theaters use such questionnaires, of how to use them further to produce even more good shows.
So this is far from a panacea.
But Bobo's point is that this might offer a new way of assessing what really matters to audiences may not be what theater managers expect. And taking chances, talking about controversial issues -- may be a way of re-attracting to the theater people who have just assumed for years now that theater is a dead institution -- irrelevant, moldy, and fit for stuffy museums.
It doesn't have to be. And more's the pity if the people who love it most consign it, by dint of conservative and uninteresting programming, to the dustheap of moldy irrelevance.

Because I'm sorry, but I really doubt that even the fans of Honky Tonk, Annie and Liza sat through (or will sit through) those shows and honestly say afterwards, Yes, I was engrossed; yes, I learned something new; gee, I noticed everyone was enthralled; never once looked at my watch (never thumbed through the program to see how many more songs they were gonna sing); can't wait to talk about it after.
Sure, people will say they were entertained, nothing wrong with a nice, light evening out. By which they mean they're content to settle for the Thursday Night Special at Shari's.
But theater can cook up even better meals. And we should always be trying to cook them.

[ photos: Green Day; from -- also, Charles Addams himself, from ]

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At April 12, 2010 9:14 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, Bobo, when local theatre does something out of the ordinary, how do they sell and how are they received? In the past five years we've had productions of La Cage at Summer Theatre, absurdist plays at Civic and Shape of Things at Actors Rep. I enjoyed all these productions and I watched people walk out of them, disgusted. How did they do for our theatres?

At April 12, 2010 9:31 AM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Good question, and I'll investigate. My _impression_ is that the Churchill-Beckett bill and the LaBute did not do well at the box office, as you imply. But I had the exact reverse impression at opening night of La Cage: a mostly full house AND the prospect of gray-haired Idaho Republicans laughing uproariously at the drag-queen comedy.

At April 28, 2010 10:25 AM , Anonymous Maria C. said...

You can't please all of the people all of the time. I can think of mainstream "audience pleasers" that I (wish I'd) walk(ed) out of, disgusted. The fact that local theatres dare to produce edgy shows at all is a sign of their success, in my view.


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