Mainstream theatres have perpetuated a myth: that typical audiences don't want to be shaken up.
By Gaëtan L. Charlebois
Two decades ago I went to review a play thinking it would be a night at the theatre like any other night. All the usual suspects of opening nights were there. We all knew it was a company known for experimentation, but in a pleasant, polite way.
You could hear the murmur of nervousness rising as the audience took their places...
When we entered the theatre something was off. The seating, for one thing, was scattered all over the black-box space, in little islands of spectators. Around the islands was the set. You could hear the murmur of nervousness rising as the audience took their places (the first clusters of seats filled were the ones nearest the exits).
Lights down, play begins. And then the hell began. Hillar Litoja's This Is What Happens in Orangeville - played in French - was about a young psychopath (played to a capital T by Benoît Vermeulen) who paced around the audience (my memory says with an ax) had violent outbursts in their midst and kept all of us awake, definitely, and involved, absolutely. I could see the face of a colleague who was just not buying any of this but his grimace of judgement actually served to underline some of the themes of the play. The audience looking at the play and each other and swivelling about in nervousness was all part of it.
I was swept away.
...the hallmark of theatre became distance...
I started wondering if the geezer audiences I felt were killing the theatre were the problem or if, instead, the subsidized houses with their proscenium paradigm were what was keeping our theatre hopelessly old-fashioned and quite often dull as nails.
Our model for theatre has not changed since the Greeks. The thrust stage changed some things a little but even that was pulled back with the Restoration. Indeed the hallmark of theatre became distance - without it our effects (acts of theatrical magic) didn't work. The bigger the house the bigger the effects. David Belasco, in New York, turned theatre almost grotesque (and it doesn't end with Belasco - look at Phantom of the Opera or some of the Cirque shows).
No matter how big the show, how huge its fireworks, the audience always feels safe. Don't get me wrong; within this safety some awfully wonderful things can still happen. But I keep thinking how much more wonderful they would be if more risk was involved...for the audience.
The old crowd who adored the old plays done in the old way are dead.
I'm not saying we should set our faux-psychopaths wandering about the bluehairs with axes. But I think mainstream theatres have perpetuated a myth: that typical audiences don't want to be shaken up.
The old crowd who adored the old plays done in the old way are dead. People who accepted and adored the experimentalists of the 60s, 70s and early 80s are 40-80 years old. Think about that and it becomes no wonder they are not coming to theatre in the numbers they did and are getting, instead, their hits of the new from HBO and video games. By insisting theatre is a crowd experience with that crowd on one side and the performers on the other, we are consigning the art to the museum. (Opera houses are working hard to break away from that stigma.)
One colleague took up the challenge with a male dancer and could barely talk about it...
Two weeks ago two works opened in Montreal. Theatre For One (reviewed here) had one performer playing for one spectator in a box. At the same time a contemporary dance company opened Danse à dix (Lapdance) in a strip club; aside from the works on stage and around the stripper poles, audience members (for ten bucks) could hire one of the young dancers to do a lapdance in one of the private booths already in the club for that purpose. One colleague took up the challenge with a male dancer and could barely talk about it - apparently the (gorgeous) dancer pushed the envelope.
Clearly theatre (or dance) for one is not fiscally viable. However, the two pieces suggest this: assuming audiences are crowds who want one kind of play and that kind only is not the answer. The future demands we profoundly vary seasons of theatre and get away from the picture frame.
Yes, indeed, Shakespeare - even done traditionally - should be part of those seasons but most importantly the seasons must also include the works of those young playwrights who want to change the stodgy structure of theatre and challenge the status quo subsidized houses seem to be working so hard to maintain.