I was having a conversation with Arlene Goldbard about a month ago, and at some point I started getting a sour taste over some of the things we were discussing, but I couldn’t figure out why. Our subject was the four interviews with patrons that I had conducted as part of our intrinsic impact research (which will be published, along with an essay by Goldbard, as part of the 450-page report out on the whole project, Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art, available March 1). In particular, I was discussing a draft of the (fantastic) essay that, in its final form, prefaces the interviews, and we had gotten to the subject of why she hadn’t drawn out more directly from the interviews (the essay instead takes the form, a la Plato’s Symposium, of a dinner conversation among seven people trying to identify the perfect theatre audience).
At the time, it was mostly an esoteric conversation, as I quite liked the essay and didn’t feel it really needed more direct quotation from the interviews, I was just curious—but Arlene’s response gave me pause. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it went along the lines of, “I think I’ve taken everything from those interviews that I can.” When I asked her to elaborate, she particularly focused on the fact that, among the four interviews, the shows that came up as most impactful were things like Wicked, The Vagina Monologues, Journey’s End and Six Characters in Search of an Author. In short, the most impactful experiences of these people were, by and large, what we theatre insiders might call “middlebrow.”
Which got me thinking about snobbery (although I don’t think that’s where Arlene was really going—her issues focused much more, and rightly, on the fact that the four interviewees’ experiences were fairly homogenous, which didn’t make for very interesting, well, “theatre” in the essay). I’ve got to say that, for me, those middlebrow shows form a disturbingly large portion of my early memorable theatrical experiences—42nd Street, Miss Saigon, Les Miserables. If I had to say what sparked the interest in theatre in me, I’d be hard pressed to come up with an answer that wasn’t a megamusical. And I tend to think now that I’m a pretty insider-type person in the field, writing all highfalutin’ like about all sorts of theory. There are times that I feel like Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama, slightly ashamed of the shows that made me, especially when I find myself steeped in conversations where those shows are viewed derogatorily.
As I continued to edit various sections of the book, I (as editors must do) gave many close readings to two other parts of the book—an interview with Diane Ragsdale about impact, effectiveness and evaluation and another interview with (controversial?) American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus about how she sees her role as AD in terms of artists and audiences.
Ragsdale’s comments, which are brave and detailed and argumentative, also hone in on the role of the “middlebrow” as the sort of gateway drug of theatre—but whereas there was something of a feeling of dismissiveness in my conversation with Arlene, with Ragsdale there was a supreme aggravation at our field’s inability to understand how very crucial such work (and the purveyors of such work, most notably Broadway producers) is to the sustainability of our field as a whole. Neither Ragsdale nor Arlene used the term “middlebrow,” that’s my articulation of it (feel free to insert “broad” or “formulaic” or whatever)—but both, either explicitly or implicitly, do spend a lot of time talking about “community.”
As Ragsdale says in our conversation in the book, “We have ignored the larger part of society for so long that they no longer think that we’re important—and they have evidence that we’re not important in their lives becasue they haven’t been going, nobody that they know has been going, and they’re all doing fine.”
Community. Ah, community. “Community theatre” draws up images of amateurism, LCD (lowest common denominator) shows – Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Neil Simon. Funny, catchy, and not too challenging. Which of course, also brings up a sense of being derogatory. And I think, consciously or unconsciously, that derogatory stream extends beyond the work to the idea of that work—creating work for the masses, “dumbing it down,” etc.
In a way, this is what the people who get up the nerve and energy to be annoyed about Diane Paulus are annoyed about. She has moved into the leadership role at A.R.T., formerly one of the least accessible, most “out-to-offend” theatre institutions in the country, and she’s doing things like The Donkey Show—A Midsummer Night’s Dream reframed as a night of disco debauchery where the drinks flow freely and the subtext stops being sub-textual. She’s championing work designed particularly to connect with young people, people who aren’t white, people who aren’t rich—and she’s unrepentant in being okay about seeing some of the A.R.T.’s old stalwarts walk out the door frustrated at what she’s done.
This is deliberate. It is an attitude, a belief, of Paulus’. And in the interview, she’s very clear about it—the only AD out of 20 who so clearly states a primary duty to the audience over the artist. Here’s what she says:
I very rarely think, as an artistic director, “I like this artist. We must do this artist.” I really don’t think that way. As much as I adore artists and I’m their greatest fan, I very rarely think about an artist and my personal interest in them….For me, as an artistic director, I’m looking at what kind of noise this artist and their issues and their energy are going to make at my theatre…And it’s not, “Oh, our audience only likes this or only likes that.” It’s really, “What is the potential for engagement with this project?”
I would argue, with experimental (if blatantly audience-focused) works like Prometheus Bound (done in a bar, partnered with Amnesty International, built around the explicit idea that Prometheus was the first prisoner of conscience) and Hair (big group dance party at curtain call), Paulus, rather than creating something insiders might call “middlebrow” or “community”-directed, is instead attempting to straddle the line between what might, if we were talking about movies, be the “blockbuster” and the “art house movie.” It’s not aiming at the middle. It’s aiming everywhere.
In a discussion on the Slate.com Culturefest podcast about directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, they called this type of thing the “personal blockbuster.” When you think about what that might mean, think about E.T. or Star Wars or, more recently (and, of course, Scorcese), Hugo. Movies that are personal and also massively pleasing.
It seems to me, right now, that a whole lot more of our theatre community than can really be sustained want to be art house institutions with blockbuster budgets. And the truth is, many institutions actively refuse to try the type of stuff that Paulus is doing—they build up walls against it, arguing artistic prerogative, institutional integrity, cultural intelligence. They worry about “dumbing it down.” There is not a lot of movement towards the “personal blockbuster” in non-profit theatre.
As I was mulling over this conundrum on my drive to work, I was listening to another podcast, this time from Wired magazine, about an article they had published on FarmVille. In the gaming community, Zynga, the company that created FarmVille, is sort of the equivalent of the Broadway producers—the hugely successful monolith that is viewed as artless, pandering, giving the gaming community a bad name. The author of the article quoted one of the people interviewed for it, and I think it’s the type of comment that resonates mightily across genres—and especially in ours. The quote is from Gabe Zichermann, an expert on “gamification,” which is the process of turning everything into a game (think Foursquare).
He says: “Other gamers may think FarmVille is shallow, but the average player is happy to play it. Two and a Half Men is the most popular show on television. Very few people would argue that it’s as good as Mad Men, but do the people watching Two and a Half Men sit around saying, ‘Oh, woe is me?’ At some point, you’re just an elitist fuck.”
So. Yeah. Who are we?