Funny, Catchy and Not Too Challenging, or “At some point, you’re just an elitist f*ck.”

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 ShowA 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 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?

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  1. Sasha H says

    Great article Clay! I started working at MTC in Mill Valley last year and have been able to see a lot of Bay Area theater since then. As someone who loved theater in high school but has been uninvolved for over a decade, some of my favorite plays have often been either very theatrical or more middlebrow (or, in most cases, both): Wirehead at SF Playhouse, Metamorphosis at Aurora, Wild Bride & How to Write A New Book for the Bible at Berkeley Rep, Humor Abuse at A.C.T. and now A Steady Rain playing at my work now. These have all moved me in the theater in a personal way like a film: horror at a shocking on stage murder, fascination with skilled physical acting (and incredibly clever set design), joy at song and dance, literal sobs over an intimate family drama, laughter that left me sore, and jumping in my seat at a climax… all three times I’ve seen the play. I don’t always leave changed or thoughtful, but I do leave satisfied and excited to see more… which leads me to take greater risks and see more theater. Like how The Artist (best flick I’ve seen in 5 years) and the Noir City film festival (favorite annual event) led me to try the restored 1959 docudrama Come Back Africa at the Roxie two days ago… an amazing film that will now haunt me for a very long time and may have even added to my understanding of race, poverty, Africa, third world development and film making.

  2. says

    Clayton –
    I’m really looking forward to reading the full report. What you’re calling middelbrow here could also be called, to continue the Wicked reference, “Popular.” And, there’s nothing wrong with popular. Coincidentally, I wrote early this week about John Dewey’s aesthetic philosophy. He wrote “Why is it that to multitudes art seems to be an importation into experience from a foreign country and the esthetic to be a synonym for something artificial.” If we want the multitudes to experience the arts, then the arts need to be relavent. As the NAMP writes, “Relevance cannot be discussed apart from the artistic product itself, and it is important to remember that the audience determines what is relevant to them, not the artist.” It seems that this, more than anything else, is what Diane Paulus is trying to do when she tries to connect work with specific audiences.

    I think you’re saying that “popular” (although you don’t use that word) shouldn’t be viewed as a derogatory term. I agree.

    – Linda (for the full post on John Dewey, Audience Development Expert, see

    • says

      John Dewey’s ideas about art were much more than what you suggest Linda. He believed art was an autonomous experience that one either is open to or is not open to and whether you are open or not often involves choice.
      We are now experiencing the results of a nation that has made political and social choices to not bolster the arts and to not have an educated art public. For years we have been stripping our schools of arts education and making it harder and harder for collages students to go to school and possibly choose to study art. Our current NEA budget is equal to one new f-35 fighter jet and the USA plans to purchase 2000 yet our politicians tell us we have no money for our art institutions.
      History has shown us that artists and performers lead and the public follows. Charlie Parker or Jackson Pollack didn’t ask their neighbors what they should write of paint next. John Updike wrote about American life but didn’t take a poll as to how people would like him to write.
      The article above talks about relevance in a type of dumbing down for the public. Maybe the general public needs it. Maybe they have been made to need a type of “cliff notes’ for the arts. But we as a society need to make a choice, do we want an educated public or a dumbed down arts and culture?

      • says

        I don’t think it’s a matter of dumbing down all, and hope I didn’t suggest so. Rather, it’s a matter of finding authentic meaningful connections between excellent art and that art’s audience. Education is one kind of experience that leads to that kind of connection.

  3. says

    Great article, and addresses a point I think us “inside” the industry tend to talk around a lot, but rarely face head on.

    In 2007 I was working for an organization that was like TBA for independent filmmakers), and this was just when things like Flip cams and YouTube were really soaring. One of the philosophies we talked about was, thanks to technology, “everyone can be a filmmaker, which will help advance filmmaking as an art form”. However, there was also a set of long-established old school indie filmmakers who felt that, “No, the art form needs to be protected. Everyone shouldn’t be a filmmaker. Putting this art in the masses hands waters it down.” My take on that, is that while I understand the artistic impulse to hold the art dear to you, you also have to let it go. That’s why we have audiences.

    I’m sure by the “common folk” standards, the Oresteia is considered high-brow, but where we would be today if the Greeks agreed?

    • says

      Hi Holly,
      True, true. Though compared to, say, Ionesco or Pinter (obviously for different reasons) it’s pretty accessible. But yeah, of the group, it’s certainly the farthest from the “middle.”

  4. says

    Another question that has been dogging me lately is whether Socrates was right to assert that “the un-examined life is not worth living,” or if that (like so much else in Western thought) is undermined by other, possibly better cultural ideas about the good life. As a corollary, I also whether we don’t stake too much on Thoreau’s idea that “the masses of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

    I just finished Eric Weiner’s *The Geography of Bliss*, in which he travels the globe visiting places that are ostensibly the happiest in the world to figure out why. His conclusion: “Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.”

    If Weiner’s (very anecdotal) conclusion is correct, then maybe the arts experiences that make people’s lives better are NOT about contemplating life or grappling with issues, but rather those that provide relationship-building experiences or make us thankful for our lives. At the end of the day, are we trying to force theatre-goers into our own ideal about a sad but noble examined life, when it is okay for them to simply pursue un-examined happiness? Maybe they aren’t actually despairing inside?

    Or is the role of theatre to push people OUT of contented happiness, into social action? Is it to make OTHER people’s lives better, by motivating theatre-goers toward an understanding of their plight? If we feel the latter, then that is a wholly different marketing task and a whole different set of impacts (and marketing tactics). I suppose it depends on the show. But at the end of the day, I think we have to question how our assumptions about what is a good, noble life affect our views of what is good art.

    (For the record, my younger, philosophically-ambitious self hates my current self for posting this.)

  5. Viktor Tsankov says

    An interesting point, although I can’t say I agree with the conclusion. Speaking as “an elitist fuck” myself, I don’t begrudge that “Two and a Half Men”, or “Farmville”, or something like “Avatar” exist. I’m fine with people watching and enjoying them. I am not fine with the idea that entertainment should only be watched passively. If you need to relax and not think and so you watch 2.5 Men or play Cityville to chill out, that’s cool. But when all you do is passively consume then it’s a problem. People should be consuming challenging things some of the time. Everyone should watch “The Wire”.

    Of course, the main article doesn’t seem to be making the point that all you should consume is the “middlebrow” works, but ending it on the idea that if you disapprove of those types makes you an elitist is problematic because many people only consume those types of works. There are plenty of teenagers today that the only books they have read that have not been assigned by their school are Harry Potter and Twilight. The issue is not whether Twilight should be read or not. People should enjoy Twilight if they want to. The issue is that many people are only reading Twilight. And they don’t treat these “middlebrow” works as gateways into better things. They consume the middlebrow and move on. They never experience the more challenging things.

  6. says

    Clayton, great article (sorry it’s taken me so long to read it).

    It’s something I personally grapple with on almost every show I do (for those who don’t know, I’m a costume and scenic designer based out of New York — I went to college with Clayton). I primarily like to do experimental work, pushing boundaries, thinking of new ways to approach old ideas, etc. That doesn’t mean I don’t work on Shakespeare or Pinter or A CHRISTMAS CAROL, though. Some of the most experimental work I’ve done has been on Shakespeare or Pinter (I can’t say the same for Dickens, but it will come in time). On almost every show I do, there are great discussions of audience experience. Something I personally have concluded (I’m planning on possibly publishing on this in a while, so don’t go stealing my grand ideas) is that you don’t have to inject meaning into everything. Audiences will project their own. If you put (as I did once) the military general in a baby blue corduroy military suit, it doesn’t matter what your reason was. No one will ask you, really. It won’t be in the liner notes. Everyone who sees it will assume there’s deep meaning and will likely decide what that meaning is for themselves. And whatever they think is right. That is a huge concept for me.

    The interesting thing to me in this article, of course, is that, with a few exceptions, almost every play mentioned was pushing boundaries when it was first presented. Take SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR. Sure, it’s old hat, it’s been done, if you do the show, you know you’ll get butts in seats. But when it was first presented in 1921, I’m fairly sure it was groundbreaking. The same goes for MISS SAIGON! Ooh, boy! A musical based off MADAMA BUTTERFLY set in Vietnam during the war? You want to put asians on stage? Call the union. I don’t know that we have any. Oh, we do? Really? Do we have enough for a chorus? Sweet.

    Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but I’d like to think that most of the shows that our grandparents, our parents, our children, and we love were all, at one time, experimental. If they weren’t, it’s unlikely they’d be remembered at all. New work is vitally important, but so is reimagining past works. I have a little bit of a problem with the idea of staging CATS with almost identical costumes, sets, choreography to the ones used on Broadway. A large part of that is the integrity of the artists who originally created the piece, but it’s also that a theatre who does this isn’t engaging their own minds. They’re simply regurgitating something because it “works.”

    I also wonder sometimes who people are trying to appeal to when they put on OUR TOWN or DEATH OF A SALESMAN. I understand that they’re great pieces and that they should continue to be produced, but a lot of the work I do seems to specifically appeal to the under-35 crowd. “Highbrow” theatre isn’t necessarily high-brow. THE DONKEY SHOW, in my opinion, does push boundaries — it also attracts new audiences. And that’s what the focus should be, at least for a while. Everyone who goes to or works in theatre knows that most regional and broadway houses are filled with what we like to call the blue hairs — older folks, often living in elder community housing, who buy season tickets, join theatre-going groups, or get bussed by their nursing homes to theatre each week. They are fantastic patrons and only sometimes do they die in their seats before intermission. But the problem is, they’re old. They’re going to die. And then? Will we have enough butts in the seats anymore? Young people, in general, are educated, want to be challenged, want to change the world. They still think they can. They want to feel empowered or moved or changed or sometimes want something bawdy and exciting. What a lot of them aren’t looking for when going out with friends is a pre-digested production of THE TEMPEST. Now, if THE TEMPEST is done in a new way or an interesting way or makes you think — then game on. They don’t just want but NEED theatre to become relevant to them to force them to go.

    I think Grotowski was a genius. He was living in a time of flux for the theatre world. Film and tv were becoming the dominant form of entertainment in the world and theatre practitioners were struggling to find their place. He concluded that realism, among other things, was better done by film and tv. Theatre couldn’t compete. So why compete? Theatre will continue to be important as an artform forever — the human connection, the live component, the magic theatre can do that no other entertainment can is what keeps it relevant. We, as artists, are responsible for making that into whatever it needs to be to stay relevant. There’s a reason there isn’t a ton of great theatre from the 30s, 40s, and early 50s. The world was changing. But think about the late 50s/early 60s! Neil Simon, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, then huge musicals like CAMELOT, THE FANTASTIKS, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF… theatre finally found a place for itself in the world. TV and film (and to a lesser extent, theatre as well) are struggling now with a similar crisis — the internet has revolutionized information and entertainment, so where do they fit in? It’s about finding what you’re truly good at and sticking with it.

    I’m sorry that I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent. This subject — programming — really does interest me. Obviously.

    • says

      It’s an interesting point, that most stuff was once revolutionary in its own way. I think that’s where the idea of the personal blockbuster really comes in for me — I think all of those shows you mention and more worked their way into the mainstream, into what I called the middlebrow and Linda Essig more accurately called “popular” because they were both accessible and interesting.


  1. [...] Funny, Catchy and Not Too Challenging, or “At some point, you’re just an elitist f*ck.”: “…Which got me thinking about snobbery […] 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.” [...]