09 April 2005

It's the Ticket Prices, Stupids

I've spent most of my life involved in some sort of theatrical activity or another. Mostly community, high school, and college plays, but I was a Dramatic Writing major at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for three years. Three good years, exciting years, but also deeply disillusioning years -- I learned that professional theatre in the U.S. is made by a small group of people for a smaller group of rich people. I decided that the American theatre had made itself irrelevant, and that its future in this country was to be as a minor form of tourist entertainment. (Thus, the investments of Disney in Times Square made sense.) I continue find the world of professional theatre more nauseating than appealing, and to find the sorts of theatre happening in small towns and high schools and colleges to be more inviting, varied, and creative than the professional forms.

One of the biggest influences on my view of what theatre is and can be has been Peter Brook, particularly his book The Empty Space, which remains my favorite book about the theatre, despite some of its '60s hippy-dippiness and oracular pronouncements. It remains one of the most vividly truthful books ever written about what it means to create theatre. Brook knows. He has spent his long life experimenting in various ways to create the most immediate, thoughtful, and arresting theatre he could imagine -- with, it seems, more successes than failures. In fact, one of the most breathtaking things I've ever seen was a bad videotape of Brook's production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard -- I hate plays on a TV screen, but this was mesmerizing, and the set primarily consisted of some rugs on the floor.

Now, Peter Brook is speaking out about the greatest sin of the theatre world: ticket prices. If you've gone to a play in New York recently, you know how horrible ticket prices are. Not just Broadway -- a couple years ago, I went to see a friend's show at a well-known Off-Broadway theatre, a play that had no set and four actors. One ticket cost over $50 once all fees were applied. I've given up going to my favorite theatre in Boston, the American Repertory Theatre, because the ticket prices are just too high. I've seen some of the best productions of my life there, but the cost was too great, and I just won't do it anymore.

Various theatre companies say they can't afford to produce good plays unless they charge the money they do. Don't believe them. They can't produce plays the way they do, certainly, but they probably shouldn't be producing them that way anyway, because all it has done is make the American theatre a despicably inbred, useless institution. Let the theatres die. Who will miss them? The playwrights and actors, perhaps, but fewer and fewer new plays are produced than ever before (would you risk seeing a play by a writer you've never heard of if it cost $50?!), and most actors already can't earn a living from the professional theatre.

Back in 1995, American Theatre magazine published an article by Theresa Rebeck, a playwright who had discovered that writing for TV was more fun and less elitist than writing for theatre (this made sense to anybody who'd read her plays, which read like prime time TV shows). I wrote a letter to American Theatre that was published in the February 1996 issue, and said, "...yes, most theatre is quite elite -- the rich can afford the tickets. The first priority of all theatre artists should be to lower ticket prices." (I was naive, and thought italics could change the world.) This was written under the influence of Peter Brook's writings, and I'm thrilled to see him now doing what he can to bring ticket prices toward something at least somewhat more reasonable.

In 1962, Wole Soyinka wrote an article called "Towards a True Theatre" (collected in Art, Dialogue, and Outrage) in which he criticized African universities for building large, expensive theatres, saying that "this is not America where -- to take one example, the Loeb Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- a university theatre is built for five to six million dollars, a stupid amoral example of affluent patronage." True theatre, according to Soyinka, does not come from comfortable spaces crammed full of the latest technology: "No one who is seriously interested in the theatre demands a playground for pushing buttons and operating gaily coloured panels."

Soyinka seems to have moderated his views over time, and his plays have been produced at some very large theatres throughout the world, but there's something to be said for his youthful idealism, because the American theatre, at least, has become so sodden with the practicalities of making money that a little idealism might be a good thing. With luck, Peter Brook won't be the only notable professional to do anything he can to make sure that ordinary people have access to the theatre.

Actually, my favorite words related to this subject are a haiku: Robert Hass's version of a poem by Kobayashi Issa:
Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.