Does theater matter? The answers seems a given, no? Of course theater matters. All arts matter. All creativity matters. And, yes, everyone is creative — not just the artist at the cliched canvas, easel or empty space, not just the actor on the stage, but the chef in the kitchen, the designer at the needle, and so on. How sad that such a thing so evident, so elemental, must continually be hammered home.
It’s why the Stage Matters video, created by Theatre Communications Group in collaboration with Firefly Theater & Films, left me with worry as well as admiration. Stage matters. Didn’t we already know that?
Trouble is, I’m unsure how much more we know about how stage matters from watching the video.
I mean no disrespect to the production team — to the editor (J. Clay Tweel), writer (Steven Klein), producers (Klein, Robert Johnson), associate producer (Natalia Duncan), music composers (Matthew McGaughey, Kyle Johnston) or to the editor (Tova Goodman) — by stating this. Darren Campbell, John Klein, Sergei Krasikau, Talissa Mehringer, Richard Marcus, Joel Sacramento, Mark Thimijan and Christina Voros shot the video beautifully, and I’d guess with challenged resources.
Trouble is, and also meaning no disrespect to TCG, I’m unsure of the message here.
The first part is called Impact”; it shows atypical subjects — author Ray Bradbury; Iraq war veterans; Michelle Hensley, artistic director of Minneapolis’ Ten Thousand Things Theater Company; U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — in a grand extolling of the virtue of the theater, and the couching of those virtues in sweeping terms, making a wide case for a narrow-minded age. The use of veterans is canny and designed to furnish a nonpartisan patina.
Yet it’s the second part of the video, called “Challenges,” where advocacy is most needed and where the message is most muddled. I came away from three separate viewings not unclear about what the challenges are but what the theater as a sector, as a business, is doing about it, other than restating its problems.
For me, the clearest statement was offered by Marc Masterson, artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville:
There was a generation of people who really deeply believed that the future of every American city had to involve a vibrant arts scene and they invested their time and their money and all of their resources in making that happen. The question we’re facing now is what happens to that dream.
Stage matters because veterans can forget their problems? That’s insensitive and reductive, all right, but there’s a case to be made for theater as escapist entertainment (ever hear of the U.S.O.?) and a case to be made for the centuries-old healing power of catharsis. Stage matters because it can be a tool of cultural diplomacy? Absolutely. But that is not so much an argument for theater, per se, as for artistic exchange across disciplines and continents. Stage matters because artists are underpaid? Because they sacrifice more than workers in other sectors? Really? Because they’re slaves to art? So what? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to explain to the assembly-line worker (if there are any left in the U.S.), to the fast-food burger-flipper, to the video-game designer, how the challenges facing the theater impact them? No, what we get is a pity party. Friends, it’s called choices. We make them. We struggle with them. That is not a challenge. That is a plot for sympathy. The message has got to be better.
And one last thought. Optics matter, too.
For example, while I was deeply impressed by the young high school student from Nebraska and the importance of theater to him, his teachers and his overall community, I don’t know that it needed to be the second segment in the package — coming on the heels of the legendary Bradbury. I mean no disrespect to the author, who is 90, but I don’t know that he connotes “theater,” or that Bradbury ought to be the first image, the first words, seen and heard. Does this make me cruel or despicable for saying as much? Call me such names if you wish. I’m simply saying that I don’t get the sense that folks talked about the optics of the video, the semiotics, before signing off. It feels as at-a-crossroads as the American stage itself is today.