In Many Ways, Theater Remains As Much On The Fringes Of American Culture As Ever. It’s Also Never Been Needed More.
In the endlessly wonderful Canadian television show, Slings and Arrows, set in a fictionalized version of the famous Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one character snarkily (but aptly) observes, “More people listen to the radio than go to the theater. And nobody listens to the radio.” Ouch. Of course, critics and artists have been bemoaning theater’s waning influence on American culture for decades. I was a teacher for many years, and when we began to study a play like, say, The Crucible, more students than I’d like to remember expressed shock that there was such a thing as plays that weren’t musicals.
I have likened wanting to be a professional playwright in America to growing up in Kenya and pursuing a dream to be a professional hockey player. It’s true theater has nothing like the cultural reach of television, movies, video games, Twitter, Instagram…the list goes on for a depressingly long time. Still, there are some of us out there, devoted to the damn enterprise, typing, designing, directing, producing, acting, and promoting our hearts out because we recognize something of deep worth in the endeavor.
Do I Contradict Myself? Very Well, I Contradict Myself. They’re Recalibrating My Meds, And So That’s Gonna Happen Sometimes
I’ve written before about my skepticism regarding overtly political theater. There are obvious exceptions, but generally these plays tend to do little but preach to the converted. However, as I look around at our country’s cultural moment, the word I think it that best describes it is: ruptured. It staggered me that Covid-19 became a source of political division, but it shouldn’t have. Science itself has been an openly partisan issue for well over a decade now.
We can and do have people who watch the same footage of the same acts of brutality, and come away with completely different versions of what they saw. I don’t think a neutral word like “divided” cuts it anymore. We need a word that captures the distance and violent nature of our disagreements. Hence, “ruptured.” Our communities have been systematically smashed into jagged demographic shards, and the sharp, blood-drawing edges are virtually everywhere, including families.
There’s Not Enough Duct Tape In The World
Here’s what I think, though: what theater does best, when it’s at its best, is show us our commonalities. It can tell the story of America’s founding with a multiracial cast playing White slave owners. It can show us that “attention must be paid” to everyone, not just the winners, but those left behind. It can show us the folly of depending on “the kindness of strangers,” while simultaneously reaching down our throats, grabbing our hearts and wishing it weren’t so. It can show us how a passed down piano can hold a family together or wrench it apart. It can not only tell us, but show us why “The Great Work” must begin.
I’ve been struggling for a less pompous way to write this paragraph, but as you’ll soon see, I came up empty. The Greeks told us theater was about Catharsis, but too often we (read:I) tend to think of that in terms of the individual. Really, the whole point of it is that it’s experienced communally. We see each other not only in the characters onstage, but in the strangers sitting next to us. We come into the theater strangers, but we leave, in some ways, forever a community.
At the moment, we’ve been deprived of that chance to experience that. We’re aching for it. But we will get it again. And so, I hope all of us involved in theater will try strive to, in whichever way we choose to, emphasize our commonalities. And the great news is, there’s countless ways of doing it. More diversity, yes, 100 times yes, but above all else, let’s use that diversity to show us, despite the uniqueness of our struggles and disparities of our histories, the commonality of our natures.
We may be on the fringes. But we have to start somewhere. And we have the perfect instrument with which to do it.