“From the viewpoint of analytic psychology, the theatre, aside from any aesthetic value, may be considered as an institution for the treatment of the mass complex.”
-Carl Jung, Psychology of the Unconscious
In all of the bloviating and grandstanding about the country’s very real unemployment crisis and the awkward silence about its constant shadow, hopelessness, the Arts remain unmentioned outside of the usual ever-tightening concentric circles of artists and administrators. Our crumbling bridges must be repaired so goods may be delivered. Our children must be educated in clean, modern schools to become engaged, informed, discerning citizens. The American Theatre, too, is an economic engine and the key to a functioning democracy. Somehow the President overlooked it in his address to Congress. It’s hard to blame him.
Maybe it’s because of what we call our work. “Play” does not bring to mind the enormous amount of expertise and labor leveraged into a single performance. If only people could feel the buzzing intensity of a technical rehearsal. If only they could see an actor’s bruises. If only they could see the designer’s ink-stained hands and clothes. If only they could watch an intern fall twelve feet from deck to concrete on a way-too-late night, and greet her the next morning as she sorts gels with what is now her good hand.
The growing trend of blogging from backstage and tweeting from the rehearsal rooms is a tear in this veil, but it is tightly packaged and reeks of marketing. While the conversations we have are rooted in the implicit value of theatre sprung from a total immersion in its very real financial, physical, and psychic costs, the audience (not just the anticipated percentage, but the totality of potential audience, which is to say: everybody) remains largely unconvinced that there’s anything going on other than the exchange of currency for spectacle and entertainment.
****WARNING! FIRST PERSON SINGULAR VOICED ANECDOTE!********
Years ago, I was an understudy in a production of Noises Off. Rather than have the set rotate, the audience was ushered, by yours truly and the rest of the understudy gang, to pine bleachers that had been built “backstage” in what was basically an in-the-round set-up. One night a woman sat on the bleacher and clutched my sleeve.
-Excuse me, I have a question.
-How much did this cost?
-Because it seems as though that (pointing to the set) costs as much as this (eyes rolling towards the pine) and my ticket was $XX.
As it happened, I had spent the summer working over-hire for the scene shop. I’d picked up the wood from the lumber yard. I had, in fact, personally belt sanded every inch of those hundreds of yards of pine. (Incidentally, this is how I learned that I’m allergic to pine. Thankfully this is no great loss to carpentry) I had a pretty good idea of what the backstage cost.
-It cost eleventy billion dollars. Enjoy the second act!
This was maybe ten days after September 11, 2001.
In her defense, she had been told by the president that it was her civic duty to spend. Value as commodity clearly superseded value as communal joy.
Were the audience invited backstage, or into the rehearsal hall, perhaps they would understand that Theatre is Labor (and art. yes, art. but not until the audience arrives), and Labor has intrinsic value. Backstage is a safety concern, to be sure, but the rehearsal hall is one of the safest places on Earth. Nothing should happen in there that wouldn’t or couldn’t happen onstage. If we invited the audience to truly see us fail, pick ourselves up and then fail again, maybe they’d see the value we see. Maybe they’d always be part of the conversation. They would probably return the favor.
Is it enough to de-mystify the value of the work? Of course not, but it is a necessary step if the Theatre is ever to become a part of the national discourse. For Theatre to become Infrastructure, it must be defined by its engagement with the very real and very immediate concerns of not just the idea of who the audience may be, but who the audience could be, and what they care about.
According to the 2010 census, 15.1% of the country lives in poverty. That’s 46.2 million individuals with something on their collective minds. That’s a population that would rank 27th in the world, between the total populations of Myanmar and Spain.
Can the American Theatre at the very least be perpetually discursive about the topic on everyone’s minds? Can it ignore the elephant in the room? If our Theatre is not directly addressing the crises in our audience’s lives, what are we talking about? and for whom? and how does it relate to that elephant?
Should there suddenly be a slew of Grapes of Wrath productions? Should the dust be blown off of Odets? Possibly, but the daily tragedies and absurd farces of contemporary life are fertile theatrical ground in their own right that demand attention from the generation living them. If the American Theatre is to be a part of the national conversation, it must offer itself as a forum to explore and engage the critical issues of the moment.