I once wrote the line in a review, “Every generation has to define theatre for themselves.” It may possibly be the one and only profound thought I had about the theatre, and I stand by that now and forever. If I remember correctly, it was about a play that I wasn’t crazy about, but the audience of mostly younger people seemed to greatly enjoy it.
As a reviewer, all I ever tried to do was to be honest and consistent with my reactions. I always felt that the best thing I could be was a signpost. There were people who generally agreed with my assessments, and others who generally disagreed. It’s okay, as long as I was consistent, the listeners or readers could judge for themselves whether they wanted to see the play.
That line has come to represent a philosophy of theatre that gets battered around. My generation of theatre goers lived through the experiential communal style of theatre in the 1960’s and the big splashy musicals of the 1970’s. We saw Broadway move from stalwarts such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller to juggernauts that employed stunt casting to draw in well-heeled tourists who spent major bucks for their Broadway experience.
For those of us looking for experimentation, our destinations became Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway; storefronts, church basements, and coffee bars became exciting locales for playwrights like Sam Shepherd. The holy church of theatre was alive but underground.
My g-g-generation was driven by music. The early days of rock and roll turned the music industry on its ear. The golden oldies that one might find on Sirius Radio were the soundtrack of our lives. The melodies were often simple, rarely more than three or four chords, and the lyrics reflected the angst we felt about growing up in an uncertain world.
The 1960’s music scene was incredibly diverse. Rock mixed with folk and blues to develop a social conscience and that fueled our desire to influence the world. Do you enjoy voting at 18? That’s a result of people unifying to insist that if we could be drafted, we should have some say so in the election of public officials. When some people look back at that era, they see the hippies dancing in various parks listening to psychedelic music.
Yeah, there was a lot of that, and it was reflected in these underground plays, but also things that became mainstream, like HAIR. Other plays reflected on race relations as you might expect from a decade that became battleground for Civil Rights. Gay rights had occasional spotlights shown on it, and that reflected the battles that happened at the Compton Cafeteria and Stonewall Inn.
These were our times. While I have an extensive collection of plays from this era, I don’t look back and wish we were still performing them all the time. Their time was then. Theatre goers of my parent’s generation went for a long night out – often three hours or more and they reveled in those shows. Occasionally when one of those plays is revived, often I’ve heard modern audiences complain that the play is way too long and by the third act, you can spot people squirming in their seats.
How does this generation define theatre? I asked that question when taping our latest podcast with the folks behind WRONG CHOPPED. It actually stumped them, so I tossed out a few thoughts: is stand-up comedy theatre? Is a music performance? Is a professional wrestling match? What about poetry slams or MOTH events? How is the personal story incorporated into a piece of theatre?
We disagreed as to what makes up an act of theatre. I believe an audience has to be present to witness the act, whereas for these artists the audience is not necessary. They are looking towards the ritual of performance and I think that in those cases, the participants are also the viewers. There’s no real answer to the conundrum, but that kind of exchange is what makes it exciting.
Let me toss this out to you. By reading this, I know that you have your own thoughts about what constitutes theatre and what you expect to see when you go to a play or event. I want to hear your thoughts and if you don’t mind, I will share some of those thoughts in a future blog. Just send me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, come see what the crazy nutjobs...uh, artists...are doing with WRONG CHOPPED and see how theatre is evolving right before our eyes.