Big Picture: Theater that matters (Act 1)

Times Union Studio shot of Entertainment Editor Michael Janairo for his upcoming Unwind “Big Picture” Arts Column, shot on Wednesday, June 16, 2010, in Albany, NY. (Luanne M. Ferris/Times Union)

In an age of seemingly endless choice, is theater still relevant?

In May, I spent 11 days in Los Angeles attending the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater (thank you, U.S. taxpayers!). The question of relevance — all too familiar for journalists — often came up as I and 24 other arts journalists were shuttled to about a dozen venues out of the 280 or so theaters in L.A.

All that driving around, by the way, reminded me of the Capital Region, where theatergoers have to put in a lot of miles to catch the wealth of theater that’s an hour’s drive or less from Albany. Just this week, the motivated theatergoer can see 22 plays or musicals.

What’s the last one you saw? A sobering report from the National Endowment for the Arts showed a double-digit decline in live theater attendance from 1982 to 2008. In other words, fewer people find theater relevant.

At the institute, LA Weekly theater critic Steven Leigh Morris argued that what makes the arts in general — and theater in particular — relevant is that they help save our humanity.

He gave examples of how artists have fought tyranny, such as playwright Vaclav Havel’s Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. And he said the arts take people outside daily routines, away from the crushing forces of media that serve the few and not the many. He also wrote about the subject in LA Weekly.

Sports and religion, I think, also take people outside daily routine, though into another routine. The arts, at their best, thwart routine by being unexpected or difficult to understand.

What makes theater different is that it is storytelling with a human connection. Morris stressed something that is obvious, though quite deep: Live theater is where people perform stories in front of other people. If an artist is concerned about people, then he or she should be in theater.

The power of theater is that it strikes the heart first. For some, the emotional experience is enough. Relevance comes into play when the audience member asks: Why do I feel this way? What does this have to do with the things that concern my life now?

Answering those questions, Morris said, is the mission of the critic. The critic doesn’t say something is good or bad, or I liked it or didn’t like it. The critic evaluates the work based on how well it realizes its potential to be meaningful to people right now.

Of course, not all theater strives to do that. Some, like Capital Rep‘s current production of “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” just want to have fun. (The culture of escapism makes a good topic for a future column, though.)

Morris recognizes this by making a distinction between relevant theater and popular theater. But that doesn’t mean popular theater can’t be relevant. Think of “The Lion King,” which is coming to the 2,600-seat Proctors next year. Few musicals are as popular. Few musicals are based on movies that have grossed nearly $800 million. True, success was never guaranteed. And Julie Taymor’s vision that included puppets was a risk. But it paid off. The musical is still running on Broadway.

But is it merely popular? “The Lion King,” if done well, can be a thoroughly satisfying theatrical experience because of the engaging story of Simba’s journey from cub to king allows for a deep emotional connection as well as thoughts about universal themes such as parent-child relations and destiny: Who we are as people (or lions) depends on what is given to us and what we do with it.

Another play that strives to do more, though it isn’t as well-known, is “The Whipping Man,” which recently closed after a string of sell-out shows during its New England premiere at Barrington Stage Company’s smaller 110-seat theater.

The 2006 play by Matthew Lopez is set in a broken-down house in Richmond, Va., in April 1865 at the end of the Civil War. A Confederate soldier returns home to find two of his family’s former slaves living there. In addition to the familiar complexities of the “peculiar institution” that binds these men together, all of them are Jewish.

At one point, one of the former slaves quotes a Leviticus prohibition against Jews owning other Jews as slaves and shouts: “Am I a slave? Or am I a Jew?”

His question was his attempt at asserting an identity beyond the crushing forces embodied by his former master. In so doing, he not only enunciated what the L.A. Weekly critic was talking about, he gave audience members a chance to think about the legacies of war and religious beliefs, two powerful forces that have been on the forefront of most Americans’ minds since Sept. 11.

The play was powerful stuff, and it was popular. That suggests to me that plenty of people in the Capital Region share my belief that theater matters.

Act 2 will appear next week. 


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