What’s Good for the Kids Is Good for the Grown-Ups

Finally, after what seems like an eternity, there’s an interesting essay over at Howlround, by John Olive, deceptively titled “The Gaming Challenge to Theater for Young Audiences.

Deceptive because even though it’s couched as a story about video games and theater, rather surprisingly, Olive comes to some different conclusions than what you might expect. Instead of going for what I assumed would be the standard “Let’s make theater more interactive!” approach, Olive does at least a little homework and comes up with a different interpretation.

To outside observers, players seem like brain-dead automatons, pausing to take occasional bites of cold pizza as their fingers blur over their controllers. But in their heads, something marvelous is happening. Their brains respond to the probing, the making of hypotheses, the reprobing, the exploring with a solid shot of dopamine (there is plenty of neurological evidence to back this up; check out psychologyofgames.com and follow the many links). This is what allows players to game for hours: it’s addictive, literally.

Applying these concepts to the theater, he asks, “Can plays match the be-dopamined probe/hypothesis/reprobe/rethink appeal of video games?” before admitting, “Probably not. Plays are communal. Group-experiences. Linear. Story-centric. Games are non-linear, violent, with silly story lines.”

What he suggests instead, for children’s theater, is a much more practical set of ideas that, frankly, don’t even require the videogame analysis to reach. Make the plays darker, and stop condescending to children who adults tend to idealize as precious innocents. Make stories about things that children and young audiences would care about, rather than what parents think they–or want them to–care about. Make theater that’s more engaging, surprising, non-traditional. And make new work, don’t rely on classics for name recognition alone.

Now, the practical limitation in terms of children’s theater is, of course, that children don’t get to buy the tickets themselves, nor (usually) go to the theater alone. The parents are making the decisions, which is why, in practice, this would be hard to pull off. Children can always be exposed to books or music or videogames by visiting friends’ houses, which is one of the ways they bring those wants back to their parents who ultimately pay the tab. Theater, given the cost, I suspect will have a much harder time becoming a must-have sort of thing among kids. That of course is why so many children’s theaters make the sort of work Olive correctly sees as condescending to children, the moralistic, unsophisticated, rosy-eyed parables and fables based often on the classics: because these shows aren’t being marketed to the children they’re putatively being made for, but rather the parents who, as Olive himself notes, would be the ones expected to shell out $200 for four tickets to a professional show. And on top of that, let’s not forget that most children’s theater is produced by local non-profits. Imagine trying Olive’s suggestion that theater-makers tap in to the fact that “children have dark, frightening and often violent imaginations. Their inner worlds are not cute and simplistic.” You’d have every mollycoddling, gray-haired busybody in town who volunteers for the company screaming bloody murder about the theater no longer being a safe space for kids.

Which is sad, because pretty much everything Olive says has the potential to work. A few years ago, for instance, Seattle Children’s Theater staged a fairly gory version of Night of the Living Dead aimed at the ‘tween and early teen market. It was well received but from what I understand performed below expectation, probably because parents weren’t as interested in sending their kids to something the kids might actually like.

But with all that said about children’s theater, I’d propose that everything Olive has to say applies equally well to most mainstream theater in general, which popular opinion amongst artists and practitioners holds is suffering just as bad as the stuff for the kids. Let’s face it–no matter how good you think a show like Ruined is, for instance, everyone who goes in chooses at the outset to subject themselves to its violent and brutal story and to accept the moral lesson (or unresolved moral ambiguity, which has become our lazy excuse for “sophistication” in theater, TV, and film) at the end. Not so different from the average children’s theater’s latest adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel.

Indeed, pretty much everything Olive says applies just as well to adult theater. The question is why isn’t this happening for the adults, then? It’s something I’ve been mulling over in my head for the last several years as I made the transition from being fascinated and engaged by more mainstream offerings towards the sort of “weird” or “experimental” performance we typically cover at Culturebot (which is going the opposite direction as most people as they age). At first I assumed that, like I had, most theater artists saw plays by the likes of Neil LaBute or Lynn Nottage or Paula Vogel or whatever as challenging works worth bringing to an audience. My opinion has certainly changed: again, we never “surprise” our audiences coming into the theater, and rarely does a play actually challenge their assumptions; instead, we all just rely on the idea that seeing the show has a cathartic effect, a value raised to a quasi-spiritual excuse for why we do what we do. But still, even if I came to the opinion that such logic is mistaken, I always assumed it was honest and in good faith.

But over the years, as I realized how little theater practitioners were artistically challenged in actually making their shows, I realized that the real problem is that–quite the opposite of what I’d always told myself–far from being daring or willing to push boundaries, most theater artists, including myself, were extremely risk averse. Sure, we’ll gleefully put any sort of verbal or physical obscenity onstage–from Mamet’s curse-filled racist misogyny to Shepherd’s or Bond’s dead babies–all the while assuring ourselves we’re holding a harsh mirror up to the world. We’ll take some risks with content, but the business model? Hell no. From the top to the bottom, most American theater is as conservative, threatened by change, and frightened of risk as every other dying form of media, from book publishers to newspapers to record labels.

This really hit home a few weeks ago when I was having an online discussion with some artists in Seattle, again about the demise of the Intiman and what should come next (part of it, but not the part I’m referring to, was published here). I won’t quote from it directly, as it was off-the-record, but an artist with a long history at one of Seattle’s oldest “fringe” theaters made the odd argument that most of what the pie-in-the-sky dreamers, who were hoping for new production opportunities, were talking about was not feasible. The Intiman’s house was too big (I would agree and suggest the answer is a smaller house, but that’s me) for most of this sort of work and that the real problem was that they’d taken too much risk already. Scale back, do popular plays, balance the books, and bam!, you’re set (I paraphrase). When I suggested that the present circumstances actually allowed for a radical re-thinking of how to make work, I was informed in no uncertain terms that I was being unrealistic. Referencing a noted local experimental theater artist and director, he suggested that it was fine for his fringe theater (which doesn’t pay) to produce one of this guy’s versions of Shakespeare in an alley for no budget, but when money’s in play, we have to be realistic.

Got that? Risk is only for shows with low or no expectations; otherwise, even a long-time advocate of new theater will bow down before the mysterious Market God that’s failed to support the theater time and time again. It’s about butts in seats, he and virtually everyone else in the theater says, nodding along like Very Serious People expressing a hard and harsh realist sentiment. Never mind that the Intiman that had collapsed into bankruptcy was producing commercial non-profit theater that was acclaimed and popular. We’d rather second-guess the bookkeeping that helped skyrocket Bart Sher’s reputation into the stratosphere rather than ever countenance the possibility that it was too little–rather than too much–risk that got us into this mess.

This is, of course, ridiculous. It’s certainly not backed up by numbers, which, again, haven’t rewarded this artistic conservatism in the theater anymore than they have the non-traditional work disdained by our own as “experimental” and therefore of little interest to anyone. Never mind that Elevator Repair Service can turn a seven-hour recitation of a novel into a hit show, or that Nature Theater’s Romeo and Juliet is patently hilarious and more intelligent than most Shakespeare productions at a fraction of the price. VSP’s in the theater are convinced of their wrong-headed realism; if only we try to do the same thing again but harder, this time it will work. This is why America is not producing companies like Punchdrunk, because the very idea strikes our own artists as dangerously outside the box, despite the fact that 99% of people would prefer their immersive experience in Sleep No More to virtually any other production of Macbeth.

So I’d say that Olive’s points apply just as well to the grown-ups. The theater needs to stop condescending to its audiences and accept that maybe that’s why they’re not showing up as much. Theater also needs to get over its knee-jerk reaction to anything that falls outside the proscenium space and stop writing it off as weird or off-putting and accept that there are other ways to make enjoyable, fun, and engaging theatrical experiences for people. And in general, it needs to get over its naive belief that being more businesslike means taking less risk; businesses takes risks all the time, and indeed, some of them fail. But if the theater wants to see itself as half as creative and energetic as private industry, it needs to learn to roll with punches and take bigger risks (for the sake of bigger rewards) or hurry up with shriveling up and dying.

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