We Love Theater… don’t we?

Photo courtesy of
‘Main auditorium of Regent Theatre, Melbourne, 1929’
courtesy of ‘Powerhouse Museum Collection’

Some months ago – after what felt like the millionth press screening that I’d left disappointed – Jenn and I were chatting about what we’d seen that day and in recent memory. At one point I said something like “I feel like I spend a lot of time wondering lately why did this need to be up on stage? Or maybe I’m wondering why I should come see it rather than something on television or at the movies. Is the fact that it’s live enough reason by itself?”

Jenn, ever mindful of the bottomless article monster that is WeLoveDC.com, answered without answering by saying “maybe that’s something you should write about.”

So three months later we’ve made it through most of the summer, all of Fringe, and are standing on the cusp of a new theater season in the District. Seems like a good time to think generally about the year ahead and reflect on my general reaction from last season.

If you’re a theater enthusiast I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you’re not then I’d particularly like to hear them. If you’ve never thought of a single reason why you should go see a live show then I’d really love to hear why. Theater is not for everyone but maybe the reason it doesn’t call to you is an issue for all of us.

Why live?

I don’t think everything you put on stage has to be unique and weird and wonderful in a way that nobody has ever seen before.

I just think that after I left my house, spent 5 times the cost of a movie ticket, and picked from only 6 possible showings over the course of the week… you need to show me that you did something other than a poor imitation of what was on the television or at the multiplex.

Because seriously – there’s a hundred new things on youtube every week. Some of them are pretty amazing. Some stink.

YouTube Preview Image

The point is, there’s a lot of competition and much of it is taking advantage of its medium. You’ve got to as well, theater. That’s not about beating them at their own game – it’s about playing and winning your own.

I don’t care about your production costs

After the regular season and Fringe I have noticed one thing: the amount of money put up on the stage hasn’t had one bit of relation to what’s blown me away and what’s left me cold. The Shakespeare Theater never fails to create a visually stunning set and beautiful costumes, but they’ve had winners and losers in the last year. Synetic, on the other hand, I’ve seen do their work on a blank stage in a big barren room and still be enthralling.

No amount of money is going to create a stage experience identical to the movies. All the money in the world won’t let you to the Matrix’s “bullet time” on stage… so why are you competing in their race?

My great Fringe delight, Red Hood, used the theatrical space and it’s “fixed window” to great effect with nothing more than curtains and spotlights. They moved in and out of the dark, set mood, and controlled the space in a way no movie could manage. That wasn’t done with dollars, it was done with planning and vision.

On the other side of the coin, stage spectacle can do something nothing else can – ask anyone who’s been to an arena rock concert. Just follow the same lessons: no band tries to re-create a produced & edited music video on stage. They aim for a unique in-person spectacle. Whether it be with lasers in the fog over your head or pyrotechnics, it’s something you couldn’t have gotten elsewhere.

Otherwise… well, The Onion, as usual, said mocked it best.

Said band member Mark Bryan,”We had just finished a really super rendition of ‘Let Her Cry’ that sounded exactly like on the CD, when out of nowhere these strange men came down shouting about getting up and doing the backstroke, or something.”

Are you doing something cool or are you making a desert topping that’s also a floor wax?

I’m not saying you can’t put something on stage that could have been somewhere else. There’s wonderful small venues in our city where someone can bring work that could have been told elsewhere but that they couldn’t bring you any other way. Three years ago I saw Jonathan Padget stage a musical version of The Blue Lagoon for a sold-out crowd of 24.

It could have worked, in a different situation, as a YouTube phenomenon. In the early days of HBO it would have run between movies along with Lenny Bruce cartoons. But it took the opportunity that tiny theater presented and ran with it, and part of why it worked was that everyone in that room knew we were seeing something that wouldn’t have seen the light of day otherwise.

You can’t expect us to feel that way in your million dollar theater, however. You have got to bring something different, whether that be a fly-by-night one-shot-only feel or an immersion that couldn’t happen elsewhere.

Certain larger venues – who know who they are – can keep on slogging along, relying on money from True Believers who will pay to see anything on stage. But I gotta tell you – I like Walter Matthau and think Jack Lemmon was a national treasure. If you’re going to bring me the same Odd Couple that Neil Simon put down on film forty years ago then I’m sticking with my couch and those two masters. I hope your subscribers enjoy their plate of same-as-ever, but c’mon – you can be so much better than that.

A new hope

I’m happy to say that I’m feeling a lot more optimistic about the coming season than I was when Jenn and I had that conversation in May. Maybe it’s the “hey, let’s put on a show!” vibe from Fringe. Perhaps Mike Daisey shouted the doldrums out of my head during the preview of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Maybe it’s just having a little time off after a long 2009-2010 season.

Let’s see what you’ve got, DC. Bring us something different.

Well I used to say something in my profile about not quite being a “tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy” but Tom stole that for our about us page, so I guess I’ll have to find another way to express that I am a man of many interests.

Hmm, guess I just did.

My tastes run the gamut from sophomoric to Shakespeare and in my “professional” life I’ve sold things, served beer, written software, and carried heavy objects… sometimes at the same place. It’s that range of loves and activities that makes it so easy for me to love DC – we’ve got it all.


4 thoughts on “We Love Theater… don’t we?

  1. This is a great post. I got interested in theater for the first time in my life just a few years ago, and was lucky enough to be living in the nation’s #3 theater city at the time. (I’m told Chicago just beats us out for #2.) Right now, we have season tickets to Shakespeare Theater, Studio, and Imagination Stage (I have two five-year-olds) — we did Adventure this past year. It’s amazing what’s available on stage in this city.

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  3. I hear you, Don. I never really “got” theater – why live? why so expensive? I prefered movies.

    A theater in the DC area has made me change my mind a bit. 1st Stage won the Helen Hayes award for outstanding emerging theater – have you ever been? It’s in a strip mall near Tysons Corner, it’s hard to find and looks sketchy. But the performances are great, the shows are interesting, and it’s not that expensive ($25 for general admission). YOu should check them out sometime.