Category Archives: Performing Knowledge

A discussion of the relationship between performance and education.

Theatre News: The Aesthetics of a Theatrical Dollar (or $100+ dollars)

Theatre critics never mention the cost of a ticket when we write our reviews, almost as if price doesn’t matter and the aesthetics of theatre operate independent of budget and cost. Maybe that’s because we critics don’t pay for tickets, so we never leave a show saying: “I just paid $102 for that! I’d have enjoyed myself more at my child’s Nutcracker or my Great Aunt Nelly’s piano recital!”

The reality is, of course, buying the opportunity to experience a theatrical production is no different than buying a bottle of wine. If I were to shell out $232,692 for a bottle Chateau Lafite (1869) or even $80,000 for a Screaming Eagle Cab (1994) – yes, those really are the latest prices for those wines – it had better have a darn good bouquet and a taste that lasts forever. Whereas, if I go to my local Safeway and buy a Clos Du Bois Chardonnay for $10.99 or a bottle of Three Wishes Chardonnay for $2.99 at Whole Foods, I only expect to relax and enjoy myself a little without a bitter aftertaste. In my youth, a bottle of Boones Farm served one purpose and one purpose only, and it did not have a thing to do with aesthetics.

(Top to Bottom) The Arena Stage, The Studio Theatre, The Keegan Theatre.

So let us be honest: when it comes to theatre, price matters. If we pay more for a theatre ticket, we expect more from the show. Top prices at Arena Stage and Shakespeare Theatre are now over one hundred dollars a ticket, whereas at the National Theatre a single ticket approaches $200. Studio Theatre and Woolly Mammoth, on the other hand, charge a mere $60 to $75, whereas a company like Avant Bard (WSC) or a Fall Fringe production charge $30ish and $20ish respectively. Now, we can all admit that when we walk through the doors at Arena or Studio, our expectations are different (and higher) than when we slide into a cheap seat at the Fringe.

The question remains, however, what exactly are theatre-goers expecting for that higher price? I guess the simple answer is: the best that money can buy. I do not know what the exact relationship is between a theatre’s budget and its ticket prices; but generally it seems that the more money a theatre has, through charitable donations, grants, and box office, the more money it has to spend on its productions and the more it charges for its tickets.

So the essential question is: when it comes to theatre, what does all that money buy?

A hot script to be sure. Whereas theatres with fewer resources must rely on tried and true scripts, or obscure risky scripts, or newly invented original scripts, the wealthier theatres can afford to get the rights to that latest gem or enduring blockbuster.

The bigger the budget, the more famous an actor the theatre can hire. How many theatres in Washington could afford the likes of a Stacy Keach or a Cate Blanchett or a Laurence Fishburne or a—you get the picture. A big name doesn’t guarantee expectations being met, but it frequently covers the bet.

If not the big name actor, then a bigger budget ensures a higher quality ensemble—or both. Yes, money definitely opens the door to a plethora of quality actors with more training and experience.

More extraordinary sets and beautiful costumes also cost more. If you are going to witness a helicopter flying around on stage, or a large set piece descending from the sky, or an even larger set piece emerging from the floor, ticket prices have to be higher than a dinner at Applebees.

(Top to Bottom) The lobbies at The Capital Fringe Festival, The Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and The Shakespeare Theatre.

The richer the theatre, the more luxurious the theatre experience. Now, this expectation might be more true of Washington than any other city in America because Washingtonians, who have grown used to the comforts of government largess, expect no less from their entertainments. Thus, theatre lobbies need to be large and well equipped, guaranteeing that a production’s half time show is not a cigarette in a dark alley.

The costlier the ticket, the richer the audience. As prices escalate, the professional theatrical experience becomes increasingly limited to a wealthier and wealthier clientele. Of course, theatre managers understand this fact; hence, theatres offer a host of reduced-priced ticket opportunities, from Ticketplace to Living Social to Goldstar to discounts for theatre-goers 35 and under to Pay-What-You-Can nights.

Ultimately, however, more theatrical money produces a more monied aesthetic. For, to be sure, money brings with it its own idea of beauty. If we set aside the creative factor—which I never like to do by the way, but let’s set it aside this once—money in theatre, like money in politics, can make a dull idea look interesting and bright and thought provoking and thus a joy to behold. In other words, that expensive look, supported in part by those high-ticket prices, can gloss over an Everest of “been theres, done thats, so who cares?”

I don’t know if we critics ought to start mentioning the price of admission when reviewing a show. Saying, “For $25, it ain’t a bad show!” doesn’t really sound like an endorsement; but a ticket’s price should at least filter into the equation, as it already does for many theatre-goers or would-be-theatre-goers who then decide to save that $100 bucks for their kid’s college fund. And I say that even though I know that money cannot make a show worth seeing or memorable. Creativity and empathy do that!  It’s the story that does that!  So remember, while some of the most creative and most empathetic people don’t make squat for their artistic labor, they can be found at theatres anywhere and at any time.

In this season of spending and economic uncertainty, as you wrestle with which holiday show you want the family to see, I’m sure you’ll consider the price tag of that Nutcracker or Christmas Carol. Rest assured, that if you go for the lower priced Tiny Tim, no one will consider you a Scrooge for doing so.

News: Who Says Washington Doesn’t Have Political Theatre?

Cast of ‘Hair’ 2010 National tour. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Not that Washington has ever been a hot bed for political theatre—Hair didn’t even come to the National until 1970, two years after its Broadway premiere in 1968—but in Fall 2012 there is a decided lack of almost anything political resembling a play. Sure, Molly Ivins and an utterly sanitized Janis Joplin entertain us at Arena and a little Government Inspector at Shakespeare makes us laugh our heads off, and Signature even claimed a bit of the political with its Whorehouse (no kidding, it did). Other than those token expressions, however, our theatre avoids political content almost as fiercely as Republicans and Democrats avoid each other.

And I’m happy about that. For in America today the political has become nothing more than theatre on a grand scale, played out daily in the world of pundits and competing 24-hour news outlets. So I’m happy for the respite that local theatre can offer. Yes, I’m thankful for a Jekyll and Hyde, for aDracula and Joseph and even a little Rocky Horror, for they provide a break from the constant barrage of political theatre swarming around Washington, DC, these days.

…it is a good thing that Washington’s theatre has decided to leave the political theatre to the politicians and their master strategists.

Now, I’ll admit to yearning once for more political content in plays, to hoping for an American canon that addressed the intense struggle in this country between the Right and the Left or the Federalists and the States’ Righters. After all, there is a place for theatre in the world of politics. Theatre during the French Revolution—and during our own 1960s—proved that the stage could play a role in the forming of public opinion. Even the imports that have come to town this Fall, Black Watch and theFamine, showed that when theatre does politics it could do a first class job.

This election cycle has, however, enlightened me to a greater truth. Theatre creates a world of illusion and mystery, which can temporarily suspend our disbelief and allow us to observe and emotionally engage in fictional people and events. Politics, on the other hand, creates a totally different kind of theatre; it creates a theatre that suspends our beliefs and allows us to fictionalize real people and events. In other words, within the theatre of politics, beliefs become truths and people and events become fictions. This inversion of fact and fiction allows the theatre of politics to trump anything the real theatres might produce.

So it is a good thing that Washington’s theatre has decided to leave the political theatre to the politicians and their master strategists.

Now, saying that, doesn’t mean that I don’t have a few criticisms of the drama that these political players have produced. However this script ends, I think we can all admit that it is a good thing that it is finally coming to an end—I’m also sure we can agree that this play was way too long and needed the last 10 acts cut. We’re all happy too that the climax has arrived, if not tonight, then hopefully early tomorrow. And we can only pray that this bit of politics-does-theatre doesn’t have a sequel, entitled “Supreme Court Decision II” playing for the next few months on stages everywhere.

Beware Americans: We’re Entering the Twilight Zone

The Trayvon Martin case has made me aware of one simple fact.  America has entered the twilight zone. Why do I say this?  Because despite all the media coverage of this case, the most important issues that the case demonstrates have been swamped by the hype.  Instead of focusing our attention on the failure of our criminal justice system (or in this case Sanford Florida’s criminal justice system) and the law that allowed a killer to temporarily go free, the media has focused totally on George Zimmerman and the cases racial component.

The case involves Trayvon Martin, an unarmed seventeen year old, killed by a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, while walking back from a convenience store.  Mr. Zimmerman confesses to killing Trayvon, but claims that it was self-defense, under Florida’s so called Stand-Your-Ground law.  Apparently, the law allows people not to back down from a fight.  In this case, it also seems to have allowed him to claim self-defense even when he was the aggressor.  In any event the police believe Mr. Zimmerman’s version of the event (Trayvon could not tell his version, of course, because he was dead) and within hours the police release him, even giving him back his gun.

George Zimmerman

After Trayvon’s parents are informed of the circumstances, including one assumes that Mr. Zimmerman confessed to the killing, they begin to protest that the killer should at least be charged with some kind of crime.  After all, they must have asserted: “our son has been killed by a stranger; he was unarmed at the time, and only carrying skittles and a soda pop.”  After the Sanford police ignored the parents’ protests, the parents sought a larger audience and, eventually, the story went national and international.

Then the Governor of Florida appoints a special prosecutor and eventually Mr. Zimmerman is charged with 2nd degree murder.

I assert that those are the essential facts thus far.  If you know something about the case, you’ll notice that I left out facts about race and ethnicity, and I did so, because at an essential level they are unimportant.  An unarmed person was killed by an armed person and the killer was not charged with a crime, even a misdemeanor.  Something is clearly wrong with this picture.

Being a parent myself I can understand the Martins’ grief and dismay.  When your child is killed, you most assuredly want justice.  What I don’t understand ,and what made me finally realize that America has entered the Twilight Zone, is why other people don’t understand this most basic of human needs: justice.  Why are some many people in America making excuses–not for George Zimmerman (he did what he did, what ever it was)–but why are so many people making excuses for the Sanford criminal justice system?  Or if the good people in the Sanford police department were only following Florida’s Stand-Your-Ground law, why are so many people making excuses for the insane politicians who pass a law that legalizes murder?

Now one could simply say that a lot of people are racist, and thus made a lot of excuses for why Zimmerman would kill Trayvon.  Because he had a hoodie, which is apparently a sign of thuggery (despite the fact that a lot of non-thugs wear hoodies), or because he was a teenager and today teenagers don’t have morals (as opposed to earlier eras), or because black young men don’t respect the law and thus Trayvon didn’t respect the law, or because blacks are killing blacks and not complaining — the list goes on and on as to why, according to certain people, George Zimmerman was justified in killing Trayvon Martin.

For me, however, racism does not explain why we’ve entered the Twilight Zone.  Oh, no, to enter the Twilight Zone requires a meeting of many vectors, a convergence if you will of a worm hole, an 11th plague, and a Reality Show with real people.

But seriously.  Although racism–both its long history and its current manifestations–is a factor driving the media insanity, several other factors are equally important.  An important factor is America’s other long history–gun ownership and violence.

John Wayne

The Stand your Ground laws that are sweeping the country right now are returning Americans to their Wild West roots.  We don’t need law enforcement any more.  We can just enforce the laws ourselves, or–if the job is too big for one man–we can hire a posse.  A product of the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the stand your ground laws have given many gun-owners the legal confidence to shoot first and ask questions later–or not at all.  Americans of all races and ethnicities have been killed by other well intentioned Americans with a hair trigger and perhaps more than a little paranoia.  If you add up all the things that make Americans scared these days–from drugs, disease, old age, teenagers, debt, mental illness, African-Americans (not to mention violent crime)–the stand your ground laws with their liberal interpretation of one’s perception of fear make them a disaster waiting to happen.

The Trayvon Martin case plays right into the vortex of American psychoses.  It has the gun element, the race element, the crime element, the hoodie element; plus, there is also a black president running for reelection, who a good number of people still think is a secret Muslim, socialist Kenyan.  If you add all those factors together, you enter the Twilight Zone, where everything you say or think comes out ass-backward, looking more like an episode of Amazing Videos than anything resembling serious thought.

The Performing Knowledge Project

Michael is the director and founder of The Performing Knowledge Project: where performance and education meet, which is a project of The Sanctuary Theatre, co-founded by Michael, Elizabeth Bruce, and Jill Navarre.  For more about The Sanctuary Theatre.

Every person has his or her story to tell: every community, every family, every institution, every issue, every piece of ground, every thing. When we remember the country of our birth, when we stand in the middle of a parking lot and consider what once was there, when we walk with aging parents and listen to the tales of their youth, we are made new by the recollections: because each person, each place, each moment possesses a history, and that history provokes a sense of who we are.  When we make sense of those stories and the worlds that inspire them, we rediscover ourselves.  These stories are all around us; they are deep inside us as well.  We hear these stories everyday.

At The Performing Knowledge Project we care about the stories and the communities they inhabit.  The story might be about Edgar Allan Poe’s poetic persona, or it might be about a senior citizens’ home, or it might be about technology and how it affects who we are.  We at Performing Knowledge explore these stories, what they look like in line and color, what they sound like with melody and chord.  We want to know how they feel, both to the storyteller and to those to whom the story is told, and how they make sense of the world around us.

Stories exist within a context, however; they inhabit a community, to be sure; but they also happen at a particular time and place.  At Performing Knowledge we seek to advance the relationships between those stories and the way in which they are told.  We synthesize the goals of performance with those of education, and by doing so the two disciplines work in harmony.  By orchestrating their relationship with one another, we elevate the “felt-thought” making it all the more palpable, transforming it into an experience.

The story of The Performing Knowledge Project begins with poetry workshops and the production of Embodying Poe: Poetry in Performance.  The Sanctuary Theatre, the Project’s parent institution, dates back to 1983 and its inaugural production of Jesse and the Bandit Queen.  Its story then weaves through over two decades and dozens of productions, workshops, staged-readings, and educational programs, in collaboration with numerous organizations and communities.  The Performing Knowledge Project is the theatre’s new story and announces a decidedly different direction for the Sanctuary organization.

The Performing Knowledge Project seeks to build a collaborative of artists and scholars of all kinds: theatre artists; historians, musicians; poets, literary critics, writers and playwrights; sociologists; technologists and visual artists; dancers and beyond.  We seek to create original works in collaboration with communities and individuals, crafting the tales that make worlds come alive.

Our next projects include MotherStory and Song of Myself: the Whitman Project.

For more about The Performing Knowledge Project