Whether we are discussing the ranks of the large professional theatres like the Shakespeare Theatre, or the mid-sized Regionals like Woolly Mammoth or Studio Theatre, or community theatres like the Little Theatre of Alexandria or Silver Spring Stage, what is most important about theatre has always been the community it supports and engenders. That’s right! Forget the actors and singers! Forget the directors—musical, managing, and artistic! Forget the playwrights and theatrical devisors, set and costume and lighting designers, technicians and stage managers, publicists and PR experts! Forget them all! It is the community of folk who gather in front of or round the stage that determines the nature and identity of that thing we call theatre.
We have an audience. You have a show. Let’s get them together!
Enter a theatre, purchase a ticket or two or three, mingle among the crowd or stand against a far wall, walk into the auditorium and sit among the audience, and suddenly you exist in association, in association with those other people sitting around you. Suddenly, you are that theatre’s community, its identity of like-minded individuals who have come to see a show. It does not make any difference if you like the performance that you will soon experience, or not. Or that you might be at that production for reasons other than to see the show. Like it or not, even if you go to a show because that’s what your boyfriend wants or that’s what your child needs, you still—at that moment—have that community’s identity. In some small way, you are that farce, that Greek tragedy, that 1940’s musical, that one-man show, that contemporary experimental drama, or even that revival of Oh Calcutta! And you will leave the theatre marked as such.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Though not quite standing room only, the Strathmore was packed from its crowded orchestra to its fourth tier balcony; even some of the throwback box seats elevated along the sides of this enormous structure had audience peaking over the rails. The stage was empty, however. The chorus had not yet arrived. The orchestra was nowhere in sight. “Where were the instruments?” the audience might have asked. “The piano and the big bass drum?” Were the two performers going to sing a cappella?
As it turned out, poet Wallace Stevens’ famous line, “Music is feeling, then, not sound,” was more than apropos for this occasion, as our two performers were not singers, but poets; and the thousand plus eager ears in the audience were yearning not for the sonorous chords of an oboe or a lute, but for the small wonders of two of America’s most famous bards: Billy Collins and Mary Oliver (who is, by the way, of no relation to this critic).
As a poet and performer myself, I have long bemoaned most poets’ inability to engage a live audience, almost as if years of academia had trapped their voices within the books they are constantly reading. To be sure, with the emergence of performance poetry—slam and spoken word—that lack of a live voice is disappearing. With the gain, however, comes a countering decline in poetry’s essential solitude—its ability to question the rawness of experience. Oh, how I hoped that Collins and Oliver would strike a balance or bridge a synthesis between those paradoxical necessities!
And did they ever, bringing to life on the Strathmore stage the sublime solitary of poetic expression while at the same time embodying its desire for community. By the end of the event, Collins and Oliver stood before satisfied ears to a thundering ovation.