In his seminal work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman uses theatre and performance as analogies to describe all our social interactions. He argues, in essence, that we are actors, consciously or unconsciously performing our identities for and to others. For different audiences, we no doubt assume different roles, responding like actors to environment, stimuli, and relationship, as we seek our broader super objectives. Like actors, we appreciate the applause, even if our performance is less than stellar. Many of us can also acknowledge that those identities we perform for the people around us are as much a fiction as the characters the theatrical actor assumes over a lifetime: so much smoke and mirrors—and a lot of make-up—even if built on the actor’s psyche and physique.
In this sense, it is not surprising that the celebrity performer has assumed such a high degree of acclaim in our society. If we are all performing the fiction of our identity, then why not tip our collective hat to those actors, athletes, musicians, newscasters, politicians, who have risen to the top through their ability to perform their identities to the public.
Just how far the celebrity performer has risen really came home to me this New Year while watching an ABC evening newscast “In Memoriam: People We Lost in 2012.” Of the 86 people whose deaths were notable, 45 of them were performers—actors, singers, musicians. Eleven more of them were writers or speakers of some kind—journalists, authors, newscasters, and a motivational speaker. The next closest categories were those serving in the government, non-performing artists, and athletes. There was one inventor, N. Joseph Woodland, who co-invented the barcode; one soldier—Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who famously co-designed the blitzkrieg used in Iraq I, 1991; and one regular person—Rodney King, who, of course, performed unwittingly on video along with the gaggle of LA cops who were kicking and tasering him.
Now, I’m not disputing anyone’s right to be listed in ABC’s “In Memoriam” dedication. A notable death is a notable death, but can we seriously accept the fact that in 2012 there wasn’t at least one notable educator who died, or one police officer, or pastor, or architect, or engineer? Clearly, there must have been a notable scientist or two who died, but not according to ABC. One can only assume that the criteria used to determine which 86 people would be highlighted must have defined “notable” in such a way as to favor the celebrity, or those whose performed identities played out on the electronic media.
I make note of this phenomena not simply because it is but one more piece of evidence suggesting the circular logic of the electronic media, i.e., they decide what is important based on what is important for them. For me, the danger of this trend is twofold. On the one hand, by socially elevating the celebrity performer we acknowledge that we appreciate the act of performing more than the content of the performance itself. Perhaps, this happens because the content of any performance is temporal, as temporal as last night’s rendition of Shear Madness. Thus, why not celebrate the performance as an end in-and-of-itself? This kind of thinking might explain our political actors’ determination to perform the same fiscal cliff / sequester cliff drama over and over again until we are numb with exhaustion.
On the other hand, even more disturbing is what our obsession with celebrity reveals about our values. It seems as if we value the celebrity performer and his or her fiction more than the people who really do the day-to-day work of improving our society. In other words, the actor who mimics the lawyer, the cop, the doctor, the teacher, the scientist is more notable than the people he or she mimics, the people who perform those professions in life, making an actual difference in our lives. And I say this, even though I love actors and the work they do, albeit on the stage more than in film where the camera is the real star.
So, as each of us prepares for our roles today as father or mother, clerk or caring friend, let us acknowledge and salute the performer in all of us, and let the celebrity take a step or two—or three—toward the back of the line. For it is the authentic flesh and blood doer of deeds who actually makes a difference in our lives. Let us make notable the EMT who examines the gunshot victim and stops the bleeding: not the actress on TV who imitates her between make-up touch-ups, lighting adjustments, and a shout of “Action!”
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.