There’s an ironic exchange in the great film, My Dinner with Andre, in which Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn talk about the demise of theater. I say it’s ironic because this movie was made more than 30 years ago and if they thought live theater was in the crapper back then, well… they had no idea what they were talking about!
Any playwright worth their salt is probably aware of a theater that is going through hard times or one that shut down because it couldn’t raise money. And yet, year after year, I run into playwrights who act as though it has nothing to do with them.
I believe they think they are somehow removed from the economic reality of theater, which is simply not true. I believe they do this because they simply do not understand who their competition is, who they’re playing against. It would be like an NBA player, LeBron James let’s say, feeling he was doing a fine job if he could beat the kids at the local elementary school.
Now, I’m not saying playwrights these days far too often aim for the elementary school… It’s actually worse than that! Because too many playwrights are writing for an audience raised on George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon, and even William Shakespeare. But they’re not.
They are not.
Audiences today could give a shit about George Bernard Shaw. If they want Tennessee Williams, they’ll watch A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof on cable – that’s TV. Heck, they may not even watch it on TV. They may not watch it at all. And Shakespeare? William Shakespeare? They’re sick to death of William Shakespeare!
The problem with playwrights is that they think their competition is other playwrights. They think their world of theater is insular, competing within itself.
That’s not true. It never was true.
As a playwright, I know my competition isn’t theater. It has nothing to do with theater. (And, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the same goes for most audiences. They have nothing to do with theater.) My competition is Marvel’s The Avengers, showing in 3D on IMAX screens. My competition is Halo 4. My competition is 41 million different cable channels and a world of exciting things. It is NASCAR and snowboarding and the next Bond flick.
My competition is a world filled with things far more interesting, exciting, and alive than most of what we call live theater.
If I’m not going to step up my game and compete at that level, I have no right or reason to compete. Can theater provide the ultimate 3D effects, interactivity, and awesomeness that movies and video games and TV and so many other things can?
No. I’m sorry but it cannot.
Theater is far too old an art form to keep up with such things. It was created too long ago. It’s just too old and too weak. It just can’t keep up with everything else the world throws against it.
In truth, it’s absurd to try. Not only would such an attempt make theater a parody of its own irrelevance, to do so would be to ignore the strengths that theater possesses. Theater is old but it’s tough. It has deep roots and it is the depth of theater that allows us to compete against such modern amusement and amazement.
Playwrights can play at that level and I remind myself of this every time I write. Theater provides elements no other form of entertainment can. It possesses an intimacy you can’t get anywhere else, an immediacy to affect an audience, and the depth of having another live person right there talking to your soul. Nothing else can compete with that. And yet, far too often, playwrights ignore this and pump out the same, old crap.
They don’t keep up.
For every billion dollar movie, playwrights have to be that much better. For every blockbuster video game, playwrights have to step up. Against a world that says “You are not relevant,” playwrights must bring forth such works of art that shows that they are.
The life of theater rests in the hands of the playwright.
Bring it to life.
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Author and playwright, Ken La Salle has brought his shows to stages from Los Angeles to New York to San Francisco. His passion is intense humor, meaningful drama, and finding answers to the questions that define our lives. You can also find his books on Amazon and Smashwords and all major etailers. His philosophical memoir, Climbing Maya, was recently published by Solstice Publishing. You can follow Ken’s writing career at his blog.
7 thoughts on “Knowing your competition… by Ken La Salle”
Good wake-up call.
I certainly hope the same is not true for books and reading, but I fear, to a degree it is.
I was just thinking the same thing Yvonne.
Thanks for this post, it's an interesting read and sheds light on a strange dilemma. As a student of theatre, trying to get my feet wet in playwriting, I've begun to notice a self-defeating cycle. Especially true in community theatre, artistic directors and selection committees for fear of empty seats tend to create the same kind of season over and over again; the kind that will attract busloads of tourists. That means the Shakespeare, the Shaw, the friendly comedies that aren't very challenging. I think, and this is just a wild guess on my part, that this is due to theatre professionals looking at movies, TV, video games, and surmising "well, I guess people don't want to be challenged any more." So they put on what is guaranteed to put bums in seats. But is that really true?
Last year I was involved with a community theatre in town that does a one act festival, specifically geared toward giving first-timers a chance to showcase their stuff. For this reason the theatre tends to consider it more of an investment in the future, expecting to run financially at a loss or even. But the festival did extremely well, attracting a crowd hungry for new content, no matter how unrefined. And it made money!
Just recently that same theatre finished a run of The Laramie Project, a risky play for a community theatre. Or was it really that risky? The play received a standing ovation on opening night and was the talk of the town during the run.
People are hungry, desperate to be challenged. It's not only important for the survival of our art form to do it, but our duty.
I really enjoyed this post, thank you!
I grew up 30 minutes from Manhattan, and did not realize until we moved to Florida how spoiled I was in my access to theatre. Vanessa Redgrave at Circle in the Square. Al Pacino in American Buffalo Off Broadway. At one point he walked right in front of me and screamed! Amadeus with Ian McKellen … it pains me sometimes to think of it.
The challenge is to entertain and illuminate simultaneously. It can be done.
Good luck with your projects.
"Can theater provide the ultimate 3D effects, interactivity, and awesomeness" you ask? Well of course it bloody can! How much more 3D can a real person get, standing on a 3 dimensional stage and interacting with a live audience? That is theatre's biggest strength, to play to real people in real time and get an instant response from them. If I was still running a theatre I'd be adding "Now in 3D – without glasses!!!" to all the promo material. Yes, we may have our work cut out to reach new audiences as the older generations fade away, but don't tell me theatre can't still be awesome!
I take your point about new plays and up-to-date material, but it would be even easier to win new bums on seats if more kids were exposed to the fun of a real theatre show. The theatre bug bites little 'uns hardest and makes them slaves for life. Get 'em while they're young!
I love this: "Now in 3D — without glasses!!!" 😀
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