Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Why is TV Better than Theater?

John From Cincinnati pulled off the one of the most unique scenes I've seen on stage or screen in last Sunday's episode. You can read the text here.

The scene and the speech is probably generating a lot of discussion by fans of the show --I'm not sure I count myself as one yet. But that discussion is going to be about what the speech means within the confines of the world Milch et al are creating. The question that leaps to mind for me is: why isn't theater doing anything this interesting or this confounding?

Sure - there's plenty of the self-appointed vanguard out there doing opaque work. But my exposure to that world has always included a feeling of "Well, if you don't get it, fuck you." The thing that confounds me about John From Cincinnati is how generous it is as it completely runs itself off the rails. Somewhere, somehow, Milch and company are saying "It's OK if you don't get it right now. Hang in there, come along for the ride."

Part of that is in the way they've built John's character. We've been taught in steps that he parrots words and that he rearranges those found phrases for his own meaning. Structurally, we've been prepared to hear and listen to John's speech. We've been taught the rules of John's behavior over the last four episodes and now the writers have taken those rules and built something suprising and unique.

So perhaps that's one structural lesson to take from the last episode: teach the rules of the world, riff on the rules of the world. In the shows of the self-appointed vanguardists, its often step one that's missing.

But what else is this show doing structurally to make it OK to be completely confounded?


Pookie said...

I understand the "fuck you concept" I have even experienced it more than I care to-- but I have experienced far more egregious attitudes on the part of critics and audiences who simply do not wish to be "challenged" and often react virulently to "challenging work" (even with a road map fully in view for how to process the work). Often they sit down to "judge"-- and this fact typically keeps them from experiencing/investing in the journey enough to meet the "challenge" -- Let alone embrace it.

Can you "feel"-- if in the "moment of feeling" you are more invested in "assessing/evaluating the feeling", than seeing where the feeling might lead?

Can ART -be ART -with an audience that seeks the comfort of the familiar -more than it seeks the challenge of understanding others?

As to the question of" Why is TV better than theater". I reject the premise. From the heading it appears that the determination has already been made-- which leaves little point in the discussion.

For my two cents. T.V. is not better than theatre. It is different Animal altogether. Flawed from top to bottom with the preoccupation of mass appeal and selling me shit I don't need.

But that doesn't mean I can't find a program or two that I rather enjoy.

Aaron Carter said...

My original title for the post was "Is TV Better than Theater?" But I thought by being absolutist I might be more provocative.

On the surface, TV vs Theater is a ridiculous argument to enter into. But I wonder if as theater folks, we are so ingrained to think of our form as artistically superior that we are missing the chance to learn some valuable lessons from TV.

Sure, TV is shot through with selling shit and mass appeal - but in some cases mass appeal isn't the lowest common denominator. And aren't we looking for a mass audience for our art?

The whole question of critic and audience openness is a good one. Maybe someone could start a post on that? How much of our frustration with critics is justified and how much is part of our learned responses?

Anonymous said...

"And aren't we looking for a mass audience for our art?"

I can't speak for everyone else, but me not so much. I'm not opposed to a mass audience, but what I am looking for is discourse, and that would of course imply two invested parties with a point of view and something to say.

T.V. (Read free broadcast) for the most part isn't interested in discourse, they are interested in whatever it takes to keep us watching in sufficient numbers to sell ads at a high profit. As it turns out discourse doesn't seem to do that very well. People eating bugs and dancing with a prostetic leg (Sometimes on the same show) seem to be the winners in that realm as of late.

Mass appeal, that's where we were before the rant right?

Art has to be concerned with having something to say, and hopefully saying in a way that is refreshing and honest. It has been my experience that honesty isn't really good for courting mass appeal.

If you want proof. Answer this question. What was the last t.v show you saw that you thought was truly insightful? - demanding a discourse of some kind from the viewer and the program. How long did it take to get cancelled?

Aaron Carter said...

Does Battlestar Galactica count? It was on Sci Fi, so not so basic cable, not free broadcast.

I've heard the discourse argument before. And each time my question is, where is this discourse in a theater performance? Sure the audience participation shows are easy to point to. But what about August: Osage County or Richard the III or Looking Glass Alice or any of the traditional fare running right now?

PS. The original post - despite the provocative title- was really about what John From Cincinnati is doing structural to allow audience to engage challenging material. Any thoughts on that?

Pookie said...

I don't watch John from Cinci...

But I do watch Battlestar Gallactica--I watched it as a kid and I watch the new one as well. It does tend to push a discourse about the nature of humanity, democracy, leadership, intimacy and sarifice. Good shit. Yeah yeah I know I'm supposed to be talking about "John".

....But I don't watch that show.

The discourse thing with theatre. It's not literal (as in audience response) It's metaphysical... Does the show push you to asks deeper questions about the nature of a particular experience or idea. Do these questions stay with the viewer? Are there layers to the work such that and audience member can find more substantive anwers upon repeated viewings/readings? Does this then lead to more questions..and viola "a discourse" has occured. Does this happen in theatre? Sometimes... Not so much shows like "WICKED". or any other show were the entire point of the experience is ...."look at the pretty..."

But this type of discourse does occur. And though we might be loathe to admit it, it can even happen in "ALICE".

I promise I'll watch John from Cinci next week. And I'll have something at least moderately interesting to add to that discussion.

Hey Did I just break one of the rules...kinda like endorsing a show?
Some network exec is smiling right now.

Amy said...

I'm jumping in late -- but I just had to put in my two cents on the idea of discourse between the audience and stage even during a big presentational piece like a musical. I believe there is absolutely a discourse in that the audience directly responds by their behavior. Admittedly it isn't anywhere near as direct a dialogue as it would be during an interactive piece, but there is an onus on the audience to react to what is being presented. As a body, they express their likes, dislikes and basic interest in the piece. And it is palpable. There is also a sense of community built for the length of the production - the audience might feel they are "in" on something special for a new production, or the cast might be frustrated with the matinee crowd. Even for shows with a fourth wall, it is still a porous wall.

For my two cents, this is the most exciting aspect to writing for the stage -- how best to include the audience actively in what's being created.