Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Resurrecting Working Class Theatre

I wanted to continue the thread on working class theatre because 1) I can, and 2) because it is my ultimate goal as a playwright to create engaging working class stories for the stage. I don't feel there are enough working class stories being told. And I don't believe there are enough blue collar representations on stage. I also believe that, economics aside (because blue collar or working class does not automatically mean you cannot afford a theatre ticket), I truly believe we can't get working class folks into the theatre because we are not telling their stories. I hold these tenants to be true. But then I read Erik's comments on "King Lear"...

I have to say, Erik, my foundation was rocked a bit when I read your comment on "Lear" because I was like, "Yeah, of course an electrician can relate to a father dividing his kingdom between his daughters." I completely agreed with you. Really.

But then I calmed down a bit and came to my senses. Just kidding- kind of... (Let's not forget, Shakespeare was a master of depicting all classes of society in his work- something severely lacking these days.)

I began to think about Shakespeare and the "universality" that is always applied to his work, and how this differs from something more contemporary. I think Shakespeare can be considered fantasy (Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Titus, etc- these stories have all transcended reality and exist as fantasy). And I think we relate to fantasy in a different way. Fantasy is so far removed from us that it is not a representation of our reality- therefore we have license, or are given "the room" to bridge the gap between this fantasy and our own lives and relate the story to ourselves or our own situation. (i.e. king divides kingdom amongst daughters/father decides which of his 3 sons to leave his Buick to.) This "bridging", I believe, is what gives theatre its distinction as a medium.

In more contemporary work, realism is what writers tend to strive towards- therefore narrowing the ability of an audience member to "bridge" or relate to the story. If the play is about an upper class white artist, a white intellectual who can afford to stay home while pondering existence, and a white chef all living in a SoHo apartment trying to deal with their irritating gay neighbor (NYC trendy humor abounding)- it's kind of hard for anyone outside of that environment to relate.

And yes, you will have your "Raisin in the Sun" moments (don't forget, that's a piece of working class theatre). But overall, if we are trying to be realistic (i.e. realism) as a medium (which 95% of theatre is) then we must start depicting working class folks on stage and telling their stories, otherwise they will never set foot inside of a theatre. Or maybe we should strive to be more Shakespearean in our contemporary storytelling...?

8 comments:

Erik Ramsey said...

Okay. I won't disagree that the working class is underrepresented currently on our stages. And that should be addressed.

But it's kind of a leap from there to asserting that fact as the reason that working class people don't attend the theater, the predominance of realism notwithstanding. How can you be certain the working class really wants to see themselves literally represented on stage? It seems logical in a way, but is it a fact?
(I'm not saying it isn't, but I don't see the certain correlation.)

Christopher De Paola said...

Erik, you know that nothing I discuss theoretically on this blog is fact- at least I hope not- it's just my opinion...

So then let's take a step back- so to speak- and say the working class does not necessarily need to see exact representations of themselves on stage, but at the very least needs to see their CLASS represented. I don't even think that's happening much these days.

I'll bet the working class feel they had a lot more in common with Tony Soprano than Martin Sheen's president on West Wing. Tony Soprano was not working class in the traditional sense- but surely he was borne of those same roots and I think the working class understands that. Right now, we are not even getting stories that are borne from those working class roots.

That's a good way to put it- "we are not getting stories in the theatre that are borne of working class roots." The natural progression of that would be characters that are working class in some way. That would help us get the working class into the theatre to see a show. No?

Anonymous said...

Aaron, I don't think you can put economics aside! I think working class audiences want value for their dollar. They don't have the resources (time or money) to see lots of theater in the hope that they'll find a gem, they want to spend their hard-earned cash on something that's worth it.

I think blue-collar workers will be just as into seeing something fantasy-based as they would something rooted in realism if they were getting value for their buck.

The plays have to be good and worth the price of the ticket. It's show BUSINESS.

Yeah, more working class stories need to be told. Perhaps the best way to get these stories to the stage is to encourage blue-collar playwrights!

Anonymous said...

whoops -- just now realize it was Christopher who wrote the initial post! Sorry!

Greg said...

Economics and both physical accessibility (can get to easily)and aesthetic accessibility (has something I can relate to) are major reasons that working class folks can't/don't regularly attend theater. I can't afford to pay for, on any regular basis, $15 tickets, let alone $25-$100 at the bigger venues. Plus, with the CTA threatening to raise fares, it's all I can do to pay rent and eat.

But I would attend more regularly if the quality of the writing and productions didn't try to mirror that of TV and movies. It is hard to find a true theatrical experience these days. Why shell out cash for something I can see for free on TV and I don't have to pay for transportation. I think what was said before about exploring that bridge between realism and fantasy (in the Shakespearian sense, not the Broadway musical sense)is what is sorely lacking in todays theater. Too much of it feels like writers trying out their work before they submit it to (or move out to) Hollywood. Recently I received a free ticket to Steppenwolf ($25 tickets) and essentially saw a Desperate Housewifesque narrative. This is the consequence of both economics and our cultures commercialization of everything. The economic aspect is that the avenues for play development don't really exist. Lip service is played at venues for new works, but it is essentially a reading, then if your lucky maybe a workshop rehearsal and then if your really lucky a short production and then the play is relegated to the already been done bin, never to be seen unless it has "hit" potential and seen as a crowd pleaser that can generate revenue. So the playwright who wants to get plays staged on a regular basis learns that they must "write" (little or no rewrites after workshopping) crowd pleasers for the subscriber based theater that caters to upper class white privledged audiences looking for escapism and added cache at the office water cooler. Also, on the detrimental effects of out commercialized culture, there is no real mentorship or apprenticeship opportunities for young playwrights and the academic departments are sorely lacking in their understanding of what a true theatrical experience is so all young writers have as experience is Hollywood so naturally they emulate this and think that that is how a play script should be written. Our Universities are filled with academics who hold the Hollywood model as their talisman.

I'm going to use that dirty word here. Our RESPONSIBILITY as playwrights is to develop our craft so that we can then cross that bridge between realism and Shakespearian fantasy that was mentioned in a previous comment. We need to develpo our craft so that we can effectively communicate human issues that transcend class. Yes, we need more drama that, in its narrative, addresses class issues and portrays working class people, but it then needs to transcend to the universal themes that Shakespeare was able to address. Perhaps it is too late. The feasibility of having an evironment where this kind of work can be truly developed may not be realistic under our current social conditions. Yes, we need more working class people writing their experiences, but where and how will they learn the true theatrical craft. We can't look to institutions to open up to us so we have to create the opportunities amongst ourselves and within ourself. We have to look honestly at how well we know our craft and spend the time to develop it. Shakespeare did!

Christopher De Paola said...

Anonymous,
I think you CAN toss out economics for this type of discussion. Working class and poor are not synonymous. I know MANY working class folks with money to buy a theatre ticket AND they own a car to get to the theatre- but they chose instead to go to drive to a movie or watch television. Why?

My point about the Shakespeare was that working class folks CAN relate to it because it's fantasy and WOULD be interested in paying for it. Unfortunately, 95% of Shakespeare productions are bad. So to have to shell out money for bad productions will turn off anyone. But my suggestion is maybe we should be striving, as playwrights, to emulate Shakespeare's forms of fantastical storytelling in order to reach a wide audience (working class included). Greg makes a good point about that in a later comment.

Greg,
I most certainly agree with your assessment of Hollywood-esque theatre. And I believe we do have a responsiblity as contemporary playwrights to change that. I also agree with your play development frustrations and believe that they play into this as well. But that is worthy of another post- which I will do- because I have my own issues with the development process, readings, workshops, etc that plays are forced through in today's theatrical market...

Christopher De Paola said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron Carter said...

I appreciate Christopher's distinction between working class and poor. Although I agree with Greg that there are budgeting issues when it comes to choosing between entertainments.

Of course, if we want to talk budgets and consider show business a BUSINESS, then we should also consider the other side of the stage: fair wages, and equal opportunity employment. Quickly, I think, we would come to the conclusion that fair wages for artists and affordable ticket prices are mutually exclusive.

I heard on NPR about an art movement, the proponents of which call themselves mircomentalists.

At a recent gallery show, the works of art were sold in hours. That is, the artists assigned the number of hours it took to create the work. And you the customer paid him IN YOUR HOURLY SALARY. If the work was 10 hours and you make 15 an hour, the piece was 150 dollars. If you make 60 an hour, the piece was 600.

Whenever we talk about expanding the audience of theater and getting working class folk back in greater numbers, I think we also have to look at the system we produce theater in. Innovative experiments in the means of production (as opposed to the content) may be the way to go.