Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Working Class Theater

I was prepping for the African American Theater lit class I'm teaching at Roosevelt, and came across an observation about "serious black drama." The historian I'm reading related a story of a failed drama production at the Apollo in the early 50's. The failure lead the then-owner of the Apollo to declare that blacks had no interest in serious drama. The historian went on to ask why should they? In downtown theater black audience were only shown images of themselves as servants or buffoons.

This observation resonated with some other things that have been on my mind lately. A few weeks ago I was sent an email that exhorted the recipients to write to the Governor because Illinois Arts Council funding was being cut. There was a lot of rhetoric about the importance of the arts.

Here in Chicago we're facing service cuts and fare hikes for our mass-transit system. The City claims its because state government failed to come through with needed funding. So I'm wondering, where are the impassioned emails from theater folk demanding we write our governor to restore our transit service?

I often wonder why more working class folk don't attend theater. And my first answer is why should they? We haven't been doing so good representing them on stage lately.

My second answer is why should they? We'll send impassioned emails about the arts but can't bother to get worked up about basic services or fiscal responsibility?

I find the disconnect particularly confusing because so many of us in theater are working class or come from working class backgrounds. Did we set aside those concerns when we took up the mantle of "artist?"

To take this back to playwriting, I wonder: Do we have a responsibility to tell the stories of the people who we hope to encourage to attend the theater? And further, if we profess to have a kinship with a group of folks expressed through our writing, does that mean we have a responsibility to follow those sentiments with action outside the world of theater?


Tony said...

Great Post.

I think that it is interesting to look at a building like the Athenaeum, which was built around the turn of the last century by working class immigrants, so they could see the theatre and opera they missed from home. Standing proof that working class folks didn't always stay away.

"Do we have a responsibility to tell the stories of the people who we hope to encourage to attend the theater?"

I would say if a theatre company really wants working class folks to attend--which is an open question--then yes. But much like the historian you talk of, if working class people are only shown in images of ignorant, possibly incestual, probably criminals who either live in a trailer park or in the projects--then why should they spend a lot of money to come? So, I think there is a parallel with what you talked about with the Apollo in the 50's.

"And further, if we profess to have a kinship with a group of folks expressed through our writing, does that mean we have a responsibility to follow those sentiments with action outside the world of theater?"

That's a great question. I think that it should be a given that we need to strive to do what we say, though obviously that's not always the case.

Then there's always the question of framing theatre as art vs. as entertainment. "Art" has a lot of baggage that keeps a lot of people working on the line from wanting to attend.

Erik Ramsey said...

I partially agree with the historian’s question, “Why should they?” But I also have trouble with some of the implications of that argument. I don’t always agree that a lack of blue collar characters on the stage means we are letting the working class down, or not being inclusive of their experience. Doesn’t that argument somewhat imply that plumbers and electricians won’t/shouldn’t be interested in plays about kings? Isn’t it, at least in part, saying that African Americans won’t/shouldn’t be interested in stories that fail to put brown skin on the stage?

Obviously we don’t want to go to the theater knowing that the story on stage will have contempt for us, so the historian is right that a theater portraying me as a buffoon will not likely get my ticket money. But aside from that, shouldn’t a play about an ancient king struggling to divide his kingdom among his children be just as valuable to a janitor struggling with choosing which kid gets his Buick when he no longer sees well enough to drive? I am far from Walter Lee Younger on the surface, but I still primarily identify with Walter Lee when watching “Raisin in the Sun” and not Linder, the white middle aged real estate representative whose social strata better approximates my own.

So is it the color/issue/social implication that brings an audience to the live theater? Sometimes, probably. But I would argue that a "self identification effect" -- seeing a literal representation of yourself on stage -- is often overestimated. In my mind, an engaging story does more to fill seats than race or issue or self identification. It isn't precisely that we haven't been representing the working class very well on stage lately; to me, it's more that we don't put engaging stories on stages in working class neighborhoods at prices they can afford, regardless of the subject matter.

Aaron Carter said...

Tony & Erik,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

Every time the words "responsibility" and "should" are used in relation to theater, we hit that old art/entertainment/activism conundrum. I hesitated approaching the post that way.

Nonetheless, I think its worthwhile to talk about the relationship between what we say in our work and what we do outside of our work. It is connected to that same impulse that makes people dis Al Gore for having an energy hog house. People are sensitive to hypocrisy, especially coming from people who have something (negative?) to say about how most of us live. Which, I think, a lot of artists are doing: critiquing the way we live.

I agree with Erik that the representation = attendance equation is over-simplified. I love King Lear, and I'll be lucky if I have a Buick to divide among my progeny. On the other hand, I also am tired of seeing role after role that I identify with PRIMARILY played by white actors. There are roles that have nothing to do with ethnicity that we could choose to put a non-white actor in. We just usually don't.

I'll come up with examples of that in another post - I may be straying off topic.

Scott Barsotti said...

I'm curious about the effects of arts funding on "working class" theatre.

It seems related--the tendency that old-money foundations and corporations are the primary sponsors of big arts, and that then the art we get is so often esoteric, intellectualized, concerned with the upper-middle class. Or worse: liberal guilt. Let's look at all the ways we should act, should think, let's nod our heads and say we said something, and that we agreed. In other words: safe, commercially, politically, and artistically.

Does the support guide the work, or vice versa? Does it create a cycle where working class audiences are uninterested in work that doesn't concern them, but then theatres won't produce work for the working class because the working class don't come?

Is it like the waiter who doesn't pay attention to teenagers because teenagers don't tip well, only to have the teenagers then not tip well because they were treated poorly?

Scott Barsotti said...

Also, Aaron, your point is well taken about the transit-service tangent, that really isn't a tangent at all. The working class can't attend a play if they can't get to the theatre. Indeed, without public transportation and other necessary services, most of us artists probably couldn't even make the art to begin with. I couldn't even get to the damn theatre without the bus. I could bike there...if I could afford a bike.

Regardless, I believe that accessibility has a lot more to do with the working class making it to the theatre than storytelling does. Of course we all want to feel a connection with what we see onstage, but I don't think it begins and ends there.

Why should the working class come to the theatre? I agree, why should they when it costs an arm and a leg to make an evening out of going to most theatres?

I work with Curious Theatre Branch (something of an in-house playwright...a post I missed the boat on responding to earlier) and we have a "pay-what-you-can" policy for admission that applies to over 90% of our programs. How many more plays would you see if cost a third of what it does?

Of course, opportunities to increase accessibility do exist...free nights at the museum...discounted tickets...(though pride may kick in for a certain personality, resenting such ventures as 'charity'), but overall I'd hypothesize that getting there and paying for it has more to do with working class absence in the theatre than what's being seen onstage.