Here in DC, it’s season roll-out time. The major theatres are sending out press releases listing the plays they’ll be tackling in their 2012-13 season, making each seem like a precious gem that audiences would be fools to miss.
Recently, after two major theatres went public with their season and I was hard-pressed to find anything exciting about either, I started thinking about how safe so many of these shows seemed. And I don’t just mean safe in the sense that they’re audience-friendly. There were a few shows on that list that I’m sure the public relations department will have to bend over backwards to market. But safe in the sense that the theatre was not artistically challenged in tackling them.
As an audience member and as an artist, I don’t like things to be too easy. Sitting in the dark, watching a play that lays out everything point-by-point and leaves nothing up to the audience to figure out (either plot-wise or thematically), I wander off in my head, sometimes for whole scenes at a time. Sometimes I don’t wander back.
Same with creating new work. I’ll sit down, get 30 pages into it, and then just fizzle. Not because I don’t know what happens. Not because it’s not a good idea. But because there’s nothing in it to challenge me.
Again and again, I’ve found that I get the biggest satisfaction, and grow the most artistically, when I attempt something that is well outside of my wheelhouse. I doubt if this is an uncommon feeling, and I don’t think it’s one that should be limited to individual artists.
The reason I found these theatres’ seasons so unappealing was that none of the plays on the docket seemed like a real challenge. Sure there might be a challenge to get audiences in seats, but that’s a money challenge. And non-profit theatres should be in the business of making great art, not great money.
I would love it if, even if it’s just for one show a season, every theatre company in this city would make a concerted attempt to try punching above its weight class.
What does this odd sports metaphor mean, you ask?
I want theatres to take on a project that is above and beyond what they know they’re capable of. I don’t mean just “pushing the envelope” or “going outside their comfort zone.” Both of those phrases suggest that they can always pull back. That they’re just a few tweaks away from being safe and sound and on familiar ground. I want theatres to take on a project where they honestly don’t know if they’ll succeed.
And, yes, I know there are economic realities to think of. But a) punching above your weight class does not necessarily mean spending more money, and b) there has got to be a pay-off for doing safe shows the rest of the season. Doing that musical in the fall slot has got to give you leeway somewhere else to do something artistically daring. And doing a show that audiences might not like IS NOT ARTISTICALLY DARING.
And I know this is easier to say than do. Especially for larger theatres. Small theatre companies do this kind of thing without thinking. They have less to lose and they’re so small that just about everything they want to do is above their weight class.
But how do you know what you’re capable of unless you try. And how long will you continue to create great art without pushing yourself, without taking those chances, without putting something on your season that says “We have no idea if we’re up to this challenge. But we think it’s worth finding out.”