It’s no secret that, for the most part, television is way, way better than theatre.
The shows are more diverse, more exciting, more deep, and more accessible.
And yet, a lot of people making theatre seem to have taken the exact wrong message from this.
Instead of making theatre better – playing to its unique strengths, excavating old material or daringly pushing the form forward – these artists seem to have taken all the bad, hacky parts of television, and tried to incorporate them into theatre. Somehow, these plays are generally a poor imitation not of great television (HBO), but actually of bad television (Law and Order). This, of course, leads to dreadful theatre, but somehow continually gets produced – probably because these tend to be the “Issue Plays”, i.e. plays that try to tackle a hot-topic issue (like race) and thus get programmed by clueless old white men who want to feel woke.
This is a trend that will destroy theatre.
Theatre is about drama. Theatre is about catharsis. Theatre is primal. It should not be something that it is not. If it tries to be television, it usually ends up being a watered-down version of something that wasn’t very good to begin with, to which old white people in the audience say “HM” to very loudly, and then walk out patting themselves on the back for (supposedly) expanding their worldview.
Television is very good at what it does. Often, it’s writing and dramaturgy and structure bests most plays.
And yet, theatre is still essential. But you have to do what’s essential about it, not do everything it is not.
Sara Holdren, our best new theatre critic, perfectly articulates this in her absolute evisceration of the new play American Son:
There’s nothing remotely theatrical about this play, no reason for it to be a play at all — save that we retain a kind of anxious cultural cachet about drama. Putting something on stage seems to aggrandize it, make it more serious-minded and more luxurious, closer to opera than Netflix. But the truth is that contemporary plays like American Son are simply imitations of the shows on Netflix — or, in this case, NBC — and pale ones at that, because unlike our age’s spate of fascinating television, these plays want to be something they’re not. They neither take joy in the possibilities of their own form nor respect its demands… An advocate for American Son might argue that it’s important to have this story out there, but the facts of this story are out there every single day, and they are neither remedied nor rendered more terrible than they already are by being run through the mill of a hacky play.
She also quotes the late and great Maria Irene Fornes:
You can’t do something relevant unless you do it from your heart. And audiences … would stop pretending they are doing something relevant by going to the theater … There would not be writers writing plays by formula. Nor would artistic directors choose plays by formula. Nor would audiences think that they know the ropes and look for signposts to help them pretend they understand something that is only a signpost. This pretending gives but a shallow satisfaction and ultimately creates a distaste for theater.
Fornes and Holdren are spot on. Make theatre from the heart, make it personal, make it exciting. Don’t try to coldly Calculate Relevance, because the results will kill everything great about theatre.