The Theatre or Publix or Target or Whole Foods or…?

It’s not uncommon for people who work in theatre to miss out on seeing theatre because, well, they’re all tied up in a show of their own, rehearsing, performing, etc.  Chances are if you survey theatre folks they will tell you they wish they could see more shows, plays their friends are in, or ‘that production’ they’ve heard good things about.  While everyone gets physically worn out or mentally burned out from time to time, it seems most theatre people can’t get enough of the art form.

And while I don’t have a percentage for you at the moment, it’s fairly safe to say there are few people in the world earning an actual living from theatre work.  There are far more people earning supplementary or meagre income from theatre work, and probably just as many-maybe even more-working in the theatre for no money at all.

These (generalized) claims and (totally unscientific) financial estimations suggest that people work in the theatre for love, not money.  In which case, if you surveyed them, you’d likely find they prefer being at the theatre to many other places, and certainly the grocery store.  (And that’s saying a lot, considering how many theatre people are also passionate, but unpaid, food critics and cooks.)  So imagine the surprise of readers of London’s Independent when they opened the paper this past Tuesday to find the article entitled: “I haven’t see a West End show in 10 years, says Jonathan Miller.”  In the article, Miller explains why he stopped going to the theatre–the West End has become celebrity obsessed:

“The West End has become intoxicated by celebrities and stars, you can’t get anything on without famous figures. There are many, many people outside that illuminated circle who are just as good, but they are not showing off. It’s ridiculous and it means the best things happen in places like the [smaller and more experimental] Arcola and the Tricycle Theatres,” he said.

The article also highlights the fact that Miller just broke his 10-year hiatus from the theatre with his attendance of Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.  At 76, he’s still a walking, talking, sentient being. I imagine many would agree that some of the best theatre  in theatre towns such as London and NYC takes place in smaller theatres populated with lesser known actors, so the question for Miller would be why not have gone to these theatres instead all these years?   He directed a production of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard as recent as 2007, so he is no doubt still also, agile, lucid, and creative.

Miller claims he’d rather be at Marks and Spencer with his grandchildren than at (presumably, a West End) theatre.  And while few would necessarily fault him for choosing family time over theatre time, Miller seems to have elected not to see theatre for decades, not just the past decade, noting he hadn’t followed theatre since the 40’s or 50’s.

Perhaps, the most shocking quotes in the entire article are not the title words, but these: “I’m not interested in theatre, I never was.”  That’s what someone says when they choose a ‘practical’ line of work or a ‘lucrative’ line of work, over a hand-to-mouth, unpredictable line of work like theatre.  To say that about theatre is tantamount to a sacrilege to those that work tirelessly to cultivate a life in the field.

In light of all this, here’s a question to consider: Can directors (or actors or playwrights or designers) do their best conceivable work without being ‘in touch’ with the state of the art?  Is theatre attendance an essential component of being ‘in touch’?

If we take Miller as an example, the answer to the first question may appear to be ‘yes,’ but he seems to be the exception, not the rule.  Or is there something generational at work here?  Or is it a matter of him having become a celebrity in his own right and then coasting along on his reputation alone for decades?

2 Responses to “The Theatre or Publix or Target or Whole Foods or…?”
  1. CL Jahn says:

    “here’s a question to consider: Can directors (or actors or playwrights or designers) do their best conceivable work without being ‘in touch’ with the state of the art? ”

    An argument can be made that they could only do their best conceivable work without the taint other people’s approach to staging shows. I think that in some cases, “engaging in a new paradigm” is really “copying someone else’s success.”

    I think it is more important to be in touch with “real life,” so that the art reflects the current state of reality, than in keeping up with how others are accomplishing it. But ideally, we do both.

  2. Kevin Johnson says:

    I feel you have to be somewhat ‘in the loop’ in order to create your own good work. You don’t have to see everything, be selective and follow a few. Then make decisions on what you feel is best for you.

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