Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Is the theatre really dead? NO!

Allow me to respond, sir. This is a comment I received last week on my “Tips For Young Playwrights” post. It’s by Angry Gamer. He writes:

Writing a theater play to me seems so oh I don't know... so 1500s.

I don't mean this as a slam or anything. I am saying this seriously. Why do a play in a time when TV and Film is getting overtaken by new media?

For art?
For challenge?
For fun?

All of these might be relevant back in 1562 when Bill was being born. But today?

Spiderman The Play! is a cautionary tale and it's interesting someone already commented on it.

Perhaps I am too cynical but why would anyone really spend the time and effort to gestate a play to be appreciated with the polite applause of a few hundred? When that same creative talent could be projected to millions via new media?

I am a bit biased I DO work in technology... But still the best advice I ever got about being obsolete was this pithy statement:  "You never want to be in the buggy whip business when a Henry Ford turns 20."

Okay, my first reaction is: “Really? You really have to ask? You really don’t know?”


Here’s the short answer: The day that human beings are obsolete is the day we’re all in serious trouble. Worse than DUCK DYNASTY being a hit television show.

No technology can match the experience of being in a theater watching actual people perform live. When it works the audience and performers feed off of each other and it takes the experience to a whole higher level. It’s thrilling. It’s magic. For all the impressive special effects and scope, no one has ever been transported by MEN OF STEEL.

Barbara Cook is an extraordinary singer. Talk to professional singers and they’ll tell you she’s the Joe DiMaggio of warbling. She’s 86. She’s still performing. And she still sounds amazing. I’ve seen her in concert numerous times, dating back to when she was a spring chicken at 80. And the woman knows how to do an encore. For her final song she sets down the microphone and just sings acapella. Hearing her pure voice, without amplification and equalization was absolutely thrilling. Unprotected sex for the senses.

Only a live performance can create such a feeling. And it’s that feeling that is its own reward for all involved – the audience, the actors, and the playwright.

I’ve been extremely fortunate. I’ve written hundreds of episodes of multi-camera shows – all performed live for a studio audience. Yes, it’s great that 20,000,000 people will see it on TV, but not nearly as exciting as hearing 200 people laugh loudly at the taping. I mean, if you want to write material that is meant to be performed, don’t you want to be there when an audience is seeing it performed? Peering over someone’s shoulder when he’s watching on an iPad Mini does not stack up. If you are trying to move people or make them laugh, don’t you want to be in the room to see your objectives realized? Yes, you get that to a degree if you go to a Cineplex and see your movie on the big screen, but it isn’t the same. It just isn’t.

The line is attributed to Larry Gelbart – he may or may not be the person who said it – but someone supposedly asked him if you could make a living in the theater. His response was: “You can’t make a living, but you can make a killing.” If you write a big hit play or musical it’s a gold mine. But that’s like winning the lottery. Most playwrights know going in they’re not going to make gobs of money. That’s why most, for practical reasons, gravitate to TV and film. I did. There’s way more money in Hollywood (although not as much as there used to be). And yes, more people will see one episode of DADS than all the productions combined of your off-Broadway play even if it runs five years.

But that’s not why we wanted to become writers… or actors… or directors. So if I write a play that really transports an audience, even if it’s only 49 people in a small theater, I’m happy.

I also think it’s easier to challenge an audience in the theater, to have your words resonate long after your show is over.  The goal for most television shows is to keep you in front of the screen for the next commercial.

Low technology means no animated promos in the bottom of the screen, no annoying trailers to sit through, and a play never pauses while it’s being re-buffered.

The other perk for a playwright is that the stage is the only medium where the word is king. No one can change your dialogue without your permission. A director can’t trample it, a studio can’t replace you, actors can’t ad lib. After years of network notes, standards and practice notes, mandatory changes based on testing, it’s liberating to write what YOU want, to write from your heart not your testing data.

And actors like to act. Unless you’re a big star or on a hit series, how often do you get the chance to practice your craft? Thank God for the theater. And thank God for actors who choose roles based on the part not the medium.

And finally, don’t knock 1562. I wrote some very funny one acts that year.


Carol said...

Ken, I couldn't agree with you more. Nothing beats live theatre. Roar of the greasepaint and all that. It's a wonderful experience, both to see it and to do it.

And - since Billy S was brought up in this post, I have to say, as much as I'm happy to see movies made from his plays, seeing Shakespeare on stage is about a billion times better, and always will be.

I admire actors who stay true to their stage roots - Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellan, (Not Sir) Tom Hiddleston (Just saw a simulcast of his Coralanius - he was FANTASTIC), Neil Patrick Harris, etc. because it shows that they are more about the acting than the fame.

Probably my only complaint would be the numerous 'movie into stage show' things that are happening and the fact that Broadway caters to the tourist - all big musical productions, hardly any small 'straight' theatre any more.

Sorry. Theatre is a passion of mine. :)

rockgolf said...

Psst.. Ken. You muffed the punchline. It should read "Don't knock 1561."

Anonymous said...

The, 'you can make a killing just not a living' line comes from the playwright Robert Anderson, (author of "Tea and Sympathy", among other plays).

Sue Dunham said...

Once again, buggy whips are mentioned. May I remind everyone that there is a market for buggy whips? All those tourist coaches in all those tourist towns need buggy whips.

Al said...

As someone who is having his first one act produced in the coming months, I couldn't agree with you more, Ken.

It's a funny thing, I'm a pretty big tech head, but I reject the idea that new technology means the old must be replaced. I heard Art Spiegelman (the creator of the Pulitzer Prize winning comic book Maus). In talking about comics, he said that art tends to become better just after the medium gets overtaken by the next big thing. That, in essence, once the people who are only there to make gobs of money move on to the next things, the folks who remain are the ones who are there because they want to do the things that only that particular media can do. That becoming outdated, actually improves the artistic value of a particular media.

I wonder if that's why we have some of the best television on right now, since the people trying to make money at all costs have moved on to try to find the next big thing.

Mark said...

Great post.

Would just like to add that Slings & Arrows is the best movie/show I've seen that shows the value of the theater. If you've seen it Ken, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

One of the good things that came out of my attendance at THE SITCOM ROOM was the experience of writing a one-act play with fellow attendee Megan Van Wolkenten for fellow attendee Andrie Nels's theater for kids and teens in rural Ottawa. I'm working on a second play (solo) for that theater. No money involved, but it's been a great experience.

Mind you, Angry Gamer has a point: on Broadway and in London's West End, these days it's become extremely difficult to find new plays among the star vehicle revivals and the musicals based on movies.


Tim W. said...

One could say exactly the same thing about live sports. Why would ANYONE want to pay to watch sports live when you can watch it on TV for virtually nothing?

Chris said...

Friday question: with Friends and The Dick van Dyke show getting blu-ray releases and I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners coming up, it seems, besides great writing and acting, that there are a couple of "techincal" aspects that improve your show's chances of surviving beyond its initial run: shooting on film and steering clear of timely cultural references that would date the show. Would you say that's true?

By the way, do you happen to know shooting digital nowadays might create the same problems videotape brought up when everyone switched to HD? These digital shows look great now but, with Ultra HD 4k resolution just around the corner, will Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory look like videotape in 15 years?

chalmers said...

Ken, you might enjoy "Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof," by Alisa Solomon, at least the sections detailing the nuts and bolts of building "Fiddler" into a legendary Broadway musical.

The book is thoroughly researched. You might skip through some of the detail about Sholom Aleichem's ambivalence about hitting it big in early-20th America, but it's fascinating to hear about the creative tension between so many immense talents.


McAlvie said...

Agreeing all the way. I don't get to see live theater very much, but I remember every moment of those shows I have seen. One thing that stand out for me is that on film you only get to see what the director has decided the camera should be pointed at. On stage you get the big picture, and capturing the audience' attention requires good staging, great lines, and really fine acting chops. It's all talent. As opposed to on film when, these days, special effects are over used and real talent overshadowed. That's also why so many classic movies of yore will live on longer than most of today's splashier films. But that's another topic.

cityslkrz said...

Mark, agreed: Slings and Arrows was amazing, one of my favorite tv shows of all time.
Plus just saw The Woodsman (yes, a play) at 59E59 theatre in NY. One of the most creative things I've seen ever.
Especially if you live in NYC, theatre is a necessity.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Ah, the theatre! Such colour! Always the savoury centre of human endeavour. Still an honourable profession.

Johnny Walker said...

Hear hear!

When theatre works, there's nothing like it.

benson said...

Tim W.,
Thanks for the fastball down the middle.

With certain sporting events, there's just nothing like being there.

For me, the whole going to the ball park experience. The amazing greeness of the grass as you take those three or four steps up to seats. The smell of the stale beer and peanuts on the ground (in old ballparks) Being able to focus on any part of any play. Nothing like it.

The one sports that really stands out live is hockey. That is also amazing. Just went to a college hockey game last weekend, and the game is so fast, but also you can follow the puck so much easier than on even HD TV. And here in town our fans' are worth the price of admission. (WMU's Lawson Ice Arena has been compared to Duke's Cameron Indoor, only more profane)
Nothing like hearing the entire student section taunting in unison an opposing player on his way to the penalty box. "You cheater, you cheater! And you suck!"

Now the other side of that is football. I will never ever willingly go to a pro football game again. You sit there the whole game twiddling your thumbs waiting for the commercials to end. Much better with buds at a sports bar. (Though the NFL is trying to improve the stadium experience, I guess)

JulieK said...

I'm a theater critic. I see a ton of it. And there is absolutely nothing like being four (or twenty. or thirty) feet away from a really fine actor and watching their eyes and their faces and living for that moment in the same space they're inhabiting. Movie close-ups aren't the same thing at all. The performance is at least partly due to the director and the shot s/he chose. (See: Kuleshov Effect.) Plus, they are as distant as space. Meanwhile, I breathed the same air as Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, Nathan Lane, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barbara Cook, Angela Lansbury, Carol Woods (yeah, I know most of you don't know who that is, but it was a transcendent moment in the theater), Bernadette Peters, Robert Sean Leonard, Richard Easton, Nancy Marchand, Blair Brown, Kathleen Chalfant, Stephen Spinelli, Jeff Daniels, Janet McTeer, Norm Lewis, Laura Benanti, Simon Callow, Roger Rees... And a ton of other amazing performers who were just mesmerizing in person. I love movies and TV. But it's not the same.

And, as a nitpick, it was Spiderman: The Musical, not Spiderman: The Play. I am wondering whether the original poster who elicited this response has never been to the theater, given the fact that "theater" apparently means "musical" and he seems unaware there is a difference between a musical and a play. Tom Stoppard, Tony Kushner, Lynn Nottage... Their plays will blow your mind. And they're writing RIGHT NOW.

Howard Hoffman said...

Say what you want about how wonderful "interactive technology" may be, but it will always lack an interpersonal element. Theater, though scripted, is always in the moment. The actors perform without the luxury of retakes or digital enhancement, so there's always the sense of danger. But with great acting, writing and staging, there's nothing that can compare to surrendering to the story unfolding in front of you...and it's LIVE. It's exhilarating for both the actors and the audience.

As long as we have functioning brains and souls, theater will live.

VincentS said...

I truly feel sorry for technocrats who can't see beyond their two-dimensional computer screens. You might as well ask why should musicians and dancers still perform live. NOTHING beats a great live performance. I'm a child of television and am constantly wrestling with a short attention span. I can't remember the last time I got through a movie without looking at my watch, no matter how good the movie was, but when I saw Hal Holbrook - who had just turned eighty - in his one-man Mark Twain show, not only did I not look at my watch once nor hear any coughs in a packed, hot theater (always a sign of some one losing interest) I was ROYALLY PISSED when it was over. I could have sat there and listened to him all night!

VincentS said...

I truly feel sorry for technocrats who can't see beyond their two-dimensional computer screens. You might as well ask why should musicians and dancers still perform live. NOTHING beats a great live performance. I'm a child of television and am constantly wrestling with a short attention span. I can't remember the last time I got through a movie without looking at my watch, no matter how good the movie was, but when I saw Hal Holbrook - who had just turned eighty - in his one-man Mark Twain show, not only did I not look at my watch once nor hear any coughs in a packed, hot theater (always a sign of some one losing interest) I was ROYALLY PISSED when it was over. I could have sat there and listened to him all night!

Greg said...

Thank you for writing this, Ken. You've already said all that needs to be said.

We cannot forget that everything that exists now began with the theatre some 2500 years ago (by the most conservative of appraisals) and it still remains today. Because theatre is about SHARING a story between audience and creator through the vessel of the live actor. And there truly is no experience like that...and sometimes it can go horribly, but at others it brings a beauty like no other...it's just pure magic.

For writers, we will never get a better lesson of what works, resonates, and connects than by sitting anonymously with an audience watching our work. It's a gift that few experience. And while that audience may be small in number, playwrights are empowered from the strength of the connection not the reach.

And as Ken points out, plays will stay with the viewer for a longer time.

And let us not forget that plays often get adapted to movies, just as novels do. And maybe the greatest irony is seeing blockbuster movies move to Broadway. When that happens...then you know you're big-time...

Rinaldo said...

I love when someone says "I don't mean this as a slam or anything" just before being completely contemptuous of everyone devoted to the theater.

And directly thereafter, informing us that "art" as a reason for creation is now irrelevant.

Steve C, said...

Bless You.
NOTHING is better than live theatre in the entertainment worl. NOTHING

Steve McLean said...

Go to a matinee performance of The Lion King to watch how children who have seen the movie multiple times are mesmerized into silence and you'll understand.

Angry Gamer said...

It's times like these that I am glad I have a secret identity.

Ken, I am a huge fan of your work and I love the blog. My criticism was meant to be illustrative of the trends in media not to dissuade anyone from pursuing their art.

And I thank Wendy for her comment:
"Mind you, Angry Gamer has a point: on Broadway and in London's West End, these days it's become extremely difficult to find new plays among the star vehicle revivals and the musicals based on movies. "

With that said... In the future I will remind myself that it is not wise to disagree with someone who writes jokes for a living... unless one wants to be the butt of one. :)

Peace Out
Angry Gamer

Tim W. said...


You misunderstood my comment. It was in agreement with Ken's argument, not against. I wasn't suggesting that people don't go to live sports, anymore. That's obviously not true, and that's my point.

cadavra said...

I'd like to add that theatre is always different. You can see a show, come back in six months, and it will be considerably different (usually for the better as the actors have settled into their roles). And if something goes wrong, it can literally stop the show. (At a performance of ANYTHING GOES a couple of years ago, John McMartin turned around so quickly that his glasses flew off his head. The entire ensemble collapsed in laughter for close to two full minutes to the utter delight of the packed theatre.)

I love movies, but watching James Earl Jones literally five feet in front of you is an experience unmatched in this world.

Dale said...

My brother is a producer. I estimate he puts on about 5000 shows per year all over the globe. I believe he is currently in India with his dance festival.
By comparrison gigs for musicians have suffered. Why see a band live when youtube is so easy? Back in the 90's video games began outselling CDs. CDs barely sell and music is considered by most to be a free commoditty. My brother is in a better position than I because he does not rely on music alone.
As for why write? Well I can only speak as a musician. I cannot do otherwise. I gather authors are driven in the same way. One cannot be other than what one is.

benson said...

Tim W,

I know. That's why I started with the thanks for the fastball remark. You set me up to share my feelings about live sports, which are in so many ways, very similar to the comments about the magic of theatre.

VincentS said...

Angry Gamer: I think you're missing the point. You seem to think in terms of competitiveness. This is not about kicking some body's ass or making jokes about your premise. Your premise is that modern technology has made live theatre obsolete whereas the position taken by Ken, me and several others is, if I'm not mistaken, as exciting, valuable, and creative technology is at the end of the day it is a SEPARATE animal from live performance. Therefore each offers things the other doesn't have, which means one cannot replace the other.

Storm said...

My best friend of nearly 30 years is currently working his considerable backside off raising funding and organizing a series of classic science fiction short stories (including Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt") as stage plays. He is producing, directing, and acting (triple threat!) in this series because he not only loves the material and wants it to happen, but to prove the point that great science fiction doesn't need snazzy special effects and explosions and whatnot; the *story itself* is so well written, so moving, that the science fiction part of it is almost an afterthought. You can only experience that live, in front of you, becoming part of the story instead of just watching it happen on a screen.

(I'm doing the costumes for it, and I'm rather nervous; it's my first major production, and time limits kill me even more than budgetary ones!)

Cheers, thanks a lot,


D. McEwan said...

Storm, you do know, I hope, that Ray Bradbury himself adapted his The Veldt as a one-act stage play 50 years ago? It ran at The Coronet Theater in Los Angeles as The World of Ray Bradbury.
Act 1 was The Pedestrian, act 2 was The Veldt, and act 3 was To The Chicago Abyss. I saw it at the age of 17, and that stage version of The Veldt, with sound effects making it sound like the lions were charging down towards the stage over our heads, was terrifying!. Of course, the big thrill back in 1967 was that after the show, Ray Bradbury came out onstage and addressed us, took questions, and then mingled with us afterwards, first famous writer I'd ever met.

I have Christopher Plummer's one-man show Barrymore, where he plays John Barrymore, on a DVD and enjoy it very much, but it will never even touch the memory for me of last Tuesday evening, sitting in the second row of the Ahmanson Theater, watching Christopher Plummer perform his one-man show, A Word or Two, from a few feet away.

Julie Kistler above was on the nose when she wrote: "There is absolutely nothing like being four (or twenty. or thirty) feet away from a really fine actor and watching their eyes and their faces and living for that moment in the same space they're inhabiting." I would add that the fact that they can see you back, and hear you laugh, applaud or cough restlessly, is also a factor in the excitement.

Anyone who has seen the great Barry Humphries live knows that his hilarious TV work doesn't touch the experience of seeing him work live. His forthcoming retirement from the touring stage is a tragedy for comedy lovers the world over.

Peter O'Toole was great in movies, but the greatest work I ever saw from him was seeing him Play Henry Higgins (in Shaw, not Lerner & Lowe) on Broadway from the second row. Then you saw a truely great actor at work.

You may have seen a movie based on Noel Coward's play Private Lives, and some of Coward's great play survives in the paltry, pallid, emasculated movie version, but it isn't within a light-year of seeing my seeing Maggie Smith perform the play onstage (At the Ahmanson again) back in 1974. Note: it's been 39 years since I sat and watched Maggie Smith in that play, and the experience is still vivid, as vivid as the evening I once spent in that same theater, seeing Charleton Heston ruin MacBeth. I saw the Private Lives movie a mere year ago, and all I recall now is how outraged I was at how castrated the play was.

(Contiinued below)

Douglas McEwan said...

(Continued from above.)

There's an excelent video available of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. (Don't mention the execrable movie.) It captures that production as well as it can be captured. I know; I saw that production in that theatre twice the same week the video was shot. The video doesn't come within the same glalaxy as seeing it live did. At the closing performance (I saw Anegla's final performance ever in the role), Angela's shoe came flying off during the act 1 finale and sailed into the audience where a first row patron caught it. George and Angela dizzolved into laughter and the finale became hilarious chaos. After Intermission, they came back and played the hell out of act 2. It was the third performance I'd seen of it and I'd never seen the second act pack the wallop it had that 1981 Sunday afternoon.

At the stage review The Mad Show back in 1966, the curtain rose and the small cast dashed off the stage into the audience to sing the opening number, "It's a World, World, World, World Mad," in our faces. A lady I'd never set eyes on before, Jo Anne Worley, two years away from fame on Laugh-In, charged down off that stage, sat down on my 16-year-old lap, and bellowed the song into my face. I've seen thousands of movies, I love movies, but never at any movie, not even a 48fps, 3-D one, has the leading lady charged off the screen, sat down on my lap, and bellowed a song into my face.

And then there's Improv theater, which I worked in for over a quarter of a century. It's been tried and tried and tried to make Improv work in films and TV, and we all love Whose Line Is It Anyway? for nearly succeeding, but it really can't be done. Improv can not be canned. It can only happen live.

"Angry Gamer said...
It's times like these that I am glad I have a secret identity."

Like Superman? Grow up. What the rest of us see is a coward who lacks the courage of his opinions. A MAN signs his name to his opinions.

Storm said...

Oh yes, of course. My friend was friendly with Mr. Bradbury back in the day, and obtained both permission from him, and the blessing of personal copies of his plays (well, photocopies of his originals, but still!). I don't have the list handy (and I'm SO tired), so "The Veldt" is the only one I remember by name at the mo. He was looking forward to seeing them, but it was not to be. We're also staging George Clayton Johnson's "Twilight Zone" episode, "Nothing in the Dark" (the one that had a gorgeous young Robert Redford as Mister Death) as a play, with George's blessing and great delight.

You've been in the presence of SO many people I love that it's a good thing that green is my colour! Goes with my red hair, dontcha know.

Cheers, thanks a lot,


D. McEwan said...

Death came for Gladys Cooper, if I remember Redford's death performance aright. Or was it Audrey Totter? I never could tell them apart.

Ken has a funny story on just exactly why he thinks George Clayton Johnson (whom I've met a few times at sci-fi cons) is a dick. It involves an incident at a WGA strike meeting. Maybe he'll tell it.

Storm said...

It was Gladys Cooper; wasn't she wonderful? She was also in the episode "Night Call", directed by one of my all-time favourites, Jacques Tourneur, the master of spooky shadows.

Yeah, I keep waiting to read this story about George, to no avail. I love George dearly, and I know (and rather admire) that he's rather outspoken on things that matter to him. My husband was at a panel recently (that I missed) when after several minutes of con Guest of Honor Jerry Pournelle going on and on about how the Democrats and lefties were ruining this great country, George stood up and loudly pronounced "Right, that's about all I'm gonna listen to this fascist bullshit!" and marched out, along with several other audience members (my husband stayed just to see how/if the panel recovered; it was more of the same). He's a character alright, and now that he's old, he has even less fucks to give than ever.

Cheers, thanks a lot,


D. McEwan said...

Thanks. I was about to add Cathline Nesbitt to the list of elderly character actresses of the era I can not distinguish between. Turned out Death wasn't due for Gladys for a while yet back then.

I just saw a really dull historical short on TCM last night (Well, I was watching on the DVR, so it may have been from weeks ago) that Jacques Tourneur directed. I thought it was a dreadful, humbling assignment for such a fine director. Jacques, though known for shadowy horror films and film noirs, directed one of my very top favorite comeduies ever, The Comedy of Terrors, with Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone and Joyce Jamison. Two different stills from that movie are in frames on my living room wall. (I also have a DVD of Tourneur's War-Gods of the Deep with Tab Hunter and Vincent Price, which may well be the lousiest movie Tourneur ever directed.)

It's not news to me that Jerry Pournelle is a right-wing dickwad. Trust him to get it ass-backwards, as our country is being thoroughly ruined by the extreme right-wing, the Teabaggers, and the ultra-rich. (Did you see the rich douchbag on the news yesterday proposing that the wealthiest 1%'s votes should count more than not-rich people, and that the poor shouldn't be allowed to vote at all? What a prime greedy asshole. Now I get to wait and see if "Anonymous" is going to bitch about my "Hateful" posts again. Anon pops up lately everytime I attack the right-wing. His remarks might carry more weight if he had the balls to give his real name.)

cadavra said...

In fairness, Tourneur did those shorts at the beginning of his career. Not really the place to develop a style. He was lucky Val Lewton came along when he did to nurture him.

D. McEwan said...

Oh, I'm sure he was shackled by a House Style in those shorts, the writing was not good, and the cheapness obvious. I wasn't blaming Tourneur, just surprised to see so fine a talent roped into dreck of that level. Under Selznick he at least managed good stuff like the French Revolution "Montage" in the Ronald Coleman Tale of Two Cities.