And now for a few words about the contemporary American stage.
Ha ha. Now that's a traffic killer. Relax -- the subject isn’t the theater per se, but rather a quintessential Relationship Era conflict that happens to be playing out there. On one side, the Playwrights Horizons theater, a non-profit institution with a clearly defined mission: “the support and development of contemporary American playwrights, composers and lyricists, and to the production of their new work” without the relentless commercial pressures afflicting Broadway.
On the other side: theatergoers.
For its entire history, the relationship between the theater and the public was also clearly defined: the theater staged plays based on its own artistic judgment, and the public sat in the seats and watched. Sometimes they packed the house. Sometimes they went to a hockey game or sat at home watching fake reality on the NatGeo Channel. But whether as ad hoc ticket buyers or season subscribers, the prospective audience had no say in what work was produced or how. That’s what artistic directors are for.
In that sense, the theater, the concert hall and public museums are the last pure expression of the old-fashioned power pyramid -- you know, the one where the boss (or artistic director or conductor or curator) perches on top and makes decisions for the hoi polloi gathered at the base. Although art is usually an enlightened -- or at least benign -- form of despotism, it is despotism nonetheless, a take-it-or-leave it proposition.
Indeed, what separates high art from Hollywood -- where success is counted in dollars and pandering is the way to attract them -- is the sanctity of artistic independence. Which is why New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood was so appalled recently. It seems Playwrights Horizons’ staging of a new play titled “The Flick” led to some audience disgruntlement. While the vast majority of ticket purchasers were fully gruntled by the 3-hour-long production and its disconcerting lapses into silence, others simply got up and left.
And complained. Felt victimized. Threatened to cancel subscriptions. Because, yeah -- art is stimulating and uplifting and all, but you don’t want to overdo it.
Once again, til now, the standard response for this kind of discontent has been no response at all. As Isherwood aphorized: “Never apologize, never explain.” But Playwrights Horizons artistic director Tim Sanford -– much to Isherwood’s annoyance -- acted otherwise. He sent an email to ticket purchasers and the entire list of the company’s subscribers to express regret about the ruffled feathers and to explain the process of staging the (critically appreciated) work. Here, it seems to me, is the money quote:
The business of putting on new plays is not empirical. We follow some rules and rely on experience, but we’re also following our hearts. And we appreciate that you are taking a risk and putting your faith in us when you sign up with us. We are dependent upon your willingness to take that ride with us. We need you.
Yes, Sanford placed his crown, ermine robe and scepter out of view and approached the public as a mere mortal. Somehow, the next day, not only did the earth still spin on its axis, but the choice of new plays was not delegated to Kickstarter.
In the Relationship Era, no brands, no institution, no government can afford to be haughty. They can all have points of view, but they cannot ignore the feelings, opinions, interests and values of their constituencies. First of all, such behavior is arrogant and arrogance yields resentment. Secondly, there is much to be learned from dialogue that monologue cannot reveal. Thirdly, no institution belongs solely to those who run it. It is the property of all stakeholders -- whether customers, or suppliers, or neighbors, or voters, or fans, or parishioners or audience members.
You can’t please everybody, nor should you try. But you can’t ignore everybody, either. You do not exist without them. And is there any stakeholder relationship more elemental than a theater and its audience? No, Tim Sanford should not pander to popular tastes. And of course he should cleave to his theater’s mission. But exercising power in a vacuum is not artistic independence; it is authoritarianism, which is fed not by judgment but by contempt.
Equally, opening up lines of communication is not an invitation to interference. It is an opportunity to find common cause. It is also a way to command respect -- by doing nothing more degrading or abject than respecting the anger of your critics.
This Isherwood doesn’t understand, and thus feels obliged to be arrogant by proxy. Sanford’s email, he concludes, was “a disheartening precedent, and aspects of it send out alarming signals that Mr. Sanford is more worried about coddling his audience than simply presenting theater that he believes in, art that might open theatergoers’ minds to new forms and styles of writing for the stage.”
Yes, there is a closed mind in evidence here -- but it doesn’t belong to Tim Sanford.