Go to any big city in America, and you'll find a strong theater scene. Every night, genres fight for your attention: Shakespeare, improv, domestic realism, musicals, absurdism, queer performance art ... it's a real salad bar.
In the suburbs, it's meat and potatoes by comparison. In too much of suburban America, there's only one kind of theater on the menu: the theater of comfort. Comfortable theater is what community theaters across the country produce: drawing-room theater that affirms preconceptions about certain kinds of people, and about the way people should react and think in times of crisis. Comfortable theater is ruled by what playwright Mac Wellman calls "the tyranny of the already known."
Suburbia's desire for comfortable theater explains the enduring appeal of Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias". The huge 1987 hit is now at Anaheim Hills, CA's Chance Theater, a deeply suburban venue that proclaims its dedication to original works but also obviously needs to make money from time to time.
Let the register ring.
To most people, "Steel Magnolias" is familiar. Since its story is already widely known, it is thereupon comforting. And there is nothing as comfortable to people who secretly dislike theater as a known story. Several seasons ago, one large Southern California theater (I can't remember whether it was the one north of the 210 or at the end of the 133) advertised a holiday play with the eager claim, "You know the story!" Well, if we know the story, why don't we just rent it?
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If this article is to be taken as a condemnation of "comfort" theatre then some cynics may scoff that there is a place for Steel Magnolias and Neil Simon as well as Rogers and Hammerstein and Grease and who is this critic to tell them that these types of feel-good or familiar tales are unchallenged and without as much worth as the work of say Albee, Shakespeare, Chekov, or more modern playwrights like Paula Vogel or Sarah Crane. Surely, Mr. Jones isn't suggesting that plays about things we know and situations that make us cozy are devoid of value and must be stuffed away to make way for the heavy, uncomfortable plays.
I don't think that this is what the article is saying. Jones makes it abundantly clear that he knows that in order to do good theatre a company has to have money, and sometimes that means doing plays that are "safe."
This is certainly a concern for all of us who dabble in community, educational, as well as professional theatre. Having been a part of all of these I can say for a fact that the problem of money and balancing a season of the gritty with the gooey never goes away. For example, this year I will be directing the musical, Grease with my students at school. Now, Grease is not my favorite musical, by any means. Many "theatre" people, in fact, find the show quite disgusting and difficult to take. "Why?" you say? Let's just say that poodle-skirts, summer love, and teen angels aren't exactly the stuff of thought provoking theatre. It's pretty much escapism. To put it in terms of movies, many of us want Momentum while Grease is...well...Grease. Or Frankie and Annette, or Blue Hawaii, or Sixteen Candles or any teeny-bopper flick that is supposed to "take you back to a simpler place and time, etc." I'm sorry if you feel I just dissed your favorite flick of all time, and all of these movies have artistic merit of some kind, but the point is they are comfortable. You aren't really being challenged when you view them. In the same way, theatre can be non-threatening. The most pinioned blurb from this article was, I believe, "...there is nothing as comfortable to people who secretly dislike theater as a known story." I don't know how many people I've talked to who like going to see plays the same way they like going fishing. It is a nice night out.
That's all well and good, but playwright Arthur Giron said, in a workshop I took earlier this year, "Playwrights are agents of change; truth tellers." If we, dramatists are going to be "agents of change" then can we write comfortable material that just reaffirms that which we already know? Sometimes the truth is ugly and unfortunate. Sometimes the truth makes us uncomfortable, and truth makes change. I believe that change is good, and not simply for change sake. Change keeps us moving, keeps us fresh. Change and truth will not allow us to go stale or calloused to the evils in the world that will not go away.
When I was a student at Abilene Christian University the chair of the theatre department was very careful when he chose his plays to pick something that had substance and took a bold stance on some issue. Sometimes the plays we did at ACU were what most would consider comfortable theatre. But Adam was always very careful to direct the play in a way so that, even if someone knew the story, they had never thought of it the same way before. When I was in Adam's production of You Can't Take it With You I was amazed how he took a play that was general, traditional theatre, and not only made it accessible to the Abilene community, which isn't known for being a sophisticated theatre going crowd, but he also planted in them a seed of knowledge about what theatre can do. He used light and sound as well as non-traditional casting to help the audience immerse themselves in this tale of a family that was not interested in material wealth, nearly as much as they were interested in relationships, happiness, family, and following one's own path to knowledge. Many people in the audience remarked to me how justice had been done to the story without it being redundant, or typical.
To me this is an example of good theatre. The play is quite important, to be sure, but the director can make a "comfortable play" less comfortable without even really letting the audience know that they are less comfortable. The next year Adam directed the Chekov play The Three Sisters. Once again I was cast in this beautiful play about three sisters living in a small, lonesome, boring town in Russia, with nothing to do but hope for a move to radiant Moscow. It was decided that this play would only play one weekend instead of the usual three or four, because it was assumed that with such a daring and "uncomfortable" play, we wouldn't be able to sell more than that. The play was beautiful. Adam melted together sights and sounds as well as metaphor and character in a way that even the least savvy patron could feel the pain and boredom that plagued the characters of The Three Sisters. I was greatly encouraged by the response to the century old play, that we thought was out of reach for our usual crowd. While we may not have been able to pack the theatre for 8 performances, the three that we did have were not only sold out, but we were bringing in chairs, and turning people away. It was truly inspiring to see the response.
My point is that, yes, we do have to do theatre of comfort in order to gather a crowd. But does that mean that we have to do that well known story in the same way it has always been done? And, as theatre artists, let us not underestimate our own creativity or that of our audience. Sometimes it is we who must bring to the masses of Suburbia something that they have not seen before. But when we wrap it in a box that it inaccessible to them, when we are bringing it to them simply to show them how intellectual and pretentious we can be, we are only setting ourselves up to complain about "the idiots in this crappy, little town." Maybe some people wouldn't know good theatre if it bit them in the ass, but I guarantee they will see it and acknowledge it, and even perhaps be changed by it if we gain their trust, and if we put in a container they can hold. The mission of theatre isn't to go and change audiences who are looking to change anyway. As dramatists and theatre artists we should be in the business of changing the skeptics and the stubborn. We should be for educating the ignorant, touching the untouchables, asking questions that haven't been asked before. No matter what, every play that is performed should be a blessing of some kind. Actors, directors, playwrights and technicians are in the business of gift giving. If we are not than we are only serving ourselves at the end of the day. Sometimes the audience need to eat cake. But, many times, they need their veggies and protein. Let's provide them with protein, but let's not forget the cake.