"This play/ is the image of a murder done in Vienna: Gonzago is
the duke's name; his wife, Baptista: you shall see
anon; 'tis a knavish piece of work: but what o'
that? Your majesty and we that have free souls, it
touches us not.”
Hamlet Act III Scene 2.
It does wonders for the soul to believe that you contribute in a positive way to society. No matter how confident you are in this belief, however, it is inadvisable to invite a Nobel Prize-winning economist to quantify your contribution to your face. I’m still in recovery mode from the Public Theatre’s ill-considered decision to ask Joseph Stiglitz to lead a discussion about income inequality and what the artistic community, and in particular theatre makers, can do about it.
Stigliz is more conciliatory in person than in print. He gently um-ed and ah-ed his way through a précis of his work and achievements, salting the discussion with the titles and plots of some theatre he’d liked, but his efforts to be nice were undercut by the awful truth: theatre’s recent contribution to changing or advancing the perception of anything on a macro scale in America appears to be limited, to say the most.
The one example Stiglitz had come across that could correlate the arts with positive social change was heartening. The slow and relatively recent rollout of electricity to certain villages in India has allowed economists, or scientists or advertisers or whoever it is that actually tracks this kind of thing to find a measurable and positive change in gender relations brought about by the introduction of… television. Yes it turns out that the oft-scoffed idiot-box, in association with the perennially poo-pooed style of soap opera, have presented the country ladies with a glimpse of how their big city sisters are treated by their menfolk. This encourages them to demand, and get, a better deal. If religion is the opiate of the masses, then maybe TV is the meth - modern, just as addictive and more stimulating.
Stiglitz then entered into a conversation with Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, Public Works Director Lear deBessonet and, awesomely, Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC. The first two did their best to rise to the challenges imposed by the subject, but talk of theatre being a democratic medium is rendered absurd the moment you try to imagine a democracy that makes voting as difficult and expensive as seeing or participating in theatre.
deBessonet has helmed some positive and large-scale community theatre projects, and if the premise of the discussion was not so lofty everyone might have been happy to accept that theatre can be sweet and harmless and entertaining and thought-provoking and memorable.
McDaniels was by far the most engaged of the speakers, and made a strong argument that the power of Run-DMC’s music stemmed from its ability to literally describe how people were living in his community and what their hopes and hinderances were. Viewed in this context, the Public’s penchant for re-staging Shakespeare and Brecht seems to have less in common with DMC's mode of influence than it does with fiddling and burning.
My opinion is that to make any headway in this kind of discussion, theatre needs to stop shouldering the burden of what it can’t do - which is offer access to absolutely everyone, or broadcast as far and wide as most other art forms, and get clever about recognising the nature of its actual strengths. Then it can begin to fuck with people. What theatre in America can and does do is speak directly to a concentrated, powerful and captive audience. These people may not currently visit the theatre for the purpose of changing their lives or the lives of others, but nor do many people nip down dark allies for the purpose of getting mugged; doesn't mean it can't happen. Instead of jumping these vulnerable spheres of hemmed-in influence, theatre wastes much of its time ruing its demographic, and trying to change its nature by constantly striving to make work to appeal to people who aren’t there, and don't want to come, rather than trying to influence those that are, and do.
Bruce Norris of Clybourne Park and Domesticated is the only playwright I’ve heard acknowledge and appreciate the nature of the people he’s talking to: wealthy, white and on the other side of middle-age. In an environment that relies utterly on patronage, it requires a bold mouth to direct the hand that feeds it, but if the motivation and skill is ever there, so is the audience. Not that any of this is news. It was Hamlet that first popularised the notion that a play could be the thing to catch the conscience of them on high.
 Short answer: Get a proper job.
 Urinetown made the cut, cos it lampoons privatisation of services. And so did Mike Daisey’s The Agony & Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which JS liked cos it ‘humanised’ Chinese manufacturing practices to American audiences… albeit by lying about them so they better resembled American audience’s preconceived notions about those practices. I could go on about this and I have (see truth and lies, right).
 Only ever fobbed off by the great washed, of course. Not by the enormous numbers of people who tune in every night... which is of course, what gives it its ability to affect change on a grand scale.
 This is a qualifier that I’ve added to leave the door open for me to discuss some potentially interesting differences apropos theatre in NZ.
PROFIT & DELIGHT
What I'm thinking about what I'm doing. This blog aspires to a more profound definition of 'profit' and the bog-standard sense of 'delight'.