In a recent editorial, playwright Steve Julian makes the bold claim that live theater in Los Angeles is in trouble because today’s audience is desensitized. The thesis goes something like this: Back in the “golden age” – pre-television – it was far easier to show the audience something new. With news stories now bathing us in all manners of real-life topics on a continual basis, the artist, like Alexander the Great before him, has no lands left to conquer.

Let me start off by saying that, at best, I’m an art primitive. I can claim no degree, advanced or otherwise, in theater, drama, painting, or any other manner of the formal creative arts. I am your average art patron: I receive things through the prism of my own experience. Hell, I spell “theater” with an “er”.

And so, as a primitive, Mr. Julian’s argument doesn’t ring true for me. Desensitized? If shocking the audience is the key to exciting art, we’ve reduced art to a roller coaster ride. And while such “art” might gain notoriety overnight, it is hardly of lasting value.

Recently I saw Incident at Vichy, a lesser known work from Arthur Miller. The play is about how humans are quickly divided among themselves in the face of authority, mostly due to fear. Written in 1964, it closed after only 32 performances. Apparently contemporary audiences didn’t see this as a major play. Nevertheless, I felt it was an outstanding piece of theater (and though it doesn’t mean I’m correct, the LA Times  gave it a “Critic’s Choice” label). Here is an old play, about topics long since thoroughly discussed by psychologists in the popular media (most people are at least vaguely aware of Stanley Milgrim’s “shock experiment” or Phillip Zimbardo’s “Stanford prison experiment”), and yet I was blown away by the production – “not wanting to leave my seat after the show” in Mr. Julian’s parlance. And curiously, this reaction was to a play that was not well-received in its time.

How could I have been taught something new, by a nearly 50-year-old play on topics already scientifically studied? Well, that is the mystery of truly great art. Desensitization has nothing to do with it. In fact, our culture has gone backwards in many respects. We like to think of ourselves as progressively more open-minded, marching monotonically in one grand upward direction — and yet here is something that was on national television almost 40 years ago:

Edith Bunker: I think he’s right, Archie. Like, you haven’t said the word “coon” in almost a year.

Archie Bunker: What are you talking about? I say it everyday.

Mike Stivic: You haven’t said it in front of us.

Archie Bunker: Alright then: Coon! Coon! Coon! You wanted it, you got it.

Think you could get that kind of language on network television today? You can’t even find reference to the “n-word” without calling it the “n-word”.

Audiences currently desensitized? This primitive thinks not. There are plenty of topics and methods to shock and titillate today’s art patron.

We must dig deeper. Perhaps part of the problem is hinted at in Mr. Julian’s piece itself. In it, he uses the word “theatre”.

Archie Bunker might call that a “fag-word” (did I shock you?), but let me be more polite and call it an “elitist word”. We don’t write “colour”, “metre”, or “Alexandre”… so what’s up with “theatre”? Is it a way to show the specialness of the art? To make it more important? To make the audience stand up and notice? To make it an event they must prepare for? Like a school assignment?

And we wonder why people might not be enthused about theater?

The groundlings in Shakespeare’s time didn’t go to the theater to ennoble themselves. They went for a good time. People didn’t watch All in the Family  to be shocked. They watched to be entertained. And Angelenos should be able to go see a live production without feeling they are stepping into a “theatre”. We don’t call film projection auditoriums “movie theatres” after all. And yet some of our greatest cultural works have played in them.

The first thing a quality piece of work must do is engage its audience. And theater for theatre’s sake may not be the best way to start. To opine that live theater is in trouble because the audience is numb shifts the burden away from the artist. Perhaps we should begin by keeping it entertaining – for the audience. Including the primitives.

Wouldn’t that be shocking?


Originally published August 20, 2012 in Bitter Lemons.