Classic v. Contemporary, Apples v. Oranges

So, I writer I typically enjoy, respect and agree with made me mad last week. Actually, he made a lot of people mad. I’m speaking, of course, of Michael Kaiser of the Kennedy Center. His Millennials Project post for the Huffington Post stirred up a good bit of emotion, and a lot of great ideas!

I think the most upsetting thing to me about Kaiser’s post is his clear detachment for work that is happening, in his own building, around the country, and around the world. For all of his town hall meetings and world travels, has Mr. Kaiser really never met 20-somethings making, performing or enjoying art? David Loehr over at 2AMt offers a lot of great ideas of who to meet.

But that leads me to my second most upsetting thing. Mr. Kaiser seems to imply in his writing that only classical art is art. I don’t know if this is what he meant, but it seems to be what he said. He’s quite concerned about the lack of knowledge of the classics among young people. I would submit that those same young people he’s concerned about actually know a lot of playwrights, composers, performers of modern art that Mr. Kaiser is missing.

I’m certainly not saying one is better than the other. Or more important. Classics are classic for a reason- that timeless quality of music, words, movement, etc. has been meaningful to and for generations. HOWEVER. New art revitalizes our organizations, our artists, our audiences. Excellent new art, that captures our time, our issues, our culture, becomes classic. New art is necessary to survival- of arts organizations and of our culture! I don’t think we can have an either/or situation. We need a both/and.

And he wasn’t the only one with inflammatory things to say. Howard Sherman (again, usually enjoy, respect, agree) caused a stir with his Defense of the Invalid. Actually, Howard Sherman didn’t make me that mad. He just used one of those comparisons that is so clearly wrong.

4. Yes, it’s expensive to attend in most cases, but when was the last time you bought a ticket to a sporting event or rock concert. Inexplicably, people endlessly discuss how expensive theatre is, but they’re not as quick to say the same of some other forms of live entertainment. I think this is rooted in the idea that theatre is elitist and so this argument is trooped out to reinforce the stereotype, when other entertainments are at least as expensive or even more so. Ironically, sports and rock are priced high in order to pay outrageous sums to a relative handful of people who are often distant figures rarely making a personal connection with their audiences. Theatre is expensive in order to support a distinctly human interaction that is incredibly labor intensive at every level, but if you want to have a moment with your heroes, just take a quick survey of any venue where it’s performed and find the stage door. You’ll see your heroes, maybe even speak with them and get an autograph or a photo, instead of discovering that, say, they’re already on the way to their airport so they can fly home and sleep in their own bed, while you’re still trying to get out of the parking lot.

I talked about this a while ago in a post of my own. People who buy concert tickets already know that they like the band. People who buy sporting tickets already like the team. There is no “sell” to these ticket buyers. They are already fans. They go for the experience of doing something they like with thousands of others who like the same thing.  (And 99 over at Parabasis thinks that the theatre is not delivering the best experience we could.)

When we discuss the cost of theatre tickets being prohibitive, I’m pretty certain we are NOT talking about fans. We’re talking about the low-hanging fruit, or the “people who have never seen live theatre before”! It is simply an apples and oranges comparison. They don’t know if they like theatre. Or what’s at the theatre. Theatre has a lot more variables. You may like the play, but the acting could be terrible. You may like an actor, but have no idea if you will like the plot or not.

While sports, concerts and live performances do all have those “evanescent moments” of personal experience, the path of getting people to those events is really just not the same at all.

I appreciate Kaiser and Sherman putting themselves out there with their thoughts. They’ve certainly caused a lot of discussion. As did Rocco with his #supplydemand speech. But the question becomes, if we disagree, what are we going to do about it? Complaining in a blog post or on Twitter that Michael Kaiser or Howard Sherman is out of touch is not going educate more children in the arts, fund more new companies or get butts in seats. So theatre world, what are we going to do about it?