Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Theater is Disturbing, And I Love It

For all of last year (senior year of college) I basically lived in a Theater Bubble: writing my thesis play, founding and managing the Dynamo Theater Lab, going to all the drama kids' parties. I could even have conversations about Sondheim musicals and McDonagh plays at any hour of the day or night with one of my housemates, who, though she wasn't a drama major, was a devoted and opinionated theatergoer.

But living in such a bubble means forgetting that the rest of the world is outside the bubble. And over the past week, I've had a couple of rude awakenings: moments where I talk as though I were still surrounded by my theater friends, only to realize that 99% of the population thinks that theater people are really weird.

Last week I had a job interview (unsuccessful, for reasons that will become clear in a moment) where, after my interviewer asked me the typical questions, he threw me this curveball: "What's your favorite comedy movie?"

I hesitated. I don't have one favorite comedy movie, and usually I prefer films that, while they may have humorous elements, are also dark or poignant or something else besides pure comedy. E.g. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And while I do have a surprising amount of fun at silly comedies like Superbad, I'd never call that movie my "favorite" anything.

Seeing my hesitation, my interviewer added, "Or your favorite comedy play, if you'd prefer." (We'd already discussed my playwriting/theater background.)

So naturally, I decided that this would be the perfect time to talk about how amazing Martin McDonagh is, not least because he has written both plays and movies! I started off by describing The Lieutenant of Inishmore--"It's about this terrorist who is too violent even for the IRA, and the only thing he loves in the world is his kitty-cat, and when his cat dies he goes on a murderous rampage..."

"Wow," said my interviewer, clearly disturbed.

Somehow I didn't get the message, and pressed on. "And In Bruges, well, that's his movie that came out this spring, and it's about these two hit-men in Bruges, and it's really dark, and violent, and irreverent, I mean there's a midget..."

I think I might have even said "dark" and "violent" a few more times before I realized that I should shut up.

I must've cut a strange figure--a young lady in a pantsuit and pink blouse, revealing her love for bloody and twisted humor! Lord help me, the man probably expected me to say Sex and the City. It occurred to me later that I would not have talked this way to a female interviewer--that I'd been acting like "one of the boys" on purpose--and I was a little surprised that I had bought so willingly into gender stereotypes.

Then, a couple of days ago, my new housemates and I were hanging out in our living room with the first Harry Potter movie on in the background. One girl said she heard Daniel Radcliffe was starring on Broadway in a play where he had a nude scene.

"Oh yeah, Equus," I said, as my house's resident theater geek. "It's a really good play."

"There's a nude scene?" my housemates asked. "What's it about? I heard it's about this kid who has sex with horses..."

Anxious to clear up their misconceptions (especially because they seemed very grossed out at the thought of Harry Potter having sex with horses), I said "Oh, no, no, what it's really about is, he plays this kid who blinds six horses with a metal spike--"

Grimaces of shock and disgust on their faces, worse than before.

"--no, it's a really good play!" I protested. And I delivered the following speech with a big smile on my face, in an attempt to prove that I am Friendly and Not Psychotic, but that probably made it even worse: "Well, what it is, is he's got this kind of mystical obsession with horses, and then he tries to have sex in the stable with a girl he's met there, just a normal girl, but he can't do it with the horses looking on, and so he blinds them... I know you all think I'm very disturbed right now, to like this play, but it's really good, I swear!"

I am not sure they were convinced.

I thought McDonagh's works and Equus are relatively accessible as far as contemporary plays go--they've got strong plots, memorable characters, a vivid theatrical sense in the case of Shaffer and a unique sense of humor in the case of McDonagh--they're not off-puttingly experimental or avant-garde. And yet people still seem so resistant to them! Why will people happily go see violent R-rated movies but grimace at the thought of seeing a violent play? (Maybe this testifies to the power and immediacy of theater--it's more disturbing because it's happening right in front of you.)

And yet, isn't this what theater has always done, maybe even its raison d'etre: to raise provocative questions, to test the boundaries of society, to reproduce scenes of terror and violence in order to provoke a catharsis?

I can picture it now, how Theater People have been defending themselves for thousands of years:

"Dude, I just went to the amphitheater and saw this play about a guy who kills his father and marries his mother, I mean like they have kids and everything together--and then it gets better...when they find out the truth, his wife, I mean his mom, commits suicide and then he blinds himself! What? No, I'm serious, it's not gross, it's a really good play! Didn't you see, it got great reviews? Aristotle thinks it's genius! No really, just because I liked this show doesn't mean I'm a freak..."


Lexi said...

I love it! Nice blog. Yeah, I have totally gotten those looks before. I hate it when people ask me my favorite film! And then you have to pick a movie that everyone else knows, and that rules out all the good movies :) Miss you!

Marissa said...

Thanks Lexi, miss you too! Yesterday I learned that my housemates do like musical comedy, but not things like "Sweeney Todd," because "it doesn't leave you singing."