Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Theater, the Thief of Time

In 99Seats' post on Parabasis today, he mentions a theater teacher of his who "told me that theatre must justify its theft of time. Theatre, he argued, was a time-intensive, not at all convenient, required dressing up (back in the day, anyways). It asked a lot of its audience and needed to repay that with worth. This has stuck with me and leaves me irrationally angry at bad theatre. It smacks of disrespect to me."

Tony Kushner said something similar when I heard him speak earlier this month. He wasn't talking so much about bad theater as about boring theater, but he made the same point as 99Seats: because theater is a time-intensive activity, bad or boring theater is a moral outrage. It's not just that you're giving your audience nothing in return for their attention -- you are in fact taking something from them, their precious leisure time, and that's something they can never get back. Or, as Kushner put it in his memorable, hyperbolic way, "This is what I tell my students: let's say you have a bad play that takes 2 hours to perform, and it's playing eight shows a week for an audience of 500*, well, you can do the calculations and figure out how many of their hours you're wasting, and it doesn't take long before you've killed a two-year-old child."**

*Of course I think Kushner was being wildly optimistic about the size of audiences that a young playwright can expect to receive in this day and age!

**Calculations, for the math geeks in the house: 2 hrs/show * 8 shows/week * 500 people/show = 8,000 man-hours. A 2-year-old child = 2 yrs * 365 days/yr * 24 hrs/day = 17,520 hours. The show would need to play for only a little more than two weeks in order to have wasted two years' worth of its audience members' time!

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