BWW Feature: The Power of Live Theatre: Thoughts Inspired by the STA 2019 CONFERENCE in Prague
The Shakespeare Theatre Association (STA) was founded back in 1991 as the Shakespeare Association of America by Sidney Berger, then Producing Director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival, and Douglas Cook, then Producing Artistic Director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival. The idea was to create a forum for artistic directors, producers and Managing Directors to get together to discuss the challenges and opportunities in the modern age for theatre companies that focus mainly on Shakespeare. As the organization grew to include more international companies, the name was changed in 2011 to its current form. Despite this shift in focus to the world at large, STA's annual conference has always been held in North America with one exception - in Stratford-upon-Avon and London in 2000. Until now, that is.
THERE'S A WORLD ELSEWHERE
This year, Guy Roberts, Artistic Director of the Prague Shakespeare Company and recipient of STA's first Sidney Berger Award in 2014, managed to convince them to cross the pond and come to Europe, specifically to Prague, Czech Republic. The conference's tag line, "There's a world elsewhere" (from Coriolanus) wasn't an admonition to STA for waiting until 2019 to try Europe, but an indication of the focus for this conference. Roberts shifted things more towards the artistic side of theatre, with an unprecedented program of performances that, for the first time in STA history, was open to the general public as well as attendees. There were even three shows during the pre-conference.
Overall, it was an ambitious program of seven live performances and one film:
Now, these people see a lot of theatre throughout the year, so you'd be forgiven for thinking most people would give these performances a miss, preferring instead to sample what is considered the best beer in the world, and exploring a city that is over 1000 years old. But the turnout was actually very good for every event - both conference attendees and the public.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
The venues these shows were at were well chosen. The first three, which were part of the pre-conference, were at (respectively) Švandovo divadlo, a theatre first founded in 1871; Divadlo Na zábradlí (Theatre on the Balustrade), Václav Havel's old stomping grounds; and Stavovské divadlo (The Estates Theatre), where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in 1787, now run by the National Theatre. These are three of the kamenné divadla, or "stone theatres" - a term for "legitimate" or "official" theatres that might have more clout than, say, a small underground theatre (think the Gershwin or the Music Box in New York City, or the Palladium or the Royal Drury Lane in London). Attendees got to see an example of Czech puppet theatre (modern puppet theatre, meaning for adults, was a Czech innovation) based on a Czech writer's works, a post-modern interpretation of a Shakespeare classic, and a large-scale adaptation of a Czech novel that gives some insights into the Czech mindset.
Once the conference started in earnest, the audience went to Divadlo Bez zábradlí (Theatre Without Railings), the first private theatre in the country after 1989, and the place where Václav Havel and friends basically ran the Velvet Revolution from. Then the action shifted to Divadlo Na Prádle (which loosely translates as Theatre on the Laundry Lines), a 1928 theatre that started life as the DaDa Theatre (the first theatre showing this new experimental performance style in the Czech Lands), housed deep in the basement of a multi-use neo-classical building. Here the two one-man shows in English were performed in an underground-type theatre. The program then moved to the Art Nouveau cinema palace Kino Lucerna, from 1907 located in a building built by Václav Havel's grandfather. And finally, for the big finish, back to the Estates.
This was a tour through different levels of the Czech theatre scene, from the 18th century all the way through to the present day. This was a great way to ground STA attendees firmly in the specifics of Prague's history and architecture, which is about as different from what you'd find in North America as could be. Prague is a theatre town - there are literally hundreds of small venues scattered about, sometimes in the most surprising places (like inside apartment buildings, tea rooms, etc.) And while actors in, say, New York, still suffer an unemployment rate of around 90%, professional performers in Prague actually turn away work because they're too busy. Let that sink in for a moment.
GIVE AND TAKE
Guy Roberts has reminded us all of something fundamental with his focus on the artistic side of theatre for the 2019 STA conference. Theatre's strength is in what lies at its core - people telling stories to people. STA embraces companies of all sizes and budgets from around the globe. What could they take away from this program?
While there is certainly plenty of small-scale theatre in the US, Broadway is still the Holy Grail of the theatrical world. In an effort to compete with cinema, with its relatively low ticket prices and huge industry presence (the US alone makes around 600 films a year), Broadway has been staging large-scale, extremely expensive spectacles in an effort to "wow" audiences.
There's always been an interplay between literature, live theatre and cinema. In the past, the common path was from book or story into play into film. It certainly makes some sense to reverse that process in the modern age, using films as the basis for plays and musicals. Film-first offerings have become a huge presence in big-ticket theatre. Broadway will soon feature stage adaptations of "Beetlejuice", "Tootsie", "Moulin Rouge", "13 Going on 30", "17 Again", "The Bodyguard", "Bull Durham", "Diner", "The Flamingo Kid", "Magic Mike", "Mrs. Doubtfire", "The Preacher's Wife", and "Some Like It Hot". Nearly a quarter of new Broadway shows in the next two years will be based on films. Not to mention current offerings that include musicals based on "Pretty Woman", "King Kong" and "Network", and the numerous past hits of recent years. That's not to say that these aren't quality shows, but that's a lot of borrowing.
Despite the high price tag, Broadway shows cost far less to make than Hollywood blockbusters. WICKED cost nearly $17 million, LION KING around $27-28 million, and the most expensive ever, SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, was a mere $79 million. These amounts are peanuts compared to budgets for films, which today routinely run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet Broadway tickets are far more expensive than movie tickets for audiences. People today can, for the significantly lower price of a movie ticket (or a cable or streaming-service subscription fee), be transported to other galaxies and times, see battles with thousands of soldiers, or watch toys come to life and have adventures through the wonders of cinema and streaming on-demand content. How the heck is theatre supposed to compete with all that?
Let's look at some numbers. According to a Nielsen Scarborough survey, around 73.5 million Americans visited a live performing arts event in the year 2013, with an average expenditure per consumer unit of just under $61. Broadway shows in New York take in an estimated $1.7 billion per year. In the same year, the film industry took in $10.8 billion in sales, with the average ticket costing $8.13. That's a massive difference, and large theatres feel the pressure to come up with the next sensation to entice people to spend their time and money with them.
BACK TO BASICS
What does this mean for smaller theatres? The challenge is not just how to keep their existing audiences, but to grow their numbers by attracting more audience members. And also making a profession in the theatre attractive to talented people - actors, techies, stage managers, etc.
With the STA 2019 performances of CRY HAVOC and EVIL GENIUS, you have phenomenally talented actors on a basic stage, with basic lighting, telling stories. Mr. Wolfert's story is intensely personal, about how art can help mend a broken life, and how that experience can then be shared with others.
This is powerful stuff, and CRY HAVOC would actually be less effective if it were a documentary film. Here you are sitting in the same room, breathing the same air, feeling the vibrations in the air that his voice makes as this man bares his soul to you. He uses his skills to help you see things through his eyes, feel what he feels, know what he knows. He can adapt and adjust how he does things based on your reactions (reacting to your reactions in a continual feedback loop, honing the performance, so that this one, right here and right now, is unique, different from all the other performances he's given of the same material). There's a contact made here, a contact that can be continued if you so wish - you can go talk to him after the show, or buy him a drink, or just shake his hand.
Actors talk a lot about focus, about sending energy to and receiving it from the audience, about feeling the crowd - when they're "with" the actors, and when they aren't. There's something to this. There's a frisson in being physically present for things like this, and it is unique in the arts. Because this is truly the foundation of the theatre. A film is too distancing, but a theatre piece - well, that's how you turn stories into visceral experiences that are felt with the heart and body as much as apprehended and appreciated by the mind. It's even better in a smaller theatre like Divadlo Na Prádle. There's a feeling of intimacy that is wholly appropriate to the material and presentation. In fact, it enhances the production.
With EVIL GENIUS, Patrick Page (whose HADESTOWN starts previews March 22 at Winter Garden) took us on a conversational journey with startling sides featuring some of Shakespeare's greatest villains. The house was packed, and he knew his audience was mainly comprised of Shakespeare professionals, so he made small changes here and there to the narrative patter that helped create an atmosphere of one pro sharing his thoughts with other pros. For members of the public present, this added yet another dimension to the proceedings - a feeling of being on the "inside", at least for a couple of hours.
Page's theatrical moments, which stand out even more when presented against this "here's how I see it" backdrop, were stunning, even revelatory. After the show, people said things like "So, that's how to play Malvolio" or "Well, anyone who doesn't play Iago like that is clearly just doing is wrong." People left feeling invigorated, inspired and stimulated - and supremely satisfied, in the same way that a truly masterful five-course dinner does so much more than just fill one's belly.
The STA Conference program finished off with a trip to the Estates Theatre. Attendees had spent the entire day there, getting a plenary from composer Patrick Doyle and touring the space. Then they went a few blocks to Kino Lucerna to see Branagh's latest film. Branagh is sort of the Shakespeare Ambassador to the film-going crowd, and it seemed appropriate to remind everyone that film remains a powerful storytelling tool with a broad appeal, and how it is the main competition for those who would choose theatre as a profession.
After dinner, it was back to the Estates for a performance of a wholly different character. It was a concert, with theatrical moments that were perfectly matched and pitched to the context created by the musical pieces. Occasionally, Mr. Doyle would come out and entertain the crowd with an anecdote. Guy Roberts was at turns love struck and inspirational as he performed some classic Shakespeare sides, including a stirring version of the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V with the orchestra scoring the words behind him. There was a riveting scene from Hamlet in Czech between Karel Hermánek (the Artistic Director and Founder of Divadlo Bez zábradlí), who was Claudius in the confessional, and Václav Vašák (who was in Hamelti) as Hamlet himself. And Jessica Boone owned the stage for each solo and scene she came to share with the audience.
And that was really the sense of all three of these last live performances - there was a sense of experiences being shared, rather than just entertainment being offered and thank-you-for-your-patronage. Everyone in those theatres, both on stage and in the house, felt like they were part of something wonderful and even beautiful if just for a short time. It brought to mind what an evening out to the theatre might have been like in the days of music hall and vaudeville shows, but updated for modern sensibilities and expectations. It seemed complete, like a great dessert after a good meal.
Sure, it helps to get talents like Wolpert, Page and Doyle up on the boards, but the foundation of theatre is elegantly simple, and timeless. People have been telling each other stories, in one form or another, since they first started using language. Theatre doesn't have to cost a lot of money to put on. At its heart, all you need is an actor, a place for the actor to be seen, a light source, a script (or something to say) and somewhere for the audience. This is the essence of the art, going all the way back to the Greeks.
That was the message of PSC's program for STA this year. Yes, think about budgeting and how to increase subscriptions and attract bigger audiences. But don't forget the greatest weapon in your arsenal: the wholly unique character of live theatre itself - artistic storytelling that connects people to people at a deep and meaningful level. Nothing has the same capacity to invoke a sense of wonder in people, which is perhaps even more important in this age of distraction and entertainment consumption at something approaching fast food levels.
There's really nothing that even approaches it for an adult in the 21st century. Podcasts and events like The Moth are probably the closest thing, but entertainment-on-demand lacks the immediacy of live theatre. If I can listen to it anywhere, at any time, then a little bit of the magic gets lost.
You sit down, the lights dim, the performers come out onto a lit stage, and you are transported - entertained, challenged, amused, infuriated, surprised and maybe even stunned. This is what is at the heart of theatre - all theatre, even the big multi-million dollar spectaculars. Underneath it all, there's the simple yet supremely satisfying feeling of being told a story expertly.
Theatre is still important to our lives, to our societies and to our cultures. The now-much-overused quote by E.M. Forster seems appropriate - "Only connect". Theatre connects. It connects the audience to the actors, the present to the past, and, in its finest moments, the audience to one another.
The world of theatre is a vast playground, ranging from jaw-dropping extravaganzas to a single person with a candle, and everything in between. Part of the appeal of Shakespeare is the universality of his characters and themes. Theatrical companies need not compete with the world of digital entertainment. What they offer is an alternative, a very old form of storytelling that can still feel fresh and new.