By Sawyer Shafer
THEATRE IS CURRENTLY ON FIRE!
Yes, you read that right. Where most would say theatre is currently under fire, I prefer to say it is ON fire. Don't get me wrong - there is such thing as being controversial for the sake of controversy. However, with the recent comments from the cast of Broadway's smash hit Hamilton: An American Musical to Vice President Elect Mike Pence, I believe that a very important debate (that seemed long lost) has been reignited: What is the true purpose of art?
With the influx of reality television and children's shows based on the idea that everyone can be famous in recent years, we as a nation were simply allowing the concept of artistic integrity to slip away from us; trading in the age old test of "What do we want to achieve with this?" for the more simple-minded "Will we make money from this?" And yes, while money is an undeniable necessity in the current worldwide system of values, most artists know that money does not buy happiness - following your passion does. Now perhaps you are of the mindset that this mantra is harmful or downright ridiculous, which is fine, but I encourage you to examine the contents of my wallet and my weekly earnings next to the smile that is on my face after each and every production I have contributed to, then tell me where my happiness lies.
I digress. My point is that, in this age of uncertainty, is the purpose of art to entertain, or is the purpose of art to analyze and satirize?
My opinion? Why can't it be both? Here at Sansami, our sketch comedy oozes with satire and analytical subtext, yet people have turned out to Spotlight! year after year for one simple reason: Each year, we make them laugh a little bit more. So yeah, your theatre should have a strong message, and that message should be obvious to those in the audience, but your message will never reach the masses if you first do not first aim to entertain your audience and relate to them.
Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing a workshop presentation of an up-and-coming musical entitled Home Street Home at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. While I have never lived on the street, suffered physical harm at the hands of authority figures, or attempted to define what kind of "punk" I am, the production hooked me first by simply being entertaining and having some catchy tunes. After accepting the fact that I was entertained, I suddenly found myself engulfed in Sue's world. No longer was I a passive audience member simply responding approvingly, but instead I was invested in if Sue's mother was ever going to find her, why Nosmo wouldn't buy new strings for his guitar, and if PD and Big John were ever going to reconcile their feelings for each other. Why did I like that? I asked myself later. But the answer was so clear: Because someone was responding to the idea of what it is like to live on the fringe, daring to be different, and wondering it the world was going to accept you. And isn't that what theatre is about? Having the integrity to stand up and say, "Hey, I may be different, but this is what I think. Will you hear me out, let me share it with you, and then have a conversation with me about it? Please?" I think it is.
There is an interesting road ahead. There is fire in the theatre and in the mind of every single person in this line of work. Maybe it's born out of anger, fear, worry, or perhaps it's born out of a hope for unity, conversation, and safety. Whatever the cause, the match has been struck and the scene is about to explode. Just you wait.
Where do you stand? I make no assumptions of what is right or what is wrong, nor do I believe political affiliation should influence the theatre in a negative way. We should not aim to target or exclude, but instead pinpoint and acknowledge the problems or solutions that exist in the world around us. Only then does our art truly have integrity and only then can we say we have discovered the true purpose of our art.
Thank you for reading.