No one, I think, would accuse Boston of being an overly innovative theatre town. With some exceptions, the theatre "community" here spawns a species of theatre safe and uncomplaining, mostly "white" in its audience draw and script choices, and pretty much disconnected from the tectonic forces affecting the lives of the people in this city itself and in the country and world as a whole.< /p>
As evidence (only partial, and knowing there are always exceptions): the Thursday Globe Calendar and the Phoenix's "Play by Play" sections.
Hmm....yet another dysfunctional family -- no, wait, two, yet again something Shakespeare and/or Gilbert and Sullivan, something Irish, something Holocaust, something inflatedly artsy from the inflated leading regional theatre, some eye-candy from the university theatre, something gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender about coming out (there's a new angle), the indestructible dinner theatre murder mystery, the bus-and-truck tour of some sonic confection, some boy/girl thing about a relationship that may or may not work out, with lots of tears. Am I sure I have this week's publications? It seems a lot like last week's -- and the week before -- and the week before that....
And that's the point. Even when there are events that might challenge or unbalance this fairly sedate going-rate programming -- a festival of color or of women or a theatre marathon -- Boston theatre, for the most part, still ends up serving a white, suburban-minded/South End-ish kind of audience with fare that doesn't stray far from the expectations of that audience, with nothing strange and nothing political or fringy (Mobius' efforts notwithstanding). No immigrant voices, no alternative voices, no outrage or despair, just a warm entertaining bath. (I am excluding here, of course, places like the Strand or Roxbury Community College, where one is bound to find alternate voices but which fall below the review radar of the major Boston newspapers. And I am not giving much weight to the fact that we get the occasional "black" play, such as Jacqui Parker's piece, Get Out The Roaches at the 2000 Women on Top festival or the Huntington doing August Wilson.)
Going down the weekly roster reveals a theatre that simply wants to be a "medium" like any other, making its money, sending its audiences home lightly massaged and no worse for wear (which, to be honest, is what most audiences want anyway), content to be irrelevant in the battles that shape our lives even as we fall sleep after an evening at the theatre.
And does this kvetching really matter? On the one hand, no. Glory be to whomever can mine the corporation-induced illusions offered up as our Zeitgeist for some bucks. Glory be to those adjectival playwrights (black, Hispanic, queer, and so on) who can work the categories to open up new opportunities for themselves. Glory be to those theatres that can convince people that yet another story about dysfunctional families or Irish drunks or the Holocaust or a relationship gone south and sour or another gay-drag send-up of old movie titles and Gilligan's Island is exactly what we need in these end-times. The essence (and the luxury) of the American kind of freedom is, after all, the permission to create trivialities in abundance.
On the other... On the other hand, we are entertaining ourselves into immobility, at least just a little. Theatre people fondly intone that "theatre" differs from other mediums, that its three-dimensional, bodies-in-motion immediacy can engage in ways that two-dimensional movie screens cannot. I think truth lurks there, but it can't be truly true, pointedly (and poinardly) true, if the theatre mimics other corporatized transmission channels and the cut-to-order plots that drive sit-coms, dramedys, and the other entertainment fare. If theatre really wants to preserve its power, then its acolytes must whole-bodily believe in it and not simply give the maxim mouth-music lip-service in foundation proposal mission statements. To preserve and refresh itself, theatre must move, even a little, outside the game preserve of entertainment and offer a safe place to confront unsafe things, a protected space to share how we are all at risk and at the mercy. Only then will theatre have a relevant voice in our lives, be a player among the other grand (and Grand Guignol) forces that shape and sway us.
It all comes down to how one answers this question: "What place should theatre hold in our private and public lives?" Or, as Ben Cameron said at the StageSource theatre town meeting in 2000, "What 'value' does theatre offer to the people who support it?" Should it follow the industrial model, "putting up" shows for the sake of putting up a show, or can it be what people say it is, a powerful agent of provocation and thought and dissonance and, possibly, even action and change? Is it about gratifying our own individual desires about personal accomplishment and success and ambition (again, part of the corporate industrial model -- participants as "capital" to be invested), or can it be a more communal process, where we can be part of a sum greater than our parts, where we take our inspirations not only from our own psychologies but also from communities engaged in resistance, remediation, redemption? Personally, I wouldn't mind a little more "heaviosity," as Woody Allen said -- boats always sail faster and cleaner with their proper ballast. But right now we have a "bearable lightness," which, like an afternoon snack, can hold but never completely nourish.