Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A World Championship of Theatre? No Way!

Oh, dear. Another blog that I follow is the one run by producer Ken Davenport, and he sure is industrious. And smart. And forward-thinking. But a recent proposal of his really sent chills up my spine. He's proposing -- perhaps in jest -- that the plague of awards for theatre, and all the competition that goes along with it, metastasize out of control. He writes (in part):

If the Olympics and Oedipus were born in the same ancient land and only a few hundred years apart, why don't we have a Theatrical Olympics? Or a World Championship of Theater?

Imagine it...put together a governing body of judges from around the globe. Committees in each country would put forth their best entries in each of the usual categories (i.e. Best Musical, Best Play, etc.). Those Judges would travel to see each show and pit East vs. West, North vs. South, Hairspray versus Chinese Opera!...

But the point is that awards and competition are important for marketing and for audience development, no matter who the organization is.

Having awards, makes people want to win them.

Having winners, makes people want to see them...

Does your city have community theater awards? What about high school excellence awards? Any state-wide professional theaters going against each other for bragging rights and a trophy? None of the above?

Well, start one.

Well, um, how about we don't start one? I mean, "Having awards, makes people want to win them"? Really? Everyone? Everyone? And insofar as "awards and competition are important for marketing and for audience development" -- which I don't dispute -- how about equal weight, equal thought, equal consideration for the virtues of less merchandising, less commodization? How about a moment, a minute, a second, for art for the sake of art, art that isn't all about the glories of profiteering and the threat of exploitation that flows from it? How about not forcing artists to jockey for position any more than they already have to in our industry? This world championshop of theatre idea isn't some beneficial plea for multiculturalism, but a brash, base, boorish, Republican-style celebration of market forces, buoyed by the presumption that art can only flourish when it is based around the worship of fiscal enrichment. To paraphase a certain presidential candidate, we are a better industry than that. We are a better art form than that.

And look, there are already tons of debate societies and -- if you click here, here, here -- other organizations that see competitive performative efforts as educational tools. What's the point of having one community theatre vie against another? So the winners get bigger audiences and the losers suffer from smaller audiences? Or that ordinary citizens wishing to partake in community theatre can be buffeted by the same wildly overinflated egos and emotional overinvestments and skullduggery and electioneering that goes on, rampant and unchecked, in the professional world?

Come on, Ken. I respect you a great deal and I know this language is rough. But really, truly, as much as I know you love the theatre, we really are a better art form than that.

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