The Playgoer: Does Theatre Have a Future on TV?

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Does Theatre Have a Future on TV?

Yesterday--in the midst of responding to my post on the Innovative Theatre Awards, specifically my characterization of the Tonys as increasingly "irrelevant" artistically--David Cote goaded me in Comments with a question:

I'm curious, though, Playgoer: What could you envision as a televised event that could significantly represent the hugely varied, multidisciplinary and inherently local/far-flung multiverse of American theater to the public?
This may not really address David's question, but the answer, I'd say, is not yet another awards show. The best thing television could do for theatre is simply to show plays.

Remember PBS's American Playhouse? Imagine a weekly (or even monthly) broadcast of a good production of either a new or old American play. Or, now, theatre piece, from a collaborative ensemble like the Wooster Group.(American Playhouse featured classics like All My Sons as well as then-new plays like "Blue Window" and "Painting Churches.")

PBS has retained some theatre programming with their "Stage on Screen" series, but it's very infrequent and if it's not importing (the UK "Beckett on Film" series) it's serving as a commercial for Roundabout Theatre Company, televising popular productions like The Women and Man Who Came to Dinner. Yet PBS has maintained much more regular schedules of opera, classical music and dance. (Most of it on another promotional series, "Live from Lincoln Center"--which has included theatre presentations like "Light in the Piazza.")

It's interesting that HBO has taken up the mantle in recent years, often enlisting Mike Nichols to do so (Angels in America, Wit). But these are clearly films based on plays. For all the drawbacks evident in seeing a theatrical performance on video (with or without an audience, on a stage or in a studio) there's something very valuable about capturing it. Especially in plays and theatre pieces that may not "open up" well and are tailor made for the real-time and unit-set space of the stage. Plus, it is a way to record for posterity some of the fine performances by American stage actors who otherwise don't work much in film. (Note, for instance, that Emma Thompson's "Wit" is the performance of record now, not Kathleen Chalfant's.)

Next February, ABC will air the P.Diddy "Raisin in the Sun"in a production more or less derived from the Broadway one. (Phylicia Rashad is repeating her role and Kenny Leon is directing.) I bet it will be huge. Note ABC has also rolled out a series of old musicals over the last decade from Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella" to "Annie."

So will theatre ultimately find a home in the wider-access world of network tv (or what's left of it)? Or will it be cable that comes to the rescue? Whether HBO--who has the money and creative ambition to throw at it . Or will the ever-multiplying "niche channels" finally result in a whole theatre station, if not a really good arts network?

Or will we just have to wait for that day when everything is broadcast over our tv screens? Whan websites can store digitized videos of entire performances. BBC already does it for their Complete Shakespeare series. So--as the old saying goes--we have the technology.


Anonymous said...

Did anyone ever hear of PLAYHOUSE 90?

Did anyone ever see John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in the STAGED/Televised version of Sam Shepards Buried Child ?

Stuff is better than most crap on tv.

It will still work today, even though you have to get a few famous folks for the starf''krs in the audience.


Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Dude, I can't believe you didn't mention "Legally Blonde" on MTV. Though I'm not the target demo, it does seem an encouraging development. I just can't figure out why "Spring Awakening" didn't get there first.

Anonymous said...

I think you're thinking of "True West", not "Buried Child".

Anonymous said...

Re David Cote's question quoted above, I agree with Playgoer's answer: If you ask what TV can do to serve theater, showing theater ought to be the first thing.

But even that seems somewhat indirect in one way. If we don't know anyone who's not already connected with theater or a fan of it, then we don't have a very broad circle of contacts. And if we do know such people, I think we'd do well to try taking one of them to a play now and then. That is, if we have any concern with spreading our love of the form.

Anonymous said...

You can certainly "show" theater, but it cannot "be" theater unless you can replicate the communal experience of being in the room.

It can't be done--and won't. It's one reason that despite the flourishing of all electronic media, there is still a hunger for theater (and there always will be). John Branch is correct about taking someone to theater--just make sure it isn't "crap."

There is, of course, a lot of "crap" on television--as one poster put it--but there is also a fair amount of work that tells us something about what it means to be a human being--and THAT'S what the best theater does.