Drama and Theatre discussion

Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable

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message 1: by Marc (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:34AM) (new)

Marc (marcbeaudin) | 21 comments My great friend and mentor, the late theatre director Joe Bertucci, used to say (borrowing from an old newspaper adage) that theatre should "Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable."

I agree. The art form of live theatre has great potential to challenge and change people. I have seen this first hand by directing "The Exonerated" by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, "Fear and Misery of the 3rd Reich" by Bertolt Brecht, as well as plays that I've written, "Frankenstein, Inc." which deals with genetic engineering and corporate science out of balance with nature, and "Little Shop of Whores" which is a parody about an oil and blood-sucking beast who takes over the White House. To have someone walk out after a show and say, "Damn it, they made me think" was perhaps the best review I've ever had.

What do others think? Should theatre be content with merely entertaining, or should we seek to heed my friend's advice and comfort those whom the system afflicts and afflict those whom the system makes comfortable?

message 2: by Ali (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:34AM) (new)

Ali Hi Marc, I do believe in this. The problem is that sometimes some people frame / pak theatre / art in ideologies, which smells a bit... make people thinking and push them to some concrete way, are different, aren't they?

message 3: by Marc (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:34AM) (new)

Marc (marcbeaudin) | 21 comments Hello Ali.
Definitely they are different. It's very easy to hit someone over the head with your truth; a lot trickier to make them want to go out and find their own truth. But even when I've done theatre that was closer to the first method, I think it can stir people into action. Even if it's out of disagreement with what they've just experienced or if they already were in agreement with it. Stirring them to action is the key for me. Brecht said "The object of our inquiries was not just to arouse moral objections to such circumstances, but to discover the means for their elimination."

Of course, it's not enough to have revolutionary theatre; it must be good art as well.

message 4: by Letitia (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:36AM) (new)

Letitia | 24 comments Thank you for your last sentence, Marc. Coming from primarily academic theatre, where there seems to be this arrogant assumption that the audience should just shove it if they don't like the production (It's ART, and it's supposed to be SHOCKING!...evidently), I feel cheated as the audience member when I know that I have been left out of the rehearsal process. No one cared what I would walk away with.

This goes along with not hitting them with YOUR truth, but sending them on a path of discovery.

Question: I'm curious if we poll the people in this group, if you think that entertainment is a viable reason to do theatre, or if it must have some societal impact?

message 5: by Marc (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:36AM) (new)

Marc (marcbeaudin) | 21 comments Good point, Letitia. I know what you mean about academic theatre. It seems to be the same with academic poetry and visual art as well. Not to offend any teachers or students out there (I have been both), but I find most academic art of any medium to be as stimulating and relevant as academic sex would be.

As far as your final question. I think any theatre WILL have a societal impact. Unfortunately, if the theatre being done is merely entertainment, I think that the impact on society will be to further deaden and isolate us. It will serve to turn up the air conditioning and pull down the shades, while the heat wave happening in the real world rages on.

message 6: by Ralph (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:37AM) (new)

Ralph (ralphinlaos) | 22 comments Good morning -

I really don't know how to respond to these postings - and don't even understand some of them.

Marc, I remember you saying that you are a socialogist and that "the bills must be paid." Well, I believe that you must entertain to get an audience - and therefore make money to stay in business. I remember when I was in school, my teacher made the remark one day: "Fuck all those little old ladies in Scarsdale." I got very angry and made the point that those little old ladies buy the tickets which allow us to live our dreams.

Academic theater - what is that? One of the best productions I ever saw was Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" at Florida State University. And another terrific show was "Big River" at the University of Michigan. Are these academic theater - simply because they are performed in academia? They sure are commercial, and allow us to do our experimental/heavier dramas because of the monies earned by them.

I think the raison d'etre for theater is entertainment first; anything else is gravy.

One mans "truh" is not necesarily everyman's. I would much rather have someone walk out of my show humming the title song than walking out at intermission. And I've seen both.

Probably the worst show I have ever seen in the professional theater was on Broadway - Uta Hagan in "Charlotte," written and directed by her husband, Herbert Berghof. Now, these are both gurus of the American Theater - pedigrees don't come any more impressive. And the production was terrible - as was the script. I was in the orchestra and all during the show we could hear people leaving the mezzanine/balcony by the droves. A true vanity production which lost every penny invested and was, the most mortal of sins, boring, boring, boring!

If we bore them, they won't come. And if they don't come, why don't I just do this in my living room?


message 7: by Marc (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:37AM) (new)

Marc (marcbeaudin) | 21 comments Hello Ralph,

You might have me confused with someone else. I'm not, nor have I ever been, a sociologist, and I never worry about paying the bills. If I'm doing what, artistically, I know I should be doing, and it's not paying the bills, then I get rid of the things that are causing the bills.

Money's nice, money's fun, money buys shiny things and beer; but it's not necessary for doing great theatre. All that is necessary is at least one actor and at least one audience member. Not to say that this is the ideal situation. I would prefer a great script, a great director, a great ensemble of great actors, a great set, and a great audience; however, if artistic integrity is compromised in order to fill the seats and pay the bills, I have to ask, what's the point? We have television for mere entertainment, and the people who only want to be entertained will probably be more happy sitting on their couches staring at a box than going out and having to interact with actual humans.

Don't get me wrong: nothing of what I'm saying implies that theatre shouldn't entertain. But it must do more. You're right, the deadliest of sins is to be boring. And equally sinful is to be mundane.

And finally, we don't need the little old ladies from Scarsdale's money to live our dreams. As Debbie Harry sang, "Dreaming is free." We can create the art that enriches and sustains us without money, if need be. Fortunately, when we successfully do this (honestly and wholeheartedly staying true to our art), there always seems to be an audience who wants to support it. And if there isn't, perhaps we should remember the example of VanGogh, who couldn't sell a damn thing in his lifetime, but (fortunately for all of us) stayed true to his art and created miracles.

message 8: by Ali (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:37AM) (new)

Ali Hi Ralph, it was me who said that. I think it depends on you and your point of view on theatre, to choose if you want to do theatre to pay the bills or paying the bills for the sake of theatre. I’m somehow agree with Marc. For me theatre is sort of temple, (I’m not religious at all), I’m grown up with such an idea about theatre, as a holly altar, where I communicate with people / audience instead of God. So I think when a performance is finished, the either ends of this communication should have approached to something more, something different. It could also be mixed with fun and entertainment. I think of Hamlet as a classic exemple and The Maids (Jean Gene) as a modern one.

message 9: by Jessica (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:43AM) (new)

Jessica This kind of discussion was my eternal fascination and frustration when I was a drama school student. I fall pretty firmly into the camp that believes that all the good intentions in the world don't necessarily make for a good theatrical experience, and avant-gardeness for the sake of avant-gardeness is just as boring as safety.

I don't think every theatrical experience has to change the world or push limits, but I also see little point in just regurgitating familiar stuff. Even if you need to do more "accessible" material to reach your particular audience, virtually anything can be done with a fresh eye. I also think we sometimes don't trust our audiences enough to put new experiences in front of them. It always drives me crazy when I hear talk about how the "blue hairs" need something easily digestible. Well, many of the blue hairs I know were young adults in the 1930s and were experiencing radical art and ideas before our parents were even born.

message 10: by Ali (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:44AM) (new)

Ali Ah ah! No need to go so far, being a puritanist: “changing the world” or so. I’m not sure either if I understand ”blue hairs”. Maybe we’d better not separate the teatre group (on stage) and audience. Nor consider the first as a teacher and the second as students, or “blue hair” or what so ever. If we consider them as two neccessory sides of a communication / dialogue / exchange of ideas, as two who are discussing about one subject, there won’t be any complication involved. I think an artist is one who has found something to say / to show / to talk about. If audience get involved in the subject and reacts mutually, then both sides have approached SOMETHING. Without that approaching point, I don’t think we get anywhere in theatre, or art. Think about what play we like, and what performance we prefere? why? I’m not talking / thinking of social realism, nor art for art. Just my 2 cents!

message 11: by Marc (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:44AM) (new)

Marc (marcbeaudin) | 21 comments Absolutely, Jessica. One of the theatre's I work for is a small town community theatre and the board of directors is constantly saying, "We don't want to offend the Blue Hairs." Yet it's so true that what brought most of these people to theatre in the first place was radical work like that of Brecht or Miller or O'Neill. When I directed a production of "The Exonerated" there, there was a lot of worrying about the piece being too extreme for our audience, however, for the most part, our audience loved it, and wanted more of this caliber of theatre. As a teacher I've learned to never talk down to your students; as a writer, never talk down to your readers; and as a theatre artist, never talk down to your audience. People can be just as entertained by Brecht as by Neil Simon, so why not give them the entertainment that can challenge, inspire and change them?

message 12: by Ralph (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:48AM) (new)

Ralph (ralphinlaos) | 22 comments Oh Marc, Marc, Marc -

What can I do? I really don't agree that "what brought most of these people to theatre in the first place was radical work like that of Brecht or Miller of O'Neill." I believe that what brings most people into the theater are things like The Odd Couple or Guys and Dolls or something really outlandish like No Sex Please, We're British. Certainly, there is an audience for Brecht/Miller/O'Neill, but it is infinitesimal when compared to Simon/Sondheim/Rogers and Hammerstein, etc. Sad, but true. No?

"People can be just as entertained by Brecht as by Neil Simon;" I don't think so. But "entertained" is probably the wrong word to use when discussing Mr. Brecht - he didn't write for the masses; Mr. Simon does (or did, not so much anymore). And what's wrong with entertaining the masses - I love a full theater with people laughing and obviously enjoying themselves. Or, as Shelley Winters once said, "the wonderful silence," when she was doing a serious play on Broadway (I forget the name of it, but Eva Marie Saint and Don Murray did the movie).

Just try putting Streisand or Midler on in one venue and John Gielgud or Ian McKellan in another - who will the vast majority buy tickets to see? I'm not saying this is right - but I do think it's a fact. And those who buy the Streisand/Midler tickets are not idiots; it's just that they know they are going to be entertained and will enjoy the evening. Or perhaps they've yawned through Brecht or O'Neill before.

Yes, I know Geilgud is dead.

Basically, I just hate to work my rear-end off for six weeks of rehearsal and then have only the hard-liners show up. I like to play to a full house!

I'm obviously talking about commercial, sell-those-tickets, theater. The ideal, to me, is to have a large theater for entertaining the people with a smaller theater in the same building for those who wish to experiment or present those less-than-blockbusters productions. Utopia?

Your theater-loving friend in Laos -


message 13: by Jessica (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:48AM) (new)

Jessica Ralph, I appreciate what you're saying, and I agree that moving an audience (to laugh, to cry, to be afraid, etc.) is what it's all about. But I don't think "thoughtful/important" and "entertaining" are binary choices. The trick of making good theater is to bring your intellectual or emotional ephiphany in a way that entertains and moves the audience. And certainly Brecht was very interested in doing just that, by combining important intellectual ideas with music-hall style. Both Miller and O'Neill did most of their most successful work in a realistic style that remains extremely popular today -- after all, many Broadway seasons have successful O'Neill runs starring actual movie stars.

What I guess I'm saying is there is a lot of wonderful work to produce (yes, including work by comic geniuses like Neil Simon) that both entertains and gives audiences something to chew on, and that's the kind of work I like to experience as an audience member and as as theater artist. But you have to trust that audience members have the interest and capability to understand and enjoy something that is more than mindless, or something that sometimes isn't easy or neat. They can, and they will, and they do, every day.

message 14: by Ralph (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:49AM) (new)

Ralph (ralphinlaos) | 22 comments Hi Jessica -

Now, as much as it pains me to say this, I know that you are absolutely right. It just seems that sometimes I have to play the devil's advocate because so many people in the theatre (especially those in not-for-profit) are so adamant against doing anything remotely commerical or familiar. And we all know there is not much that is more familiar than Brecht or Miller or O'Neill. So I over-react and go too far in the other direction; that is, commercial and "what the audience really wants to see."

Whenever I hear the word "artistic," I just cringe. There is so much dreck out there parading as art - I am not a young man and I've seen a lot of junk in my lifetime (both in the commercial and not-for-profit sector).

I think that O'Neill was probably America's greatest playwright, followed closely by Tennessee Williams and then by Arthur Miller. The three greatest (and many people would agree with me).

I was once cast as Tom in "The Glass Menagerie," and really looked forward to playing the role. Unfortunately, the production was cancelled, so I never did get to play the role.

I'm only half-finished but I have to go - someone is banging at the gate. Talk to you later.


message 15: by Jessica (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:49AM) (new)

Jessica Ralph -- here is my dirty little secret: I actually have never gotten Eugene O'Neill at all. However, I am hugely crazy about Tennessee Williams, and did my undergraduate thesis on Camino Real, which I directed, and did quite a bit of graduate work on him as well. I love the operatic messiness of him.

Was it Godot at the gate?

message 16: by Joseph (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:50AM) (new)

Joseph | 12 comments Brecht did write for the so-called masses. His company, the Berliner Ensemble, is one of the biggest in Germany. And entertaining...he is, after all, the lyricist of Mack the Knife.

This is going to be a big sticking point for me, but who is this Audience you speak of, and what do they "really want to see?"

Box office revenue has no bearing on the value of a theatrical performance.

And a McKellan/Gielgud King Lear will outsell a Streisand/Midler King Lear every time. (Especially since Gielgud is dead. What a show that would be!)

message 17: by Marc (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:50AM) (new)

Marc (marcbeaudin) | 21 comments I love that this conversation keeps continuing. Thanks to everyone here.

I do believe that theatre artists are partly to blame in convincing the general audience that they would rather see "mere" entertainment rather than "art." Many times work is presented in a attitude of "Well, this is art; most people won't appreciate it." Also, when producing a Brecht or Shakespeare, many, many people get so lost in the idea that they are dealing with an "important classic" and so end up absolutely missing the humor and passion and humanity and entertainment within the piece.

Yet, I maintain that if we as artists, approach great work with honesty and passion, that the audience will love it. And if this is truly the case, why not offer this type of theatre the majority of the time?

Certainly, it's no crime to enjoy empty fluff from time to time. But I think it now dominates our culture (not just in theatre, but in most arts). I think this is mostly because it's more easily marketable in a capitalist system based on 30-second sound bytes and superficial, sugar-coated images. And then perpetuated by the myth of theatre being divided into the two categories of art or entertainment; with the artists not being entertaining and the entertainers not being artistic.

Personally, if the work isn't artistic (by which I mean authentic, provoking, inspiring, and enduring) then it will never be entertaining to me.

Maybe the initial maxim should read: "Theatre should comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, and inspire and entertain the hell out of everyone."

message 18: by Ali (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:50AM) (new)

Ali Thanks Marc,... have no additional word!

message 19: by Ralph (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:53AM) (new)

Ralph (ralphinlaos) | 22 comments No, Jessica, not Godot. Barbarians!

message 20: by Marc (last edited Aug 25, 2016 12:01PM) (new)

Marc (marcbeaudin) | 21 comments Going back to Ralph's comment: No, Neil Simon didn't write for the masses; he wrote for himself, to make money, to have a career. Brecht; however, wrote because he cared about the masses. History will remember the latter, but I doubt if this true about the former.

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