Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

High School Theatre On Metaphorical Steroids

I loved this article from Jesse Green in the NY Times, about a high school in the heartland that spends tens, even in one case over a hundred, thousand dollars on its musical productions.

Check it out, and read it all the way through. Green does a superb job balancing the potential positive and negative aspects of this bigger-is-better approach to theatre.

"If programs like New Albany's do sometimes seem to be learning the wrong lessons from Broadway, they have not lost the sweet, seat-of-the-pants quality that can make even the humblest high school production lastingly meaningful. In terms of pure devotion and uncritical support, the theatrical life never gets much better."

As a trend, and apparently it is one, what the headline calls the "supersizing of the school play" can be troublesome. Note this quote from the director: "What can the tech kids do in 'Our Town'? Polish the chairs and put ladders away?" It's a little worrying that shows would be chosen on the basis of having enough technical needs. Then again, it's a fair point, since school plays really are about involvement, and I wouldn't question any school director's search for a show with the right mix of male and female roles. Why is working towards acting involvement any more appropriate from an educational perspective than technical involvement? It's not. I'm just concerned that sound systems take precedence over simple theatricality.

So I have extremely mixed feelings. But we have to recognize that this is part of a cycle. The commercial musical theatre got bigger and bigger, more and more focused on spectacle, less on melody and narrative. For years, I've had conversations with people wondering what musicals high schools would produce once "Oklahoma" (my first school show, by the way) gave way to "Les Miz." The answer is now becoming clear: the school play would change and reflect the popular culture. They'd raise more money and go for broke.

Good luck with "The Lion King," boys and girls. You'll need to raise some serious cash. The $60-$100 "ticket and costume quota" the kids in the show commit to (if their families can) won't even pay for the antlers.

My favorite part of the article actually describes how the enthusiastic corps raises additional money for the show by soliciting personal notes for the programs.

"The largest source of income is tickets ($15 for adults; $12 for everyone else), followed by program sponsorship from merchants and concession sales. The company is continually harangued to solicit more of the $10 'costume ads' that fill pages and pages of the printed program. 'Clay, sorry we have to miss your show - Love Mamaw & Papaw.' 'Wesley - You always make me proud. Love you, A Very Lucky Dad.'"

Maybe Broadway can learn that lesson. In addition to buying a $100 ticket, we should be able to take out personal ads of encouragement: "Hey Christina Applegate, hope your foot's OK. Don't break another leg! Love, Your Podiatrist."