Saturday, July 14, 2012

Capitalism, Consumerism, and Art: Money Ruins Everything

Within the past 24 hours I've become fully convinced that everything that's wrong with America's perception of and attitude towards theatre can be blamed on money.

While most people might agree with me, citing lack of income as the primary difficulty, I think the problem exists at a much deeper cultural level and is, therefore, much more difficult to solve. Rather than blame a reluctant public and advocate unwieldy advertising techniques, or pandering, in order to sell tickets, I focus my ire on good old American capitalism.

I think that, if theatre dies out -- the likelihood of which has been a topic of discussion for years -- it will be because American culture and society has successfully imposed capitalistic business ideals onto what is supposed to be an art form. This is, in my opinion, kind of like scientists growing human ears on the backs of lab rats. Sure, it can work, and may solve some problems. But at the end of the day, they're two completely different animals.

It makes me sad to think of how many creative and artistic theatrical impulses are curbed by financial concerns. As I've spent my entire life around actors, directors, designers, technicians, and playwrights, I've overheard many conversations that included questions like:

1. How will this show sell in the community?
2. How can we market this show to young people/old people/non-theatre goers?
3. Will this show alienate our base audience?

These kinds of questions, and their answers, dictate a lot of what theatre companies and educational programs are able to accomplish. Notice that, in each of the above questions, the audience is equivalent to any group of consumers.

Karl Marx, the father of communism, made a series of very interesting points on capitalism's impact on the self esteem of the individual throughout the course of his writing. One idea that really stood out to me is that, in capitalistic societies, consumers get lumped into a sort of amoeba. Individuality is lost because people only exist as particles of target markets. This has happened to theatre, too. The People Who Want to See "Hamlet" are different from the People Who Want to See "Legally Blonde: the Musical." Because theatre companies feel the need to isolate and play to these specific groups, they end up alienating individuals.

(Another problem exists in shared terminology. For example, referring to a staging of a show as a "production" implies that the play or musical is a product to be consumed rather than an event to be experienced. But that's a discussion for another day.)

I was fortunate enough in my theatrical education to have had teachers (both in high school and college) who never focused on selling tickets or making money. They were in it for the story, and that's what gave those stagings meaning and purpose. But now, as I slowly make my way towards the professional world, the majority of the decisions I observe tend to be judged in terms of money rather than artistic value, and that makes me nervous.

As far as I'm concerned, money is never an adequate motivation for art.