Sunday, April 09, 2006


Bums in seats

While in New York last week, I stumbled across this powerful circumstantial evidence for a point I think I've made before in this blog -- that the theatre is, to quote Carol Kane in The Princess Bride, mostly dead.


No, not because the theatre happens to be dark -- this was taken on a Monday night, after all. Instead, look what they're putting on: Neil Simon's romantic comedy Barefoot in the Park, first produced on Broadway in 1963 and then made into a movie in 1967 (with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, who also starred in Broadway).

I understand the theory behind "putting bums in seats,"* but in my view, the contemporary theatre's continual challenge to do this is a sign that the medium is passe.

Barefoot in the Park is cute, but pretty dated. Is there some reason why a stage production of this early 1960s romantic comedy is going to be a more successful crowd pleaser than a 2006 romantic comedy? Yes -- its the economics of art and culture. Hardly anyone with talents in this area is writing plays. They're almost all writing screenplays.

And the only folks willing to shell out the outrageous ticket prices are nostalgic old people with money, tourists determined to see a "Broadway show" and a smattering of younger people with historically-based aesthetics for whom theatre is a window into their parents' (or grandparents') world.

In Shakespeare's day, they filled the theatres with the best and newest that the media of spoken performance had to offer. Today, as a spectator you can get most, all or in some cases more, of that emotional catharsis in movies and even television for a fraction of the price of theatre. The theatre is basically poor-man's movies: it's a medium for creators who don't have access to the capital intensive means of moviemaking.

Movies take dramatic performance and, at their best (to be sure, there's crap in every medium), can intensify them by add thickly layered atmospherics: sensorally powerful sets and effects and sounds. And due to the technological advantage of being recorded, movies can be distributed on a mass basis, with economies of scale that make a movie ticket 90-99% cheaper than a theatre ticket.

I understand that there is "something about live performance" -- though, frankly, I don't feel any closer to a stage actor's distant tiny face from my vantage point in the cheap seats than I do to an actor on the silver screen. And I understand that stage acting places different -- arguably more challenging -- demands on actors: it requires an uninterrupted and sequential performance in contrast to movies, in which chopped up, asynchronous scenes are pieced together sequentially in the editing room.

There is always the argument that theatre's extremely limited ability to create a virtual world is good for the audience because it forces us to exercise our imaginations, whereas movies fill in all the blanks and make us more passive receptors of performance. Well, I'm not a huge believer in this "eat your vegetables" theory of aesthetics and, in any event, I can exercise this aspect of my imagination in the comfort of my own home, for a tiny fraction of the cost, by reading a book.

Stage acting is different -- but better? I myself am not terribly enamored of stage acting, where all emoting has to be done with the voice since facial expressions are not visible in the back half of the theatre; and where speaking has to verge toward the bombastic in order to project the voice throughout the theatre. But to the extent that the theatre creates acting challenges for their own sake, that do not particularly enhance the performance, the differences strike me as more of a treat for the actors than the audience. You might make stage acting an event in a kind of acting Olympics, but frankly I'm less interested in structured displays of virtuosity than I am in a moving performance.

Yes, yes, of course theatre is art. So are madrigals and Gregorian chants. It's really fading into the realm of art history.

*Surprisingly, my brief web search did not uncover a handy definition of this term. I took matters into my own hands and have just submitted the following definition to
(also "butts in seats" and "butts in the seats"): spectators who have been drawn into a theatre or other entertainment by a low-brow, mass-appeal production. A reference to the economic demand on entertainment business producers to attract paid attendance.
"We need a show that will put bums in seats."

I adore theater. I love that I live close enough to Chicago to go see some every once in a while. I'm not sure if this stems from my years as a high school drama rat, or the acting award I received, but I love it nonetheless.
Oh, how I agree with you. And not just because I spent 7 years of my life pursuing a Ph.D. in cinema studies. I can't think of anything I'd want to do less than spend 2+ hours watching a play. Seeing Teri Hatcher in "Cabaret" might have been the final straw.
ilolzsa: I am laughing out loud at Zsa Zsa Gabor.
ah, along with sopranos and the new vs. old pride and prejudice movies, on this one, dearest oscar, we part company. i have found, every single time, that live performance grabs my attention and my heart in a way that movies and tv never can. my idea of the ideal visit to london involves 1/2 price tickets at least once a day, sometimes twice, to see whatever they have playing in the west end.

Here's where I'm a nitpicky pain in the ass: It was Billy Crystal, not the lovely Carol Kane, who uttered the "mostly dead" line.

...says the woman who in college was known to run around yelling "Humperdink, Humperdink, Humperdink" for no reason at all.
Good call, APL. "Chocolate makes it go down easier."

zclce (SEEK-uh-lace): the hardened sugar-coated glaze that forms atop restaurant desserts.
Thanks for this excellent analysis--I agree with pretty much every point you make (though I was also horrified by the inaccurate Princess Bride attribution). I admit I've seen some terrifice live performances of very great plays, but I sitll prefer film. I've always been willing to believe, as fans of the theatre have often informed me, this makes me a bad and lazy person, but your post here helps me see otherwise.
In spite of the fact that "intercession" might sound emotional, organizing a powerful one does not need to be an over-the-top generation. Research has borne out that it is conceivable to mediate without mortifying, rankling, or corrupting the individual who is the center of the intercession. Line of seats closest to the stage

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