Celebrating the familiar

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported recently that – in spite of all the economic doom and gloom – ticket sales for holiday performances in the Philadelphia area are actually up from last year. I’m tempted to say everyone needs an escape from the bad news. But I think it’s significant that the events being cited are both live events and relatively expensive. Even my little Tuna Christmas costs $30 a ticket. People can escape for a lot less, so I think something else is going on.

I have come to believe that one of theater’s purposes is to comfort the audience. And at no other part of the theatrical season is the comfort level raised so high. Think of the offerings cited in the article: The Nutcracker, Cinderella, James and The Giant Peach. These are all well-known stories. So part of what is going on is that audiences are flocking back to see the familiar. Even Tuna Christmas is a sequel, and over half the characters John and I play were seen on same stage last year at the same time.

We spend so much time in the theatre trying to be new, innovate, original. And yet these (often worthy) aims run counter to the comforting aspect of performance. In these uncertain times, when all of us are wondering how we will weather the storms coming, it feels good to be in the company of others, witnessing an uplifting event skillfully organized and presented. It is that organization of experience which makes holiday performances so important. They are antidotes to the chaos and uncertainty we are all experiencing. That we share them with others we don’t know affirms our connection to the wider world, and helps us feel that we – all of us – are at least okay enough to come together and laugh. I have come to feel that “cutting edge” is a wounding phrase and of limited use in the theatre.

The panto (what Cinderella is) is a form which figured this out long ago, which is why pantos are everywhere in the U.K. during the holiday season, where they are known as “holiday” or “Christmas” pantos. The audience isn’t coming to see a new story. The story isn’t the point at all. The audience is coming to see their old friends again, in a slightly different context. Same with Nutcracker. Same with Tuna.

I think the theatre generally would be well served if more theatre artists focused on celebrating and heightening the event if the play performed, as much as we tend to fret about the aesthetic virtues of the production. Sometimes it feels to me as if the audience is an after-thought, as if we get to tech and everyone goes, oh yeah all those people will be coming soon. I am reminded of Stanislavsky’s assistant Suler, who promoted the idea of theatre-as-spa, in which the event of the play was the culmination of a day of holistic therapy (read Magarshack’s bio). I love the notion that we in Philadelphia are helping soothe the fears and anxieties of the populace with well-executed, familiar and often beloved performances. We do not celebrate any great aesthetic breakthrough, rather, we celebrate our interconnection. We remind each other that we’re all still here, still doing okay, still able to laugh. Celebrating the familiar theatre Tuesday, December 9, 2008