Bread and Circuses – Does This Describe the State of Broadway?

th-69Some of the greatest theatre in the world can be seen on the Broadway stage. Also, some of the worst theatre in the world can be seen on the Broadway stage. In addition, Broadway does not have a monopoly when it comes to quality theatre. You can find amazing theatrical experiences Off-Broadway, and across American in various regional, university, and summer theatres. Of course, that’s not to mention theatre in other countries where, often, theatrical experiences eclipse those on Broadway.

Big Effect Theatre

th-76Broadway, in the last 30 years or so, has been consumed by the big effect. Sometimes that big effect has been accomplished simply, such as the original production of Pippin, and sometimes it’s been done using fairly extraordinary means, such as in shows like Miss Saigon, Evita, Wicked, and many other shows.

It’s easy to decry big effect theatre as being that and only that. But sometimes it is only that- the big effect. Still, there’s nothing to say that Broadway or any theatre should not utilize the big effect. The question is, though, at what price is it being used? That question is both a practical and artistic one.

Considering Theatre

th-70One question to ask about any show is does the play or musical really benefit from looming video screens, high-powered FX, and automated scenery that seems to do everything but spew lines and smile. The latest Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman (2012) opted to go with the original 1949 set designed by Jo Mielziner. It was noted that the set was used because Mielziner’s design specifically connected with the progression and development of the play and Willy’s character.

That doesn’t mean to say that Broadway should be about recycling ideas. The 2013 revival of The Glass Menagerie was noted for its fine acting as well as the atmosphere created and enhanced by the moat that surrounded the Wingfield apartment and the fire escape that seemed to disappear into the ether.

th-68Some thought that these new touches enhanced the play, while others felt that they made image and atmosphere more important than the language. This is the same sort of argument you might get for a play by Shakespeare being produced using the latest special effects.

If you’ve got a good script in hand, then it becomes a question of balance. If you’ve got a show on the boards with gaping holes, then the big effect can tend to become a superficial remedy but not a cure for what ails the production.

Big Effect Nothing New

th-72The big effect is nothing new. In the American theatre during the mid-19th into the early 20th centuries, the exciting effects in Ben Hur, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Black Crook, Under the Gaslight, and many other shows, thrilled audiences. These shows had fairly complex plots but often relied on two-dimensional characters.

Also, the extravaganza, which featured thrilling stage devices, special effects, and atmospheric enhancements, was in full gear. These shows often had thin plots and simple characters. They focused a lot of their energy on engaging audiences through spectacle.

Great Theatre at Low Costs

th-75One question to consider is might simplifying productions reduce ticket prices? This doesn’t mean lowering standards, but it does entail focusing more on the actual performance rather than the elements we use to enhance performance. The Medieval cycle plays often involved major special effects, while the English Renaissance theatre offered simple production elements, allowing the lines and acting to create the scene. Which of those types of plays are more likely to be produced on Broadway today?

th-74Perhaps we are past that type of bare bones presentation except in rare instances such as when Mark Rylance and company came to Broadway in 2013 and performed Richard III and Twelfth Night using basic production elements. Is this a more genuine theatre experience, or do we require everything that technology has to offer in order to be satisfied in the theatre? Should theatre become more like film, and if it is, is it still theatre, or should there be a movement towards ensuring the art form remains pure? (Whatever that means?)

These are questions worth asking, considering, and debating. Why? Because if we don’t stop and ask these questions then we’re mindlessly producing plays in a manner that is more akin to Mab Libs than art.


th-66The musical If/Then was a highly imaginative undertaking by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt. It was complex in thought and offered fairly interesting characters in life-changing situations. But when watching the production it was hard to stay connected to the show, as each scene, with it’s shifting, highly customized scenery, exacting lighting, and intensely orchestrated sound was so controlled that the actors were inhibited by those things that should be supporting their performances.

Were they really live performers or these beings having to conform to what stage technology allowed them to do? Simple things, such as the powerful use of diagonals, geometric configurations, and multilevel playing were nonexistent.

th-65Somehow this need to clutter a production with “something” steals the genuine, human energy from a show. If these are the types of productions that Broadway aspires to at an average ticket price of more that $100, then perhaps basic questions concerning what the theatre experience should prize the most should be asked.

You can’t help but think that If/Then and other Broadway shows would be better served by simplicity so that the play or the musical can play rather then be pushed along at breakneck speed.

th-71Then again, we get back to in what places we might really see and experience great theatre? Maybe that’s what Off-Broadway and other venues are all about, producing great theatre. Broadway may just be, for the most part, bread and circuses to stimulate our senses for a few hours, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Arts and Education’s Powerful Potential Still Undervalued in US

Is this the only way to learn something important or useful?

Is this the only way to learn something important or useful?

As schools, colleges, and universities begin the new academic year, it’s a good time to consider the arts and their connection to education. Last year one apparently well-intentioned administrator decided that the arts needed to take a backseat. This occurred when Interim Principal of the Harley Avenue Elementary School in Elmwood, which is located on Long Island, cancelled the annual kindergarten variety show. Why was it shutdown?

This was done because an accumulation of snow days resulted in lost instructional time. Some at the school felt that the kindergarten students had more important things to do than to perform in a show. What was that? They had to prep for college exams.

Interim Principal Ellen Best-Laimit

Interim Principal Ellen Best-Laimit

The explanation for the action arrived in a letter from Interim Principal Ellen Best-Laimit and four kindergarten teachers. The missive read, in part, “The reason for eliminating the kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, co-workers, and problem solvers.”

Perhaps Interim Principal Ellen Best-Laimit has never been tested by being on stage, or by having to develop an artistic skill, or by having to interpret dialogue or a piece of music? All of these endeavors do teach participants to be “strong readers, writers, co-workers, and problem solvers.”

Still, there are various educators who feel as if the arts are an add-on to the educational process. However, if pressed on the question “what sort of world would we have without the arts?” most would have to reply, if being honest, a rather empty and dull one.

What Do Some Business People Think?

Innovation and the arts go hand-in-hand.

Innovation and the arts go hand-in-hand.

What do some of the most important business leaders and innovative creators think about the arts? Here are just a few quotes.

“In my own philanthropy and business endeavors, I have seen the critical role that the arts play in stimulating creativity and in developing vital communities….the arts have a crucial impact on our economy and are an important catalyst for learning, discovery, and achievement in our country.”
Paul G. Allen, Co-Founder, Microsoft

“We need people who think with the creative side of their brains—people who have played in a band, who have painted…it enhances symbiotic thinking capabilities, not always thinking in the same paradigm, learning how to kick-start a new idea, or how to get a job done better, less expensively.”
Annette Byrd, GlaxoSmithKline

“It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”
Steve Jobs, in introducing the iPad 2 in 2011

“A broad education in the arts helps give children a better understanding of their world…We need students who are culturally literate as well as math and science literate.”
Paul Ostergard, Vice President, Citicorp

“Arts education aids students in skills needed in the workplace: flexibility, the ability to solve problems and communicate, the ability to learn new skills, to be creative and innovative, and to strive for excellence.”
Joseph M. Calahan, Director of Cooperate Communications, Xerox Corporation

What skills, innovative thinking, and creativity does it take to successfully produce a 17th century comedy?

What skills, innovative thinking, and creativity does it take to successfully produce a 17th century comedy?

“GE hires a lot of engineers. We want young people who can do more than add up a string of numbers and write a coherent sentence. They must be able to solve problems, communicate ideas and be sensitive to the world around them. Participation in the arts is one of the best ways to develop these abilities.”
Clifford V. Smith, President of the General Electric Foundation

“The rapidly evolving global economy demands a dynamic and creative workforce. The arts and its related businesses are responsible for billions of dollars in cultural exports for this country. It is imperative that we continue to support the arts and arts education both on the national and local levels. The strength of every democracy is measured by its commitment to the arts.”
Charles Segars, CEO of Ovation

Impact of Arts

Language, analytical, collaborative, and creative skills come together in a simple play reading.

Language, analytical, collaborative, and creative skills come together in a simple play reading.

In Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning, the only study of its kind conducted in the US, it was found that the arts had a major effect on a wide range of children, including those who are considered to be at risk. The study, which was undertaken by the Arts Education Partnership and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and funded by the GE Fund and the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation, found that “involvement with the arts provides unparalleled opportunities for learning, enabling young people to reach for and attain higher levels of achievement.”

Valuing the Total Effect

A phone, which is a collaborative product that developed by merging art  and technology, is an artistic, technological, and cultural portal.

A phone, which is a collaborative product that developed by merging art and technology, is an artistic, technological, and cultural portal.

The arts are just one element of a commitment to total education. That commitment includes academics, health and physical fitness, and social and cultural skills, as well as artistic endeavors. It is not preparing students to take tests and score high on them so that schools look good. Somehow we have been sidetracked as to what education is about. This may be a result of No Child Left Behind as well as the emphasis on the Common Core. But no one will care one bit about what any child got on a standardized exam when they grow up and have to perform in the workplace.

Rather than high grades on exams, they will want people who can think logically, creatively, and rationally while dedicating themselves to mastery in their field as they work towards innovative solutions, new ways of envisioning the future, and concrete methods dedicated to improving our lives. The arts can help cultivate that in everyone at any age.