Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The real generation gap

Last weekend I caught the Actors' Shakespeare Project's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which the itinerant troupe set not in the woods surrounding Athens but in the alleys of the inner city. The piece featured several teenage actors, in gangsta or goth attire, as the fairies, Oberon had been transmuted into Keith Richards, and Titania I guess into Courtney Love. This is all pretty much par for the postmodern course - every recent production of Midsummer I've seen has been self-consciously harsh - but I'll get around to a full review of the production soon enough; what I've been mulling, actually, is the attitude toward Shakespeare - and maybe classic theatre in general - evinced by the artistic strategy behind it.

Clearly the production had been partially funded as a means of introducing inner city youth to the Bard - fair enough; Shakespeare has long been seen as something like Sandy Dennis in Up the Down Staircase, only in doublet and hose. And I'm all for introducing inner city youth, and youth in general, to my favorite playwright! Still, cutting Shakespeare down to the size of current pop culture (the poetry and music in Midsummer had either gone missing or turned to rap) always troubles me - isn't the point of education to expand a young person's horizons, rather than re-inforce their assumptions? And I began to wonder a bit about another generation, and what these kind of efforts might reveal about them.

Now it's no secret that a lot of people are worried, very worried, over the fact that theatrical audiences seem to be getting grayer and grayer with each passing year. Everyone's worried, very worried. And I suppose their fears are valid, although in classical music the trend seems even more pronounced (I've been to concerts where aging patrons have actually collapsed and been taken out by EMTs). The standard solution offered to this problem is that we must inculcate the theatre-going habit in young people. We must get more teens and twenty-somethings into the theatres!

Now I agree with that sentiment whole-heartedly, of course, but I don't think it tells the whole story. Frankly, I'd like to get our forty-somethings into the theatre, too.

Because to be blunt, the theatre has never been paid for by twenty-somethings; they simply don't have the cash, and so have always been confined to the last, student-rush rows in the theatre. This was the case twenty years ago, when I was that age, and I'm sure twenty years before that and twenty years before that.

No, it seem to me that's what actually different about the audience demographic these days is that the middle-aged aren't filling up the seats like they used to. Instead, the baby boomers are still going to rock concerts and clubs, earplugs in place, and pretending they're super-annuated guitar heroes and rock chicks. They don't want to be seen at high culture because that's like what their parents would like. Vice Presidents of Marketing tell themselves they're still rebels. Assistant Directors of Technology Implementation convince themselves they don't need Viagra.

Ah, if only - but sorry, you ka-razy kids, it's time to settle down and take your seats in, yes, high culture. And please don't tell yourself that your poor kids are going to take your place there, that they are going to carry on with western civilization while you go smoke a doobie! It can't work that way. You are no longer young. It's time to get with the classical program.

So maybe the next time the Actors' Shakespeare Project schedules A Midsummer Night's Dream, they should find a grant for casting middle-aged white guys as Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed. Let's introduce the magic of Shakespeare to the baby boom! I wanna see a few paunches in fairyland, a few balding dudes with ponytails (ack!). That is the kind of outreach that just might save the theatre.

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