Philadelphia's Diverse (and Zany) Theater Communities

What happens when a Philadelphia theatre company becomes as large at the military industrial complex?
The city theatre that stands out as the most daring in terms of material is the Wilma Theater on South Broad. Ask any theatre lover about the plays produced at the Wilma, and they will tell you that they are different from almost anything produced in the city. Many also believe that Wilma plays have gotten "weirder and weirder," and this has led to a few subscription loses. Generally, the people who have cancelled their subscriptions or chosen not to renew their season tickets are not unlearned types. Their taste in plays goes way beyond vanilla taffy hits like The Sound of Music, or Peter and the Star Catcher, both Walnut Street Theatre productions. These "unsubscribers" just don't like the "weirder and weirder" part, or what I have come to dub as the political angst plays brought to you by.... The Cult of the Wilma.

The main stage of Walnut Street Theatre is a good example of everything the Wilma is not. The Walnut main stage might as well be an amusement park stage at Orlando Disneyworld. The Walnut's popularity and large audience draw can be attributed to its focus on fun and entertainment. Good theater to the average Walnut subscriber is solely about entertainment, not about being challenged intellectually. I'm convinced that if you were to take a survey of the average Walnut audience you'd find that most could tell you little or nothing about playwrights like Eugene O'Neil, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet, Tom Stoppard, or Joe Orton. While it's true that the Walnut will occasionally stage an Oscar Wilde play, these plays have been tested over time and can in no way be categorized as edgy or daring. The Walnut generally has the best stage sets of any theatre in the city, especially when it comes to lush 19th Century drawing rooms, perfect for a Wilde play. Walnut audiences applaud fabulous stage sets, while Wilma audiences laugh too much at actors' lines and give far too many standing ovations.

A Matter of Style

Despite the shopping mall style ambience at the Walnut main stage, audiences there tend to dress better than serious theatre crowds elsewhere in the city. Dress at the Wilma varies from suits and ties, casual dress to sweat pants and old plaid shirts hanging over faded dungarees. It's mostly the men who dress badly, the loose hanging shirt look having been invented by men who were concerned about hiding their protruding stomachs. At a recent BalletX performance introducing the dance company's Spring Series--held at the Wilma, by the way-- sweats, yoga pants and the Home Depot look was out in force, suggesting an odd psychic connection between an audience's tendency to be "noisy" and their manner of dress. Shortly after the performance began, BalletX artistic director Christine Cox had to come on stage to remind the audience to turn off their cell phones. The culprits in this case were an underdressed bunch who also happened to be the ones laughing and applauding at inappropriate times, as if they were attending a hockey match.

This makes me want to publish a booklet entitled, How to Behave at the Theater.
Some of the rules would include:

1. No inappropriate or overdone laughing. Just because an actor walks onstage in his undies is no reason to scream or giggle incessantly. Laughing as soon as a play begins says that you are either on weed, being tickled by your seatmate, or that you are possibly a "plant" to drum up more laughter.
2. Every play or performance does not necessitate a standing ovation. Standing ovations should be the exception to the rule for truly spectacular works of art but if they occur all the time, then the word spectacular loses its meaning.
3. At opening night receptions, do not push others away because you want to get your fair share of chicken kabob. Pig feeding troughs are usually found in barnyard settings. (I regret to report that at Philadelphia Theatre Company receptions at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, there's hardly any food anyway, so you had better not come hungry).

While the Wilma's Blanka Zizka's post- Eastern European communist bloc verve is to be admired (Blanka defected from Czechoslovakia with her now deceased husband Jiri Zizka in 1979), I don't always understand or appreciate the plays she chooses to showcase. Very often I get the feeling that much of the Wilma's intent is to "out avant garde the avant garde" and to be "edgy and daring" for its sake. The Wilma's tendency to do this is clearly evident in the production of An Octoroon, which opened at the theatre on March 16.

The Inquirer's Toby Zinman, for instance, praised An Octoroon, while others who saw it were less than impressed. An Octoroon, for starters, is somebody who is 1/8th black. Before the Emancipation Proclamation, an octoroon was considered white enough to escape being forced into slavery while at the same time black enough to be kept on society's fringes.
An Octoroon jumps from time period to time period, juxtaposing attitudes and viewpoints. It's a play about race relations on a southern plantation that is only sometimes inspiring, funny and poignant but in the end winds up being far too long and preachy. It's a play without a smooth narrative--yes, smooth narrative always seems to get the boot in plays advertised as cutting edge, avant garde, or daring. The self consciously "arty" and very jumpy time line juxtapositions in An Octoroon made me think how nice it would be to see the work that inspired that inspired the production, that being a 19th Century melodrama entitled The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault, which is a smooth narrative.

In Boucicault's play, there are no H.G. Wells time line manipulations or parallel universes going up and down like juggler's balls.
I must ask: Has a fondness for smooth narrative become old fashioned? Why must almost every Wilma play challenge us to the point of annoyance, boredom or the feeling that we are attending a political church, as the preacher drones on and on until he or she is sure that we've gotten the message?
Don't talk to me about plays/and or theatre companies that boast of "pushing boundaries." What does "pushing boundaries" mean anyway?

1. It cannot refer to nudity, since nudity in our age pushes no boundary. The same might be said for loud explosions onstage, such as in war epics. Forget a black man wearing white face (as seen in An Octoroon), or a white baby doll wearing black face. These are all theatrical gimmicks.
Less noticeable at the Wilma's opening of An Octoroon was the canned laugh track or inappropriate audience laughter coming within minutes of when the first actor walks on stage. Say that actor makes a hand gesture, moves to the side in a clumsy way, makes a facial grimace or sticks out his/her tongue. What do we hear? Howls of laughter from three or four people scattered throughout the theater. Often these howls accelerate until whole groups of people are laughing in chorus. Several months ago, Toby Zinman made mention of Wilma audiences and their tendency to laugh inappropriately.

The standing ovation at the end of An Octoroon was no surprise to me, since Wilma audiences give standing ovations to any play with the Wilma brand, proof positive that the Cult of the Wilma is gaining traction. If you have any doubts about the existence of this cult, attend a performance and witness how quick the Millennial-heavy audience is to huddle in peer group cliques during the post show reception. At least 70 percent of any Wilma audience is in their 20s or 30s creating one of the most ageist theatre receptions I've ever witnessed. Older but no less ardent Wilma supporters that evening were heard to exclaim "I'm not feeling this reception at all!"
I have one thing to add about that reception: Perhaps the real octoroons that evening was the over 35- crowd.