"The Play's the Thing ": Getting Butts in the Seats

"My interest in American culture is accessed through an immersion in international issues, international cultures, and other theatre from other cultures," says Anne Bogart via phone from upstate New York, on a break from writing another (still untitled) book, pre-London bound, and following a preemptive apology for nibbling on her lunch during the interview.

Bogart does double duty running the Graduate Directing Program at Columbia University and serving as the Artistic Director of the SITI Company, which she founded with Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki in 1992. The upcoming SITI Company season will include the New York premiere of Charles L. Mee's Under Construction.

"I spend a lot of time thinking about it," she continues. "In other words, why is it that not only theatre, but also literature in this country is profoundly different than, say, European literature? If you look at the foundations of our theatre -- and they come from vaudeville, they come from, you know, American inventions of jazz, or the detective novel -- the idea of a department store is an American mentality -- very different from the Aristotelian development of plot through European sensibilities. That question is constantly of interest. Why do we do things the way we do them? I think they are political and historical."

"For me, the theatre is exactly, for that reason, important in our times -- perhaps more important than almost any other time I can think of. To be in the room with a sustained attention and empathetic relationship to others is remarkable. I think the theatre is a kind of gym for the soul. You go to the gym for your body, here you go for your soul, and for your ability to connect with the outside world, which I think is diminishing. For that reason, there is an appetite," Bogart shares.

Diane Paulus, co-creator and director (with her husband Randy Weiner) of The Donkey Show, director of the Tony Award winning revival of Hair, and the current Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.), couldn't agree more.

On a dinner break from tech rehearsals for a robotic opera, Death and the Powers, which will have its premiere in Monaco this fall, she enthusiastically divulges, "I'm learning the good news is that people still want theatre. The idea that it's a dying art form," Paulus shakes her head through the phone. (Yes, I've found this is possible.) "Now, more than ever, people want to get away from their laptops and go to an environment where they feel viscerally alive."

"Theatre is visceral," says Paulus, somehow managing to eke an onomatopoeiac feeling (I've found this is also possible) through her impassioned enthusiasm. "You're in it. You're in a space with other human beings. And you want to feel your blood pumping, you want to feel your energy, and you want your mind engaged. Theatre is not mutually exclusive. The emotional, the spiritual, the intellectual, and the physical, the visceral - that's the theatre, that's the theatrical event."

"If I have a theatre ticket, I'm happy all day long," confesses veteran stage actress Marian Seldes with a schoolgirl giggle. Seldes made her Broadway debut in a 1947 production of Medea directed by John Gielgud. Recently, Seldes was seen in the movie The Extra Man starring Kevin Kline, a former student of hers at The Julliard School.

"I love the classic plays, and I never thought I would be in a play by a living author," says Seldes, the youth of her laughter belying the wisdom of a 60 year stage career that's seen the diversity of American playwrights and theatre grow significantly over the decades, to surpass the time when the majority of plays were written by (often dead) white men for white men.

"Do you know what Aristotle called theatre?" Seldes asks. "He called it the healing art. I think some people can go to the theatre and identify with the characters on the stage, and it makes them part of an art form that is thrilling."

"For theatre that's really long, like, 'Oh My God, I spent all day in the theatre and had meals in between!' -- people go crazy for that because I think there's a lack of that. And I think that theatre should be challenging in its' nature," shares Bogart, calling to mind recent productions of Tom Stoppard's three part The Coast of Utopia and the upcoming two part Tony Kushner Angels in America at the Signature Theatre Company in New York City.

"I'm just an actress, and I meant to say at the very beginning of the conversation, Ashley, that I'd like to put 'I think' before everything I say, because I don't know," Seldes specifies. "I'm not a theatre producer and I've never risked that...It's very hard. It's harder now than when I started. Much, much harder," Seldes says.

"There's something so ephemeral about the concept of an event which is not recorded, which is shared and then left, which exists only in memory," says the gallant David Staller, Founder of the Gingold Theatrical Group and Project Shaw, which began in January 2006 out of a reaction to the George W. Bush administration.

Project Shaw has held star-studded monthly readings of all 65 plays comprising the George Bernard Shaw canon. In 2011, Staller will launch Shaw New York, the first ever Shaw festival in New York City, which will mount full productions of two Shaw plays and one new commissioned play per year.

"I long for the day when Shaw will have no relevance. It's shocking how little has changed in terms of the issues he wrote about beginning in the 1890s and earlier," Staller comments while speaking about Shaw's relentless campaigning for human rights evident in his work. "All Shaw plays are provocative. They were written to provoke. All of them are political. All of them are comedies. And every one of them offends people. Every one of them generates a response within people," Staller shares from the comfort of his midtown office.

"Theatre should be a lot of things, and part of it is entertaining. That's part of its' DNA. It's an opportunity to be in the room with other human beings concentrating together. And that's become more and more rare," Bogart adds.

"If people are going to invest their time and money in a different way," begins Jack Cummings III, Artistic Director of the Drama Desk Award and Obie winning Transport Group, where he recently directed the well-received The Boys in the Band and See Rock City, "the work being presented has to be taking a big risk as well. It's easy to sit at home or go to a movie - it's sort of cheap and you don't feel like it's that big of a risk. I think people get upset when it's ordinary, and then they feel like they wasted their money. The need for risk rises as people get choosier," Cummings shares, as the mental image of a high school math class graph forms in my head.

"You've got to create the opportunity. Maybe if my friends with theatre companies had not told me that what I was trying to do (in starting Project Shaw) was foolhardy, I would have taken less care or wouldn't have pursued it. And sometimes the obstacle then becomes the instigating force," Staller muses.

"The loveliest feeling is to be stunned in theatre," Seldes gushes gracefully.

"Revolution happens in small rooms. I don't think revolution ever happens on big Broadway stages. So our responsibility is to create extraordinary events in small rooms that infect the rest of the culture. Nothing happens in a flash in the pan. You have to give time to incubate ideas and things that people are trying out. What I've learned is that exposure through time to adventurous work changes cultures, changes people. It has a big effect. But the key is time. Time is the essential ingredient," Bogart insists.

"I think the notion that audiences have lost their attention span, they've left the building, so to speak, you know, that people don't want to go to the cultural institutions anymore, for whatever reason - time, money - as a theatre artist and producer, I really reject looking at the problem, if you want to call it a problem, from that point of view. Because it puts the blame on the audience and I actually think as a theatre artist and producer we have to analyze how we can broaden the definition of what the arts experience is, and bring audience back," Paulus demands.

"There is nothing wrong with traditional theatre if we want to call it traditional," Paulus says after speaking about Punchdrunk's Sleep No More, a meditation on the play Macbeth and the closing production in her freshman season at the A.R.T. Sleep No More took place in 40 rooms in an abandoned school building, and the audience experienced the show in their own time, at their own pace. "I'm just saying let's not rest within the definition of what theatre is."

Paulus continues, "Get out of the building, get on the street -- let's not waste resources -- recycle, reuse. Use the natural resources of the backdrop of your city, whatever it is. Theatre does not have to be in a building with seats bolted to the floor. Theatre can happen anywhere. Theatre does not have to happen 8 times a week at 8 o'clock. Break the mold. If you get out of those rules, you can liberate the producing model, you can liberate the use of resources, you can liberate and find your audience!"

You can get butts in the seats, or, rather, butts to the theatre event.