Friday, September 9, 2016

FROM THE ARCHIVES: David Shepherd's Search for a Popular Theatre

David Shepherd wrote this article in 1959 about his search for a popular theatre. It was published in Encore Magazine that same year. David created Compass, the first professional improvisation company in North America with Paul Sills, and the Improvisation Olympics with Howard Jerome. In addition, David Shepherd has created dozens of other formats during his 60 plus year career in improvisation.


In my country, America, we say something is popular when it succeeds in winning the lead in its market. Cadillac has become more popular than Packard, for instance, even though few Americans can afford to buy either. Billions of dollars are spent to announce the winners until finally the taste of the consumer is determined by advertising itself. When the rocket ship designs of big cars are copied in order to sell little cars, then those designs become “popular” in one sense: their lower price makes them accessible to the public. But in another sense they become less popular: they simply do not express the public’s taste.

When plays are written to sell automobiles on T.V., or to capture a lead in the very costly competition between Broadway producers then the theatre must become an art of making things attractive, of flattering its patrons. Who can afford to invest in a product that is not attractive in every way when it costs you $100,000 to put your foot into the market? But even when this product proves to be a smash hit, we have to ask ourselves if it is truly any more popular than the rocket ship designs that are used to sell millions of Americans a new car every January.

David Shepherd in 1959

A popular play from New York is one which brings thousands from all over the country, anxious to spend from $2.50 to $50.00 a ticket to see it before it is made into a movie. The most popular theatre is whichever theatre is most difficult to get into this month. For the ladies who can get tickets through their clubs, theatre becomes not a habitual part of life but a very special event. For the administrators through their businesses, the theatre must be the one place in New York where they can stop thinking and let the lights and music work on them like an expert masseur. These men go back to their hotels assured of the popularity of the show if their clients have stayed pleasantly awake through-out.

Naturally, there is a rebellion against this state of popularity. The producer or director who wants a less drowsy, less flattering theatre often decides that the only plays worth doing are the ones that are the least popular. He looks for paradoxical plays and will accept even confused and ugly plays. This rebellion might nourish a small but important voice in the theatre if it were allowed to grow in seclusion. But usually the rebels are only waiting to be caught in the spotlight. That is, some fraction of their rebellion or confusion is found to be useful in the enormous salesroom. They disappear into the same well-paid circles they once condemned, and their disappearance further confuses and embitters those who remain.

As the mass media becomes more powerful and sophisticated, virtually all young dramatists and directors will make their peace and find their spot in the market-place of attractions. The trend is becoming visible in every country as T.V. follows movies around the world. It will make drama attractive to hundreds of millions of people who have none of their own. It will provide jobs for tens of thousands of talented people. But it can only impose tastes on those millions very different from their own. And it cannot help but change the function of the theatre in becoming a poor sister and laboratory assistant of the atomic explosions of T.V. and movies.

It is possible that in 50 years the theatre in New York will only be a testing ground for T.V. plots and outside New York only a technique for children and old ladies to express themselves? If it is not, we will have to accept an older notion of popularity than that which is current in America today.

What is this older notion? We are told, for instance, that the greatest theatres in history – the theatres of Sophocles, Moliere, Shakespeare – were, at their best moments, popular theatres. That is, they were accessible to everybody – rich and poor, farmers and courtiers; seats were easy to get, the stories were common knowledge and the ways of telling them were rich and various – dance, music, mime, song and many others. The men who wrote for those theatres had the same strong opinions and the same fear of censorship as our better dramatists have, but they learned to couch these opinions in a story and to tell that story in a way that would satisfy many different tastes at the same time. This kind of popularity is rare today. When I hear people of different occupations whistling the theme from The Bridge on the River Kwai in the street, I know an artistic miracle has occurred: the intellectuals don’t despise it for being middle class, or the business men for being cheap, or the working people for being long hair. At the same time a commercial miracle has occurred: the film has played in both the plush houses and the cheap houses, both uptown and downtown. It has managed to break through the barriers of habit, taste and income that have grown so high in cities all over the country.

There is even an older notion of popularity, one that may not be so hard to apply today. We are told of certain theatres which produced few important plays, but were important in the society of their times – the oriental theatre of story and dance, the medieval religious theatre, the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. These were popular in a different way. They performed wherever there was an audience – in the fields, squares, courtyards; they invented material for the occasion and they recruited talent directly from their audiences. This was folk theatre. It survives today, but not vigorously, in our fraternity reviews and historical pageants. When the movies can offer four hours of Biblical massacre complete to the last jeweled thigh for only 75 cents, who wants to struggle with three rickety acts and accompanying sets? Progress promises that we will have the five hour massacre soon and that we will be able to see it in our homes and vista vision. Let us hope that progress will also bring us this oldest kind of theatre, whether as a do-it-yourself kit or as a new game, so that some part of our leisure can be diverted into thinking in dramatic terms for ourselves.

I myself have made an experiment along these lines. While producing the Playwrights Theatre Club in Chicago, I found it impossible to get scripts that were relevant to the life of the city and that would enlarge or diversify the audience. I got a strong impression that the theatre was upside down. You always start with an old script and its needs, a director and his needs, publicity and its needs. Instead of publicity, why not start with the public, instead of a director why not stories that can be improvised economically? Instead of subjecting people to a precise day, hour, seat number and schedule, why not let a part of the evening take its own path while people smoke, drink and talk? In this way a theatre came into existence call COMPASS, which has played in many locations in Chicago, St. Louis and New York over the past three years.

COMPASS is a theatre of improvisation. It provides a way not for theatre to be big and spectacular, but for a few people to communicate face to face. It tries to turn the limitations of theatre to its advantage. Before you can even have theatre, people must first leave their homes and sit down next to other people whom they don’t know. These people, as a group, have a new but unknown personality and demand to see certain themes and topics that are on their minds. As this personality emerges it begins to affect the performance until a tension develops between it and the personality of the cast. This tension is the raw material of COMPASS. If the company spends part of each evening dramatizing its own attitudes and part catching the reactions of the audience, then the wall that separates the two is broken and they begin to converse in a common dramatic language.

Improvisation produces no literary masterpieces, but it does what many masterpieces fail to do. It wakes up the imagination of the actor and forces the spectator to ask questions: “Where is this scene? Why is that actor doing that? What’s going to happen next?” Often the actor himself may not know what will happen next. There is no playwright to spoon feed him with answers to every question the public has. Nothing is served up to the public on a platter – neither overwhelming feeling nor total knowledge nor a complete judgment of the world. The spectator has to work a little for his pleasure because he is watching a process and not a result. Scenes grow in front of his eyes, and he picks out the common experiences and familiar characters. When he himself is asked to suggest a scene or plot, he gets a new pleasure – the pleasure of taking a hand in the process. While the actors are preparing backstage, he’s discussing with his friends what they can or cannot expect to see on the stage.

This is a theatre of actions rather than dialogue, and the way things happen becomes more important to the audience than the conversations surrounding them. When actors can switch parts, when scenes can be stopped, started, re-routed and turned upside down, then the whole question of interpretation becomes visible and accessible. On the one hand, the actor has to choose a scene where there is no script. On the other hand, the spectator has to choose whether to buy a scene that has been made to his order. If these choices brought to light by the director in a kind of dramatic game, then what happens on the stage is no longer thought of as exciting or boring, but rather as well or badly done. When the spectator is partly responsible for the success of what happens on the stage, he gradually becomes as much of a specialist in theatre as he is in the mysteries of football or golf.

This is a theatre of stories, newspaper clippings, events of the week, daily activities, caricatures, scenes of family life and office life, of factories and resorts. The scenes pass across the stage like snapshots of life in the community. The actors have to know that life well enough so that when a customer says “I want to see a scene about a boy who runs away from home because he doesn’t want to go to a military school,” they can prepare the background to such a scene in 20 minutes. At rehearsal the roles are reversed: an actor may say “I have an idea for three scenes about the sputnik: let’s try it this week and see how the audience takes it.” Or a writer may come to the theatre and say, “I have an idea for a play, but it may be too abstract; before I write it, could you try these scenes about a husband and wife who have the following relationship…..?” Finally, the director may say, either in rehearsal or performance, “Go on with this scene but imagine that you lost all your money last week and haven’t the courage to tell your wife,” or “Let’s do this same scene, but this time in the home of a cab driver.”

COMPASS is only one solution to the problem of how theatre can be popular. Its principal technique, improvisation, is important for its own sake but is more important as a way for the cast to reach the audience. Its principal discipline, the bare stage, makes for a style but is more important as a way of opening the stage to the wishes of the audience. The most important consideration of all is to have theatres where there are none today – providing always that they make for a cultural ferment and not a sediment in the lives of the people who attend them. The theatre can still do many jobs that cannot be done in the mass media. For all their shattering effects, the mass media are still impersonal, and their audience is so huge and passive that it is becoming harder and harder to write well for it.

The search for popularity has kept the theatre in a constant state of crisis since it came indoors 400 years ago. What novelist, historian or poet need to concern himself with keeping hundreds of seats filled with dozens of bellies fed month after month? As soon as you choose to work in the theatre or write for it, you find yourself searching for that most elaborate or shocking of spectacles that will keep the last rows filled on a Tuesday.  But at the same time the search for popularity is what creates theatre. It may not be a very broad popularity if the search is made cynically by the producer or condescendingly by the writer, or vulgarly by the actor. It may not be a very important theater if the search is a political gesture to one class or a disguised attempt to sell soap. But if the search brings the most important stories of our culture to the greatest number of its citizens, if it brings people together instead of justifying their differences in attitude and taste, then it can be the most vital force that the theatre knows. 

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. 


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