Saturday, June 15, 2013

Theatre For Thought, June 15, 2013

joel fishbane

The Tony Awards were handed out on Sunday – or at least I think they were, there was too many musical interludes to really tell. In any case, the next day I lunched with my grandmother who remarked that the awards had given her a startling case of déjà vu. “They gave awards to Pippin,” she said. “I remember when they gave awards to the original.” Then she shook her head. “No one does anything new anymore. When I go, I won’t feel like I’m missing much: I feel like I’ve already seen it all.” 

There’s no doubt my grandmother has a point, at least when it comes to the professional world of theatre and film. Broadway and Hollywood are famous for recycling, remounting, rebooting, rehashing – to put it mildly, if it involves the prefix re-, chances are they’re interested. 

It would be comforting to say that all this remounting and recycling is new, but of course it isn’t. 

As I explained to my grandmother, there’s a definitive logic to this. They’re trying to appeal to their demographic. The whole point of remounting Pippin - or Fiddler on the Roof and Tommy, now playing at Stratford - is that the people who can afford to see it are like my grandmother: they remember the original. 

It would be comforting to say that all this remounting and recycling is new, but of course it isn’t. I recently finished watching Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill’s epic retelling of the Orestia (yes, this is what I do in my spare time). Aeschylus’ dramatization of Agamemnon, his unfaithful wife and their vengeful children is over two thousand years old, but authors continue to reinterpret it. Hamlet is little more than the Orestia set in Denmark and since The Lion King is Hamlet with animals, even Disney owes a nod to the ancient Greeks. 

With the number of comic book movies filling our theatres, we’re seeing a return to the theatre of the ancient Greeks. Comic books are the myths of our time – as with the Greeks, these myths are stories of larger then life heroes facing off against their own set of dangers. The continual reinterpretation of Spider-Man has less to do with movie companies trying to hold onto the copyright and more with our inherent need to keep exploring our myths through a contemporary lens. 

Which brings me to the Fringe Festival, which launches in Montreal this week before continuing on across the country. Yes, adaptations and quirky spins on pop culture can always be found at the Fringe – see, for instance, playwright Harry Standjofski’s spin on Strindberg’s Miss Julie or Naxos Theatre’s riff on Hamlet in Hamlet, La Fin d’une Enfance... Yet with producers relying more and more on the familiar, the Fringe is becoming the last place where the unfamiliar can flourish. 

Original storytelling is hard to write – it took Tolstoy ten years to write War and Peace – but it’s even harder to sell. Look at any of the five shows I discussed last week in my Fringe preview and you’ll see a marketer’s nightmare – high-concept shows that are as experimental as they are difficult to explain.

As anyone who has ever suffered through a lousy Fringe show knows, there’s an inherent danger in this highwire act. There’s a comfort to a familiar narrative: we walk into romantic comedies precisely because we already know how it’s going to end. With Fringe shows, audiences are taking an enormous risk. At this year’s Montreal Fringe, expect to see familiar faces like Keir Cutler, Zack Adams, Peter and Chris, and Sam Mullins all see solid ticket sales. All of them were successful at last year’s festival and, in the absence of a familiar narrative, we’ll always take a familiar narrator instead.

Once upon a time I would have decried this preference for recycling as being death to the evolution of theatre. I suppose the argument is still justified but as I get older I’ve stopped minding so much. Cats has just returned to Toronto; like my grandmother with Pippin, I remember when those dancing felines first showed up in Hogtown almost three decades ago. I’m not a fan of Cats but I like seeing the billboard flashing across Yonge Street. It makes me feel young again. And maybe this is why we prefer the old stories over the new: in returning to them we also return to the people we were the first time we heard them. 

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