Sunday, August 23, 2009

Live Art is Non-Returnable

After a summer with virtually no contact with civilization and truly no contact with virtual civilization, I have been soaking up the noise, activity, and excitement of life in Vancouver since my return. And I have returned to the theatre.

This week I saw two shows, both novel but otherwise very different. Via Beatrice, a self-proclaimed “experimental operetta” from Fugue Theatre tells the story of Diana, a Canadian woman who travels to Rome after her daughter’s death. The challenging music (composed and performed by Peggy Lee) and complex script (by Sydney Risk winning playwright Jenn Griffin) are ably performed by the trio of Lucia Frangione (Diana), Laura Di Cicco (Beatrice), and Marco Soriano (Alessandro). Each actor nimbly switches from major to minor characters and from major to minor keys, while navigating the time-travelling script and unpredictably adventurous score.

The production is raw in that wonderful way a world premiere ought to be. It is clear that all involved are taking significant risks in producing and performing this ambitious work and their fearless creativity is inspiring. Those who came out to see it also took a risk, always true in theatre but even more so with new plays. Whether due to the number of shows on right now, the spectacular weather, or the multitude of entertainment options in the last days of summer, houses for Via Beatrice were small. And that’s a shame because theatre cannot thrive without new works and new voices. The courage of all of those at Fugue deserves to be applauded

The next night, I saw Marsha Norman’s The Laundromat (aka Third and Oak: The Laundromat) the premiere production from Scarlet Satin, a new company formed by TWU grad Diana Squires. Dice is a force and her first venture in the producer’s chair is worthy of her drive and ingenuity. The novelty of setting the show in an actual, working laundromat earned Scarlet Satin press from The Globe and Mail and an appearance on the CBC Radio program On the Coast. The laundromat itself is perfect for the production: Swan Laundry on Burrard is festooned (yes, festooned) with cheery pink bubbles and retro lettering that begs to be in a production set in 1979. The owner Carolyn Currie loved the idea and loves the arts so offered the location for free and it is unlikely she regrets her decision. Not only did Diana’s publicity prowess garner media attention, the show has sold out its entire run (impressive even in the tiny 25 seat venue).

The show itself is delightful. Squires’ DeeDee is annoying and endearing by turns and Brenda Matthews’ restrained Alberta provides the perfect foil. Tamara McCarthy’s direction ensures the small space is used in a way that is both believable and theatrical and the vintage television commercials add a satisfying comic touch. There’s something about watching a show called The Laundromat while you listen to an actual washing machine wash actual clothes that completes the experience.

Sometime between these two shows, I heard a radio interview with Chris Jones, theatre critic for the Chicago Tribune. Apparently, thanks to the largesse of a foundation in the windy city, a recent production there offered a money-back guarantee. Those who did not enjoy the show were invited to step up to a table in the lobby for a refund. I wondered who at Via Beatrice or The Laundromat might have accepted such an offer. My hope is that very few would respond, as was the case in Chicago, and that most would dismiss the concept as unfortunate and pitiable.

Jones rightfully acknowledges the difficulty of commodifying live art. Not only does such an action change the audience response to the production but treating the show as pure product compromises the dignity of the participants (particularly the unfortunate soul who is charged with issuing the invitation.) He also points out that patrons who are dissatisfied are much more likely to miss the time than the money and no one can refund hours and minutes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea, mentally revisiting shows I’ve seen that were only partially successful as well as those that were boring, offensive, or self-indulgent. I keep asking myself what circumstances would move me to demand my money back. But I’ve discovered a big problem.

If you buy a new faucet from Home Depot and realize it doesn’t work with your countertops or suit your spouse’s tastes, you can take it back and get a refund. But how can you possibly return the experience of live theatre? However much I have hated some productions (and I confess there have been a few) there has invariably been something gained from the experience, even if only a sharpening of my critical faculties.

Well-intentioned though it might be, the idea of a money-back guarantee for theatre should die a quick and noiseless death. As something that exists in hearts and minds, theatre’s value cannot be measured by something in your pocket.

Simply said, live art is non-returnable.

1 comment:

Jackie said...

Here here! I agree.