A few weeks back I caught Hear No Evil at the Twin Cities Horror Festival. I went into the performance pretty much unspoiled – I try to avoid much more than a basic description when I go to shows so I don’t let my biases scare me away from something worthwhile. As it turned out, Hear No Evil was right up my alley, a claustrophobic bit of horror theater full of nightmare imagery, existential despair and literal buckets of stage blood. It wasn’t a profound experience or a masterpiece of spectacle. It wasn’t the type of thing that I’d be working over in my head for days thereafter or mentally dissecting for literary themes and influences. But I strolled out of the Southern that evening feeling entertained. And that was enough.
It occurred to me on my drive home that that wasn’t my usual response to a piece of theater. It was more in line with how I react to one of the b-horror movies I devour on the regular. I suppose that makes sense, considering that it was part of a horror festival, but it got me thinking about what theater audiences are conditioned to expect. I’ve heard people express surprise at the very existence of the Twin Cities Horror Festival, largely because horror isn’t something a lot of folks associate with theater. There’s a general conception that horror, even when it’s well done, is something of a frivolous genre, and that theater is not a frivolous medium.
Part of that is the same old story of people writing off genre work – horror, sci-fi, epic fantasy and such – as fundamentally unworthy of serious consideration. That tiresome attitude has changed a bit recently in film and literature, but the stigma seems unlikely to fade away completely anytime soon. It’s both less and more of an issue with theater – less because genre material simply isn’t as common in modern theater as it is in books and film, and more because the genre work that does get made tends to be all the more marginalized. I can’t put the blame for that on theater makers or even on theater consumers, but it’s a problem nonetheless.
I think the bigger issue here lies with the more casual theatergoer. Whereas many patrons of the arts will still catch silly action flicks or pick up the latest bestseller at the airport bookshop, theater gets held to a different standard. People who don’t see a lot of theater often seem to regard going to plays as a necessarily “highbrow” or “artsy” endeavor. The popular conception of theater artists runs the gamut from high-strung intellectuals sipping pinot and slinging metaphors to wild-eyed weirdoes heading up all-nude anarchist dance troupes. While there are certainly plenty of theater folks who fall into each extreme, public perception frequently overlooks everyone in between.
There’s an odd idea that one must “get something out of” going to a play. There are exceptions, of course. Musicals satisfy if they’re big and bold and leave you humming the songs. Comedy gets a pass so long as it gets some laughs. But for the most part, theater is expected to provoke something, be it thoughts, emotions or existential ennui. Taking that perception into account, it’s no wonder so many people avoid going to plays. After a long week of work, who wants to go sit in a darkened room and tax their brains even further? (I mean, plenty of people, obviously, or this publication wouldn’t exist. Again, I’m talking about folks who rarely see theater.)
Maybe part of it is that theater takes more physical effort than some other art forms. As I’ve talked about here before, movies, books and music can all be enjoyed in the comfort of one’s home at any time, while going to the theater takes some actual commitment, not to mention a bit more cash. Seeing a play is not a cheap proposition, moneywise or timewise. For someone who’s indulging in a rare night out, paying for a babysitter, laying down upwards of 20 bucks per ticket and investing two or three hours of an all-too-short weekend, it’s not unreasonable to expect something truly memorable in return. For a lot of people, the risk of getting stuck sitting through a clunker just isn’t worth it. Rent a bad movie and you’re out two bucks at Redbox and however many minutes you made it through before shutting it off to catch the end of the Timberwolves game. Go see a disappointing play – or even one that’s good but not transcendent – and you’ve blown an entire evening and are out a solid chunk of cash.
But that thinking is a real shame. The more audiences buy into the idea that every theatrical production has to be An Event, the less room there is for plays that are just plain entertaining. The week before I saw Hear No Evil, I caught one of the last performances of The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry at Pillsbury House. That was a fantastic show, a vibrant, challenging bounty of outsized performances and stylized dialogue that had me picking out influences from Shakespeare to Faulkner to Hurston. And for those exact reasons, I can think of any number of my close friends who would have no interest in seeing it. On the other hand, those same friends would very likely have really dug Hear No Evil, but they would never go to see it because they expect all theater to be either The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry or Wicked. It’s a vicious circle.
This makes me all the more grateful for events like the Twin Cities Horror Festival. I won’t say that it legitimizes onstage horror, because the genre’s perfectly legitimate on its own. But it gives audiences permission to try something they might not otherwise. (It’s a curious fact that material that might not garner a second glance if left to its own devices can often draw an enthusiastic audience just by being part of a festival program.) I don’t want to come off like I’m picking on Hear No Evil or the Horror Festival for being unchallenging or overly populist. They’re absolutely not, and I’m a big fan of both. I’m just saying that they represent a potential gateway for piquing the interests of people who think they don’t like live theater.
It’s a small step, but I appreciate any headway we can make toward toning down casual audiences’ great expectations for theater. People need to know that going to a play can be just a fun night out, no more, no less. And there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.