We’ve all been there, right? You’re at a party. Among the movers and shakers you move and, yes, occasionally shake. You dunk your chips into a variety of dips. At some point, someone asks what you do. With mustered confidence you say, “I work in the theater” (not adding that you spend most of your time working somewhere else to make rent).
Then comes the dreaded moment. The person, with an excited look in their eye and a broadening smile asks, “Oh! Do you like Glee?”
Your options for the next 10 minutes unfold like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” game. If the person asking the question is cute and of the gender you find yourself attracted to, you can pretend you’ve never seen Glee and let them talk about the show awhile. If you don’t want to be rude, you can demurely reply, “I’m just not into it.” Or you can take the iconoclastic route and tell the truth about Glee: That it’s a poorly structured, inconsistently acted, painfully auto-tuned piece of junk.
If you choose the last of these routes, you face another challenge: The moment when the person replies, “But it’s about theater!”
We can’t really blame them, dear reader. They’re trying to bond and they know not what we do. They probably haven’t seen a play since high school, and Glee certainly feels like what high-school theater feels like. Besides, television shows and films generally do a terrible job of capturing the simultaneously noble and preposterous profession we’ve chosen to pursue.
Part of this phenomenon has to do with good old fashioned Anxiety of Influence. Film and (especially) television can never quite escape their roots in theater. Early television shows were little more than filmed plays, a tradition that lasted until the death of American Playhouse on PBS in 1994. In order to distance themselves from their parent art forms, film and television have to take us down a peg. It doesn’t help matters that theater has a rich tradition of mocking itself via the backstage farce.
Look no further than perennial favorite Waiting For Guffman. Many of my colleagues love this film, and it’s difficult for me to see why. The film was made by somewhat successful tv and film actors located in New York and Los Angeles, whose entire raison d’etre is mocking unsuccessful theater actors and small-town rubes. Unlike Spinal Tap— which mocked the preposterousness and self-regard of a wealthy and untalented rock band on the decline—Waiting for Guffman simply feels like smug elites kicking a guy when he’s down. The film is also suffused with a kind of bizarre homophobia via Christopher Guest’s performance as Corky St. Clair. Apparently, as long as the character is closeted, a straight actor can do the gay equivalent of blackface and get away with it.
Which is why I—along with almost every theater artist I know—cling to the Canadian television show Slings And Arrows the way urban-policy liberals pray at the altar of The Wire. Finally! A show that gets it! For the uninitiated (are there any of you left?) Slings and Arrows (2003-2006) documents the trials and tribulations of the New Burbage Shakespeare Festival, a bloated major classical theater in Canada clearly based on Stratford Ontario. Each season revolves around the production of a Shakespeare play (first season Hamlet, second season Macbeth, third Lear) and follows the madcap adventures of Jeffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), the festival’s insane yet passionate artistic director, who is also haunted by the ghost of his predecessor, Oliver (Stephen Ouimette).
The show has much to recommend it. First, the series is a true ensemble dramedy, drawing on the lives and experiences of its cast members and writers to form a clearly articulated world. The conversations about staging Shakespeare are smart and involving, and linked to dilemmas in the show. Much of the second season revolves around questions about whether Macbeth is a man led astray by his ambition, or a titanic mythic figure. These debates track with conflicts between Jeffrey and Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies), the egomaniac playing Macbeth.
The show also gets the backstage wheeling and dealings right. While much of the nuts-and-bolts process stuff may be incorrect (designers are entirely absent), the show simultaneously grapples, with remarkable dexterity, with such institutional issues as pleasing boards of directors and corporate donors, filling seats and producing heart-stopping theater.
The show’s success is due, in no small part, to the fact that two of its writers play the oleaginous managing director Richard Smith-Jones and the beleaguered administrative director Anna Conroy (Mark McKinney and Susan Coyne, respectively). When Smith-Jones is asked if he’d prefer “an empty house with a great play, or a full house with a piece of garbage?” and he cries, “Garbage! Garbage! I want garbage!” you marvel that a tv show is taking time out from its plot to talk about the artistic integrity of theater. As someone who has spent his life watching and documenting how the nonprofit theater system has betrayed the promises on which it was founded, I find watching these debates play out via comedy a necessary tonic.
Slings and Arrows is far from perfect, particularly during the third season, when the show fails to broaden its circle of sympathy to include musicals. Still, the show captures how theater can be preposterous right up until the moment it becomes transformative—both for those seeing it and those doing it. The show is also tightly plotted, hilariously written and engaging—in total, nothing short of miraculous.
Judged by the Slings and Arrows standard—theater represented on screen must be good on its own terms, and feel true about and not condescend toward theater—most other works don’t match up. Exceptions are Being Julia (based on the novel Actress by Somerset Maugham) and Stage Beauty, which capture something of the experience of working on the stage. And there’s always Shakespeare in Love. Still, besides the biopic, the cinematic treatment of the theatrical milieu is a difficult genre to get right.
Do you have screen versions of plays you can recommend? What makes for a good movie about plays? I’m curious to read your thoughts in the comments.