When theater artists don't go to the theate

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES Sept/ Oct 2010

There was an article recently about why Jonathon Miller doesn’t go to the theater.

Oops—who’s Jonathan Miller?

He is actually Sir Jonathan Miller. He’s 76 years old, and those of us of a certain age remember him from the satirical revue ensemble Beyond the Fringe. Those of us of more recent vintage remember him as the director of some of the more famous theater, television and opera productions in Britain

And he doesn’t go to the theater. At all. Well, hardly ever. He works there, but he hasn’t been to a West End play in years, and only very rarely anywhere else.

He’s not alone. It’s a peculiar phenomenon, but one does run into those who make, but do not partake—rather like a vegetarian chef working for a steak house. There seem to be several ways it happens.

In Miller’s case, it’s disgust with how West End theater is done. He sees theater practice there as nothing but celebrity showcasing. If you’re a lot more serious about the work than you are about seeing some famous face try to do the work—successful or not—it’s easy to see why that would be a major turnoff.

It can also be what work is being done. Theater certainly goes in trends and fads, and if you aren’t simpatico with the current trends and fads, you can find yourself without much that you really want to go see. Theater also goes by stereotypes and clichés, and fresh work becomes stereotyped and clichéd with blinding speed. A steady diet of leftovers can make just about anybody close the refrigerator door.

There are fundamental facts about theater work that can make one want to go elsewhere. Imagine yourself walking across the bare stage the day after the show closes, the day after the set has been removed. All that world you lived in for all those rehearsals and all those performances is gone like a puff of smoke. If you are a serious theater artist, you love what you do and you love the world created in what you do, and seeing it go away like dust in the wind is like losing a child.

Fundamental egotism plays a part. If you’re seriously wrapped up in what you do, it’s human and understandable to be much less interested in what other people do. Some theater people avoid that trap and are sincerely and passionately interested in what other people are doing. Others are interested in what other people are doing from a competitive point of view—am I still better than they are? And still others really and truly could care less. They know what they want to do and the rest of the profession is irrelevant unless it wants to do that with them.

So, if all these things are turning you off from doing the work, and doing the work is more rewarding than seeing other people’s work, than it’s easy to see how you might decide, on your rare evenings off, to stay home and take it easy instead of taking a busman’s holiday. It’s not healthy. It’s probably depriving you of good stuff you could use and good chances to recharge your batteries. But it’s easy to see how it happens. Theater in general is not particularly healthy; here is another symptom of the disease.

Bethune website: www.freshwaterseas.com