Margaret Edson’s 1998 play Wit (or, for the Mega Nerds, W;t), is a terribly important piece of theater. Edson, #1 Baller as far as I’m concerned, wrote the play, won a Pulitzer, and then quietly went back to her life teaching 6th grade – a job she still holds today. As we say in the Bear Apartment: “CASUAL.” The play, about a brilliant professor specializing in the poetry of John Donne who, oh yeah, also happens to be dying of stage 4 ovarian cancer, is moving and deep, and is performed everywhere, has won a billion awards, is often shown to med students as a part of their clinical education, was made into an amazing TV movie directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson in 2001 (this one), and pretty much rules. Much can and should be said on it.
But, I’m not going to go there at all.
Instead, I am going to take a moment to have a huge bitch fest.
I have had the great privilege of having spent a lot of my childhood living in the tri-state area (and thats NY/NJ/CT, you philly-fools), with a family that had a healthy interest in Culture, and thus have very exciting memories of getting to see Broadway shows on birthdays and special occasions. A trip into The City meant a fancy, kinda boring dinner followed by a blur of spectacle, bright lights, loud, catchy music and other delights. For most of my youth, Broadway was the epitome of everything wonderful, exciting, and perfect about theater. Spectacle – and I mean, bright lights, great costumes, Beautiful People and Big Sets Spectacle – is disarmingly appealing, especially if you’re a kid who happens to love melodrama (that was me, crying at SPCA commercials from a young age…one of my many paradoxes if you remember my previous rant on maudlin crap).
It wasn’t until I went to college and, primarily through the Philly theater scene, and then, in France, at the Avignon Theater Festival, that I realized theater could be so, so very different from the bright lights and smiles of the The Great White Way. A realization I came to embarrassingly late, I know, especially given my subsequent devotion to theater in general. It took a few years of great theater of all kinds: poor, political, small, urgent, experimental, weird, quiet, loud, etc., to realize that the form was so, so, delightfully big.
I saw an 8 hour play in the South of France where, four hours in, the cast left the stage, changed into their day clothes, and took an hour to serve us dinner. I saw a 45 minute monologue delivered on a darkened rooftop by a man with only a spotlight on his face. I saw this, this, and this. While this is starting to read like a laundry list of Brags No One Else Cares About, it’s not meant to be. It’s simply meant to say that, since falling in love with theater, I’ve sought out a lot of stuff – and in many cases, a lot of WEIRD stuff.
Trips back to NYC (and now, living here), has meant the occasional chance to see a Broadway show again, and re-visiting my childhood dream theaters is definitely a different experience. It’s not the shows themselves that strike me in a different way – now, I see them at one (admittedly important) end of a Commercial — Nonprofit spectrum. And lets be real, like all theater, some Broadway is terrible and tedious while other Broadway can be profound and thrilling. No, it’s not that the shows are suddenly a disappointment. It’s the audience.
The motherfucking Broadway audience.
I try not to be The Worst, The Most Pretentious, The Most Snobby…and sometimes I succeed. I certainly berate myself when I feel like I don’t, if it’s any consolation to you judgers out there. I know I have a tendency towards it — let’s face it, going to a Liberal Arts school wherein I wrote my thesis on French Feminist Theater probably doomed me forever to a life of pretension, but I feel like being aware of the danger of pretentiousness often saves me from the worst of it. But something about going to a motherfucking Broadway show and being surrounded by that motherfucking Broadway audience brings out the absolute worst in me. There is some crossover between a Broadway audience and the audience of, erm, every other theater in the country/world. But not damn much. Let’s face it – Broadway is a commercial venture. It’s a tourist attraction. It’s a Commodity in the strictest sense, and while that doesn’t doom it to eternal tediousness, it does ensure a specific type of crowd.
Tickets to Broadway shows are expensive. Atrociously so. I know the economics aren’t so cut-and-dry, and I would never presume to turn this into anything as simple as a “Make Our Art Accessible” rant — that’s not really Broadway’s purpose. There’s great, small, accessible non profit theater for that – although, admittedly, a lot less than in other countries. I know the point of Broadway is to make money, but somehow that doesn’t quite take the sting out of the new-ish concept of Premium Seats — wherein a theater blocks off the first few rows of the house and charges $300 and up a ticket — because, you know, $120 – $180 a ticket just isn’t QUITE enough.
There are solutions, of course – many theaters offer student rush and lotteries, and TDF (theater development fund – those lovely folks that run the TKTS booth), has a GREAT membership service open to students, teachers, and union members that is pretty much the only reason I can afford any Broadway these days ($30 – $40 tickets to a LOT of shows…seriously JOIN if you’re eligible and interested).
However, despite all of these solutions, the barrier to entry for Broadway is fucking high. And, like so much else in our fantastic, capitalist culture (no no, not about to start a rant on capitalism, don’t worry), it ensures that the bulk of Broadway theater goers are of a certain Type.
My friends who have been to shows with me have already heard this rant, and since the likelihood is that they’re the only people actually reading this, it’s probably a moot story to re-tell. But I’m going to go for it anyway and describe one stupid thing that drives me 100% INSANE.
As anyone who’s ever walked through the theater district knows, about a half an hour before a show starts, a line of patrons forms. This is the line for people waiting to enter the theater — most of the houses in broadway shows have 500 seats, and many have more, so there’s a bottlenecking that will inevitably occur when trying to get 500 people through 3 normal sized doorways into their 500 seats. That is physics, people. There is no other way to fill a Broadway house with FIVE HUNDRED seats than to have the audience line up, wait their turn, and have their tickets checked by ushers as they go through the THREE DOORWAYS into the theater.
And yet, AND YET, a guarantee at literally every show I’ve ever been to is the following:
Situation – I am standing on line. It is a half an hour before the show. Like a reasonable human being, I am waiting my turn to get into the theater.
A person – usually a woman, usually wearing fur, usually from the suburbs – arrives behind me. She looks first quizzically, then with rising annoyance, at the line. She looks pointedly at her ticket. She looks around to see if anyone has noticed that She Has A Ticket. No one takes the bait. So she asks, to the universe, I suppose, “Is this the line for people with tickets?”
And I sigh, and I turn, and I say something along the lines of “Yup”. The level of bitchiness in my voice varies proportionately to the amount of patience I have that day. She looks at me, disappointed. Then back at her ticket. She can’t believe it. So she asks again, “But what if you have a ticket??”
At which point, I have to disengage, so I smile politely and turn around. So she appeals to her friends, or others on line. Those as privileged as she can’t stomach that they have to wait on line, either. General frustration is emerging — she has paid Good Money for this ticket, so some part of her can’t quite believe that she could be made to suffer the indignity of waiting on a line. (AND YET: see my rant about physics, above).
Finally, she sighs, disappointed in me and those around her who have not pointed out the Secret Entrance for those folks Rich Enough To Never Have To Wait On Line, and announces with much affected, world weariness that she is going to “go check”.
She has been told it is, indeed, the line for people who have tickets.
And her disappointment is palpable.
If you couldn’t already tell, this maddens me. I find it also epitomizes perfectly everything about the Broadway audience that drives me nuts. There is such an expectation among the audience — (and a very small part of me can’t blame them, knowing as I do how much freaking money they’ve shelled out for the show) — for the theater to perfectly meet their expectations in every way possible. But that’s not theater. It’s just not. Theater should never meet your expectations – it should subvert them, surprise them, delight them…but “meeting” them is too small potatoes. And the success of one’s theater-going experience should certainly, certainly not depend on the amount of time one was made to suffer the indignity of waiting on a line.
I could keep going – about the people who Laugh To Show Everyone Else That They GET Something, the old men who fall asleep, the ladies who loudly whisper questions to each other and spend intermission making the bulshittiest judgements possible but at this point I’m driving MYSELF crazy with my ranting.
Plus, I feel as though I’ve done Cynthia a disservice by titling a post about the play in which she stars and then completely ignoring it in favor of a rant. My conclusion, then, is this: I wish a lot of things for American theater, but one of the things I wish most fervently is that people supported ALL of it with the vigor and enthusiasm that they support SOME of it. I wish that people stopped equating high ticket prices with Absolute Satisfaction of the Theatrical Wants They Shouldn’t Have. And I wish that I was a better person and could appreciate when Broadway is great and didn’t let my judgmental-yness of my fellows get in the way. And of course, I wish that great stuff, like Wit, was accessible to absolutely everyone who wants to see it. If you’re a member of tdf, you can get $37 tickets (as of this morning, at least), which is pretty great considering what Broadway goes for these days. But of course, that’s still not doable for some. And that’s bullshit. Because (and here I go, despite my promise, above, otherwise…I literally can’t help it)… Great Art should be universally accessible.
Anyway, 1800 words later: Wit itself was great. Plays about Cancer are a terrifying proposition, if you ask me, but Edson’s is tight, digestible, riveting, and at times quite profound. Cynthia Nixon, who is SO MUCH MORE BADASS than her Sex and The City fame (she’s done a million awesome theatrical things, and her stage presence is phenomenal), absolutely kills it in this performance. She plays Vivian Bearing, a prominent John Donne academic who is dying of ovarian cancer — as she announces at the top of the play, she’s been given “two hours” to live. It’s should be no surprise, then, when she dies at the play’s end – and yet, for two hours, we’ve lived and breathed with this woman, with this refreshingly unsentimental woman, as she’s suffered the indignities brought on by medical deaths in this day and age – the clinicism, the fear, the sterility.
The play was awesome. It was stunning. She was incredible. And yet.
All I can think about – still – is the motherfucking Broadway audience. God, I’m sorry. I really thought I’d gotten it out my system earlier. I don’t know what it is, but unlike with the massive, stand-up-in-your-seats blockbusters like Wicked or Book of Mormon, Wit just. doesn’t. quite. feel like it belonged on the Broadway stage. Maybe it’s the commodification aspect that Broadway can’t help but impart — the play should be small, intimate, personal — its through its intimacy, I believe, that it delivers its epicness. Nixon’s performance – especially towards the end, when her character is truly losing her personhood to the pain and physical destruction of the cancer – just felt like it deserved a smaller house. It felt like an experience to be shared among a quiet, awestruck audience of 40 or 50. The audience was too big, and Nixon was too small – the point, maybe? – but still, watching her from something of a distance over the heads of hundreds of shifting, sleeping, texting people, or, Laughing Loudly at Anything at All People, felt gross. Disrespectful.
I dunno. Maybe, like those fur-dressed ladies, I too have my own bullshit expectations of what a Broadway Show should be. But whereas they expect Secret Entrances, my expectations run more towards the level of spectacle/depth I think the mother-f-ing broadway audience deserves.
Listen. I never said I wasn’t a pretentious fuck.
(**An important PS Sidebar: I am from New York. I say “On line”. It does not mean “online”. It means, for those of you from other parts of the country, “in line”. I considered writing 2200 words ranting about this particular turn of phrase, and the way it has ostracized me throughout the years, but I figured I’d spare you.)