A World of Pure Imagination

For the last 27 years, I've been watching and promoting the St. Louis theatre community, and it's grown and matured and diversified in so many wonderful ways in that time. It's been so cool to watch us evolve into what we are now, and to see where we're headed from here.

It's an exciting theatre scene, with an incredible range of experiences to offer, quite often created by brilliant, fearless theatre artists.

But four or five times during that period, someone has come to town and told us all -- sometimes more explicitly, sometimes more subtly -- that the rest of us making theatre don't really know what we're doing (we do), that St. Louis is behind the times (we're not), that St. Louis theatre artists don't know as much about theatre as people in New York or Chicago (not true), that the work this new person or group is doing is profoundly new and unprecedented (it rarely is), that only these outsiders have the full truth (they don't) and they will save our city and our theatre community (they won't) with the wisdom the rest of us sorely lack (we don't).

Usually this emerges from a scary mix of hubris and ignorance. It's rare that these folks actually take time first to get know what our community offers and the dozens of active theatre companies here; they just open fire. Usually they have worked with some teacher or group who's taught them some very cool things, but now they think only that teacher's ideas are worthy, that these ideas have never occurred to anyone else, and that all opposing opinions are stupid and misinformed. These folks think they've achieved full artistic enlightenment (they haven't).

Perhaps their biggest problem is they don't know the most important thing about making art: there are millions of answers, not just one.

I remember one guy who came to town and started a company called Broadway On Your Doorstep. He declared that he was going to show the rest of us how to properly market theatre and build an audience. We all giggled at his buffoonery. Within a year, the company had folded and he had disappeared with the last performance's box office receipts.

More recently, someone moved here, announced the creation of an "immersive theatre company," and then proceeded to tell us all repeatedly that past productions of immersive theatre in St. Louis weren't really immersive. Without having seen them. She insisted that her definition of what's "immersive" is the only legit one; that what other people may think is wrong, and that her company is the only company doing "truly" immersive work here.

It's not.

Many of us were both amused and annoyed. For the record, there have been quite a few pieces of immersive theatre in St. Louis, including one of the coolest shows I've ever seen, Trash Macbeth. But that doesn't count because then she couldn't be the first and only.

This has happened periodically over the years. We listen to newcomers like this pontificate, as they tell us how woefully backward we are, we watch them alienate a big part of the community, and we laugh at them. Usually the work these people do is mediocre (which might explain the desperately overblown rhetoric), though once in a while, the work is actually really good, and you just have to separate it from its pontificator.

Now, in all fairness, I sometimes get criticized for having strong opinions myself, and that criticism is sometimes legit. But I never claim that only I understand musicals, that only I am bringing contemporary musical theatre to town, that only I am privy to the Great Secrets...

I often have strong opinions about theatre because I think about it a lot. Pretty much all the time. I've written six books about musical theatre, I've written nine musicals, and I've directed over a hundred musicals over the last thirty-six years.

I have an informed opinion and yet still, I usually don't offer that opinion unless I've really thought it through. If I haven't, I'll post articles and ask for opinions. Often opinions are offered that really illuminate the topic for me. I have learned so much about the issues surrounding race from the people on Facebook. And there's so much I have yet to learn, about theatre, about psychology, about audiences, about our changing culture, about race and gender and orientation. It's a complicated world.

So why do people feel compelled to act like there's nothing else they can learn?

Still, when I put my opinions on art out there in public, particularly if I state them strongly, and particularly if my opinion is outside the mainstream, there are lots of people on social media who can't wait to start a fight. And more often than not, they want to fight over something they inferred from what I wrote, rather than something I actually wrote. But like a dog with a bone, they cling fiercely to their outrage, even though they're arguing against phantoms...

Recently, I posted in the St. Louis theatre group that musical theatre actors ought to think about taking dance classes -- not to become dancers, but just to get more comfortable with and more in control of their bodies, that it can make a real difference. I've said this in the past to several actors, and I felt like more people should hear it. Dozens of people thought my post was great, and several local choreographers thanked me for saying so.

But a couple people were deeply wounded because they thought my post implied that they're not already great onstage, that they might have room for improvement, that continuing to learn is a good thing, that even top professionals keep studying their craft. What was I thinking? One person essentially told me that my post said he should never perform in a musical again. (It didn't.) One woman reacted with an Angry emoji. In fact, she was so Angry that she took the time that afternoon to put Angry emojis on everything I posted in the group for the previous couple days, including a post about how The Muny wants people's "Muny stories" for their big anniversary next year.

Yeah, that damn Muny would make me angry too! She and her emojis sure showed me! I'm thinking maybe she was scared by a choreographer when she was a child...?

Such is the internet.

Still, for those of us making art, few things are more important than thinking about it, talking about it, debating it, and Facebook is a great forum for that. And whatever drawbacks that may have, it still has great value. So I'll keep talking and writing and trying to figure it all out.

Until next time...

Long Live the Musical!