September 11, 2003

Stage to Page

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When the lineup for the latest Broadway theatre season was revealed in last Sunday’s New York Times, I spent a few minutes flicking through the Arts & Leisure section to see just how many intriguing plays I would not be able to see.

Living on a typical student budget has, without a doubt, restricted the variety of theatre I’ve seen in the past four years. I say this because — for the most part — I’ve only been able to afford the pocket-friendly prices of the local Ithaca scene, and that of London’s fringe theatre when back home.

I hate to admit it, but in some kind of quasi-pretentious rebellion I guess I developed an aversion to all big-budget plays. For me, they didn’t display the same ingenuity that a low-budget, small cast had provided so many times before in the economy venues; instead of captivating an audience with unconventional methods, these on-stage blockbusters wowed their onlookers as much with glitz as they did with talent.

However, the tide has begun to change. When I flick through the paper now, I find myself getting almost as excited by a re-casted, long-running musical as I do by a completely new work. And I guarantee this has nothing to do with a sudden income of theatre-ticket funds.

What has become particularly apparent to me is that shunning entire genres (within any art form) for whatever irrational reasons creates a snowball effect. One who makes groundless decisions for critiquing one genre harsher than another is inevitably susceptible to further misuse of their own criticism.

I for one was subject to this. In my case, I originally made judgements on the big budget musical genre for the irrational reason of cost. When I look back, my reasons for considering the cast members less talented, holding the scripts at less worth and so on, really only stem from the fact that I had distanced myself from that genre in the first place.

Although I am not on a crusade to get the Cornell community involved with arts (after all there are more than enough other fields to be involved in, and hey, it’s a free country) I do believe there is a broader lesson on criticism to be learned. And this just happens to be an innate part of analyzing the arts.

This lesson is one of perspective. The idea that things should be critiqued on the basis of what they each intend to achieve. I can’t pretend that I always analyze things this way, but it is becoming increasingly more obvious that I should do so.

For example, earlier I mentioned how I looked down on musicals when in comparison with some of the fringe theatre I had seen. Rather, this scenario should be looked at from the perspective that:

a) On one hand we have a musical (let’s say Oklahoma!). This play’s genre involves music, dancing and audience participation of the sing-a-long kind. The genre’s main function is to entertain.

b) On the other hand, we have a piece of physical theatre (let’s say an Artaud-inspired piece). This genre involves peculiar imagery, surreal events and, again, audience participation, only this time of the involuntary kind that violates their willing-disconnection from the play. The genre’s main function is certainly not to entertain, but instead to awaken the audience to societal ills.


Even if one is an ardent fan of a particular genre, a criticism of the other kind carries little weight if its foundation lies in a comparison of the two. At no point did the writers of these two glaringly different pieces intend to meet the dramatic goals of the other.

The scenario isn’t always as blatant as this, but situations arise all the time. A certain friend of mine will no doubt bring up previous unfair denigration of punk bands on my part. And he’ll be glad to know those arguments were indeed a part of my learning process.

With the new season ahead here at Cornell, at local venues such as the Kitchen and Hangar Theatres, and even down on New York City’s Broadway, there is a wealth of theatrical variety for us all to witness, absorb, discuss and, of course, critique. Likewise, the music, dance, or any other forms that appear in these pages can be, and from my point of view, should be looked at in the same way.

Stage To Page will appear bi-weekly and is a column that will look to cover as many performance arts as possible. I will try and stick to this ideal type of analysis as best I can but if I slip, as I sometimes do, remember that nobody is perfect. But then again, I guess perfection is relative also. But that’s a column for another day.

Archived article by Tom Britton