|Jimmy Pravasilis and David Marcus in "the Fence" at Sticky|
On Saturday night, my theater company’s show Sticky came back for the first time since June with a new set of short plays. I wrote and appeared in the first play, “The Fence” about Jimmy, who deals in stolen goods and thinks his Arab neighbors in Bay Ridge are plotting a terror attack, and Dave, who has stolen 500 $14 Metro cards and $3,000 in cash by slipping fake 20s into MTA machines. The play got the laughs I hoped for and expected (no mean feat for a play opening the night), but I noticed that the more specific the reference to New York the better the laughs were. At the close of the scene, when Dave pays for the drinks with a handful of change, justifying this by saying “they’re dollar coins!”, the audience got it immediately, almost all of them certainly having had the experience of 5-6 Sacagaweas jangling around their pockets. I wondered if this joke would have gone over in Iowa, or Kentucky, or even Los Angeles. It put me in mind of a quote from James Joyce who said “In the particular is contained the universal”. It got me thinking about the advantages and challenges for playwrights in obeying this maxim.
Ethnic theater takes great advantage of localized reference in story telling. Years ago at a performance of the short play series “7/11” by the South Asian/South Pacific theater company Desipina, I remember a very funny play in which there was a joke about a brand of rice. The 60-70 percent of the audience who were South Asian, laughed heartily at what must have been a very amusing reference, the rest of us kind of looked at each other, shoulders shrugged. But even for those of us who did not get that particular joke, an authenticity was established by the mysterious reference. Hip Hop is replete with this phenomenon, as rappers, identified with their cities or regions, drop street and place names that most listeners do not recognize. For those who do pick it up, it provides a special relationship to the work, for those who do not, it establishes credibility. In visual art, knowledge of the subject matter also plays a major role in appreciation of the work. In Vermeer’s work the objects or props that populate his backgrounds have symbolic significance to people of his day, but not so much for most of us. In Philadelphia, the mural of former mayor Frank Rizzo gazing down on the Italian Market would look to any tourist like a placid depiction of what must have been an important man. To locals familiar with his iconic and often divisive history, its a whole different picture.
|Mural of Frank Rizzo in South Philadelphia|
The challenge for theater in taking advantage of an audience’s local mental triggers lies in the fact that the production trajectory of a “successful” play takes it all over the country, if not the world. The nature of a work of art, except perhaps for the work of the most insular artists, will always depend upon the intended audience. In theater the target audience is usually “everybody, everywhere”, or at least “everybody, everywhere who is interested in maybe seeing a play”. Some theater goes to great extremes to totally divorce its subject from any local, or even personal reference. Blue Man Group for example, or mask work, even a technique like Viewpoints, all universalize the action on stage. It turns Joyce on his head by seeking the particular in the universal, rather than the other way around.
It is a little strange that theater, which outside of Broadway and tours is so dependent on a local audience, resists provincialism even while television shows like Portlandia and Its Always Sunny, embrace it and attract national followings. It is often the case that by targeting your work to a select few people who can fully understand it, you attract a much broader group who want to.