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Casting Stars is Good for Theatre

I have had a crush on Sam Waterston ever since I had to write a paper on the film Much Ado About Nothing for a Shakespeare class in college.  He played Benedick in the film and it was the first time I realized that Shakespeare plays could be sexy.

Sam, er I mean Mr Waterson is appearing in Simon Gray’s premiere of Old Masters at the Long Wharf.

Old Masters seems a bit of a dry premise;  a meeting between art historian Bernard Berenson and an art dealer, Jospeh Duveen  (wake me up when the audience is out of its misery!)

It is premises like this that really stoke my bitterness at the overall male-centricity of theatre.  I believe if you are a good writer and write a play about two historical male characters in a room talking about their philosophies’  with some  female character in the wings ready to serve as additional objectified fodder, you will find a producer.  The resulting play is a hit because the audience, despite being bored silly, can’t admit to hating the experience for fear of looking like a low-brow cretin.

If it gets people in the seats, you might ask, what’s the harm?  Well, the harm is that the next time these people, traumatized by their previous mind-numbing theatrical tedium, have an opportunity to see play, they will instead  book that root canal procedure they’ve been putting off.

So, you’d have to pay me to go see “Old Masters”… that is, until you tell me Sam Waterston is in it.  Which is why I think putting famous people in a play is good for theatre.  I know most of us traditional theatre types feel a twist in our stomach at the notion of endorsing a star system. A star system seems so superficial, so commercial, so un-artisitic.  However,in my opinion, casting a person known in the community does exactly what theatre is supposed to do, encourage community participation.  Famous people are stand-ins for people we would informally appoint if we lived in small towns and villages.

It seems to me the feeling of knowing the actor on stage, no matter how fabricated,  adds invaluable layers to the theatrical experience .  I may listen closer, consider longer, be more amused, touched or amazed simply because it performed by someone I feel I know.

Seeing a familiar person on stage makes me feel excited, a part of the experience.  If I dislike the person, I may revel in how right I am to dislike them, if I like the person I may feel a full heart when they do well.  Whatever it is, I am much more likely to feel something.  Some might argue that it allows personalities to get in the way of the theatrical message and I would say “EXACTLY!”   See, I think the only real value of theatre today is that live people perform it.  I want theatre that accentuates the actor as a live and present being.  I want to believe the actors’ minds and hearts are involved in the play.  And I want my heart and mind to be engaged which is most likely if  I indentify with the actors. Personally, my experience is far more fun if I am lucky enough to bring preconceived opinions of the performers to the theatre.

Like it or not, knowing and identifying with famous personalities brings us together.  If two people know a third person, it brings those two people closer even if they have not met.  Websites like LinkedIn prove the strength of this phenomenon.  In general we like people we know better than strangers and we’re more likely to listen to them and care what they say.  Having recognizable and shared public figures gives us a feeling of community, safety, and commonality.  It is true we don’t really “know” a star but we think we do.  Unlike those close to us, we have no obligation to really know the real person behind the public figure.  Our interpretation says more about us than about them and, as long as we understand the distinction, stars give us a chance to know ourselves.

Unlike film, in theatre I am in relationship with all the participants, whether I am the artist or the audience, and this is the gift of the theatrical event, when it goes right.  So, the opportunity to enjoy the feeling of being in relationship with Sam Waterston trumps my negative reaction to the play’s description.  Furthermore, I am likely to enjoy the juxtaposition of my dislike of Gray’s premise with my admiration of Sam Waterston.  If “Old Masters” turns out to be just another emotionless intellectual wank, I will enjoy being angry at Sam.  If it turns out to give me an appreciation for Gray’s play, I will have Sam to thank.  Either way, I end up seeing a play and enjoying the feeling of being in relationship with someone I admire.

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