Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.
In a very general way most of us think we have a good sense of what theater is. But like many things which hide in the shadows of their Platonic Ideal, theater is most often defined by what it is not. We could say that theater occurs when actors perform a prepared text for an audience, but we tend to mean more than that. Stand up comedy, sketch comedy, historical reenactments and many other live scripted events fit this loose definition, but are not thought of as theater. Instead, theater covets its place as a pure and austere, serious art form which stands above these lesser cultural staples. But why? And what makes theater different? Visual art came to terms with its strange outlying examples a century ago (see Duchamp, Warhol, Yves Klein selling boxes of air for gold leaf ). Theater has struggled to widen its tent, and in many ways this failure has quickened the demise of the form as an important part of people’s lives.
So why isn’t sketch comedy generally thought of as theater? I say generally because there are shows, such as the Neo Futurists “too much light..” and the Civilians forays into everything that is wrong with America, that use sketch elements and still get treated as theater. But for the most part, the countless shows at the Pit and the Magnet and their brethren across the country are not anointed with the high art halo of “theater”. The simplest reason why is elitism, to my knowledge it is not possible to obtain an MFA in stand up or sketch. Unlike the high brow theater molded by universities and cast by Non Profit theater companies, stand up and sketch performers learn on the job, more like plumbers. There are classes to be sure, but even those classes tend to act more like apprenticeships. If this seems familiar to really old theater artists, its because it is exactly how theater used to be.
Another difference that theater cats point to between real theater and its poor cousins is a difference in purpose. We are told time and time again that entertaining is not the primary function of theater. Theater is important, it is meaningful, it is an agent of social change. But this argument is specious and subjective. I would argue that Don Rickles did more for race relations by assaulting his diverse audience with ethnic slurs, than Clyburne Park does by reminding wealthy, white, Westchesterites that they still have reason to feel guilty even in the age of Obama. But here we really come to the crux of it. The supposed import, meaning and social relevance of theater do more than make theater artists feel special, they also give the art form a quasi legitimate claim to charitable status.
Go to the website of the Magnet, one thing you will not see is a bright shiny button that says “donate”. One thing you will see, is a corporate training program. Instead of asking for charity, the Magnet performs a service for individuals and companies that those entities are willing to pay for. Not only does this allow the theater to stay open (in addition to its ticket sales), but maybe more importantly, it brings theater into the real world. It finds ways in which theater as an art form can interact with people lives, not by lecturing about values, but by providing a real service. It is easy to see why elite theater artists, and those hoping to be elite theater artists demand this high art/low art division, without it the whole justification for government funding begins to crumble. People who claim that theater will cease to exist without public dollars need look no further than their local comedy club.
I think we are better off defining theater as broadly as possibly, by putting sketch comedy reviews right along side off-broadway reviews, by giving Obies for stand up comedy (even if its not morphed into a one woman show by dimming the lights and telling an abortion story). In my own experience producing Sticky, there have been times when a sketch troupe performs right next to a play by a Juilliard MFA, and honestly, both tend to be great (otherwise we wouldn’t book them). But not only are they both great, they are also the same, both are attempts to share common ideas and feelings about being alive, both use acting, story telling and technical elements to achieve their goals. Both deserve the name Theater.