"For once I was not the only person around me that loved theatre"
London is considered the theatre capital of the world. American playwrights cannot compare with Shakespeare and Andrew Lloyd Weber, even Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams struggle to have such timeless and acceptable plays. As a theatre major, I wanted to study somewhere that my art was valued. When I arrived in London, I was overwhelmed with the amount of accessible and respectable theatre in such a condensed space.
It was not the theatre itself that was shocking, but how audiences were responding to it. The shows I wanted to see were sold out, I had not expected that. I had never had trouble getting tickets to shows in Los Angeles because it was rare that shows sold out, and if one night did, certainly the whole run was not. I was not surprised that London values theatre more than Los Angeles, but I deeply underestimated by how much. Shows on Mondays and Tuesdays were completely full. People were there and they were there on time. Culture shock is disorientation that “can occur in a different cultural context” (Bennett, 15). I could easily adjust to the small oddities; like accents, public transit, and the distressing lack of American peanut butter, but I was overwhelmed about what shows to see and which theaters to attend. I found out most of the shows I wanted to see were sold out for months, for once I was not the only person around me that loved theatre.
Theatre is considered to be a part of objective culture and one of the “institutions of culture,” but theatre is a way to shape society, instead of reflect it (Bennett, 2). Subjective culture is “the learned and shared patterns of beliefs, behaviors, and values of groups of interacting people” but theatre is the way society is taught values, so objective becomes subjective in this sense (Bennett, 2). Some of the earliest forms of theatre were morality plays done by the church in order to teach the Bible. Modern plays such as Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez are meant to change society, not simply show what is happening. The quality of shows in Los Angeles are equivalent to shows I have seen in London, but there is more quantity of quality plays to see in London. Los Angeles has an endless amount of theatre companies, with a new one starting every week, yet it is so rare for a professional producing company to sell out even one show. In London entire runs of shows are sold out even before opening, and there is more shows to see.
Theatre revolves around the values of creativity, diversity and most importantly, vulnerability.
An emphasis on individualism in the US leads to a decrease in vulnerability and an increase in shame (Bennett, 13). Individualism is self-reliance, while vulnerability is trusting others deeply, these values clash, creating tension and shame. Shame is formed because it is “generated from social/cultural expectations” (Brown, 46). The social expectation is to only rely on oneself, and if someone shows their need for others by being vulnerable, the feel ashamed for failing to meet the social requirements. It is human nature to be vulnerable and have the “ability to feel fear, anger, love, joy, sadness, and shame,” (Hofstede, 6). Shame, a “psycho-social-cultural construct” keeps people from feeling vulnerable, which in turn sniffles creativity (Brown, 45). Creativity relies on vulnerability because through creating something, it allows others to criticize of reject it. With the lack of vulnerability and creativity, theatre in the US struggles.
Theatre tells the stories of others and teaches empathy, even with anti-hero characters such as Macbeth, audiences understand his ambition to be King and his inevitable downfall. This understanding of flawed characters humanizes what could be considered villains. Brown describes empathy as “the ability to perceive a situation from the other person’s perspective,” (Brown, 47). With the decline and rejection of theatre in the US, there is less ways to teach empathy. The way that teamwork is taught is through competitive sports instead, which does not teach empathy, but an us against them mentality. It enforces the idea of the other, instead of understanding. The individualism in the US will continue to skyrocket, leading to more xenophobia and prejudice without theatre. Theatre is an emotional catharsis and education, but with Americans resisting natural emotions, they resist the theatre as well.
In Los Angeles, the easiest way to know what shows are playing is to be a theatre professional and have your friends invite you to shows. There two large theaters in Los Angeles that bring in shows from Broadway, The Ahmanson and the Pantages. These theatre are absurdly expensive, and there is rarely anyone that has season tickets to both, and the only show to sell out is the upcoming production of Hamilton. Other than those two, the rest of the countless theatre in Los Angeles are producing their own work, many of them being original or world premiere shows. This does lead to a large diversity in the plays, but it also leads to an overwhelming amount of underwhelming productions. A majority of theaters in Los Angeles are under 99 seats, and even those have trouble selling out. One of the best selling shows currently is Zoot Suit, which is being revived for the 50 year anniversary of the Mark Taper Forum. This show is specifically popular in Los Angeles because it is about the Zoot Suit Riots and already has Broadway accreditation. This is a rare occasion in which the theatre being produced speaks specifically to the community and audience around it.
Theatre has a role in shaping society, and London has been proving that for centuries with Shakespeare. It has been widely said that the purpose of theatre is to teach and to please, and Shakespeare’s plays were entertaining yet had morals for society and for royalty. Theatre has had an enormous impact on the history of England, that it is still valued today. Theatre has been considered a dying art since it started, yet still has not died, and is thriving in England. Since there is a higher respect for theatre in London, this leads to a large quantity of successful theatre producing classical works, such as the Globe Theatre, the National Theatre, and The Old Vic.
These productions companies, despite selling out, still make a valiant effort to get youth and students to see shows. The National Theatre has student passes so all tickets are five pounds.
The Almeida theatre has five performances of their sold out Hamlet that are specifically for people under 25 to come see the show for free. They offer free workshops all that week in order to help students and youth understand the themes of the show and get involved in artistic events. This is unheard of in the US. Even with government subsidies, it is extremely expensive for students to see theatre.
In the City of Rancho Cucamonga, which is a wealthy city outside of Los Angeles, there is a theatre company that is dedicated to providing high quality professional theatre to children. MainStreet Theatre Company has been nationally recognized for producing theatre for young audiences, but despite multiple fundraisers a year, being subsidized from the government, and having grants from the NEA, it is still difficult for families and schools to bring children to the theatre. It is inaccessible and undervalued and is in turn struggling to stay a successful producing company.
Theatre is treated differently by audiences, but also by artists. There are many celebrities that do theatre in London, but not in the US. The US normally brings in a celebrity to help ticket sales, and it is actually frowned upon for a celebrity to do a show that is already selling well, such as when Wayne Brady took on the role of Aaron Burr in Hamilton. These professional actors don’t participate in theatre in the US because it isn’t as valued. The Old Vic has famous actors such as Daniel Radcliffe and John Boyega in the same season. Andrew Scott is playing Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre this year. David Tennat is coming back to the stage this season as well in a show I have never heard of. These respectable artists are doing art that is considered respectable here, which does not happen in Los Angeles. Once actors go to film or television, they abandon their theatre pasts and often never return to the stages in the states.
Within the three weeks I’ve been in London, I have found countless people who recommend shows or theatre or want to see theatre. I never knew how much theatre culture I was missing out on in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles I said I was going to London to study theatre, and had many people ask me why. The US is so out of touch with theatre that many people I talked to were unaware that theatre was important in London. One person didn’t know where Shakespeare was from and thought he wrote “Oedipus.” I had no idea how appreciated theatre was in London, and it was a culture shock that I am happy to adjust too.
Bennett, M.J. (1998). “Intercultural communication: A current perspective.” In M.J. Bennett (Ed.), Basic concepts of intercultural communication: Selected readings (pp. 1-34). Boston,
MA: Intercultural Press.
Brown, Brené. “Shame Resilience Theory: A Grounded Theory Study on Women and Shame.” Families in Society 87.1 (2006): 43-52. ProQuest. Web. 8 Mar. 2017
Hall, S. 1997. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (Culture, Media and Identities series) London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Hofstede, G.J. Hofstede, & M. Minkov, Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind: Intercultural cooperation and its importance for survival, 3rd ed. (pp. 3-26). New York: McGraw-Hill