There are a basically two kinds of movies: there’s serious film, and there’s the popcorn movie. Serious films get critical acclaim, film festival attention, award nominations, and are beloved by film buffs. People who aren’t film buffs tend to think that they should see those movies, but don’t as often as they think they should. Popcorn movies don’t get the same kind of attention; the don’t become critical darlings, they are rarely featured at film festivals, and when awards season rolls around, they might be a special effects nomination, but they are seldom up for consideration in any of the “serious categories.” And while they are often disdained by film buffs, the general public is more likely to see these types of movies, and happily pay the ticket price to see the movie, sometimes more than once.
In Canadian theatre we have something similar: we have serious plays; important plays that are produced by most of the mid to large theatre companies (Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre, Tarragon Theatre, etc). These are plays that have important things to say, and people who go to see those plays are people who describe themselves as theatre goers. These are plays that people who aren’t regular theatre goers might feel like they should go to see, but they don’t for a lot of reasons: maybe they are afraid they are going to be preached at, or its too heavy, or just too expensive to risk going to something they aren’t even sure that they will like. So they just don’t.
What we don’t have at that level is popcorn theatre. Something fun, something in a particular genre, that doesn’t wear its message on its sleeve and doesn’t scream this is important theatre. The kind of thing that draws in those audiences that aren’t regular theatre goers, and gives them a good night out. It might make them think, but it won’t hit them over the head. They came to the theatre to be entertained, and they were.
In Toronto, Mirvish Productions fills that role, presenting musicals and plays that appeal to the masses. But those are expensive tickets, and a lot of people can only afford to go to the one show that really appeals to them, and even then maybe only once every couple of years (perhaps the fact that those are the plays that the mass audience is most likely to see gives rise to the opinion that theatre is an expensive prospect, but that’s a thought for another time).
There are some smaller theatre companies that do this kind of work: present shows that appeal to a mass audience, but they don’t have the budget that those mid to large theatre’s do to be able to advertise and get noticed by a larger audience.
Once could also argue that there’s plenty of popcorn theatre available at fringe festivals, where the lottery system allows voices that might not be heard at one of the established theatres to be seen.
But outside of Mirvish (and perhaps you could say that the Stratford Festival offers some popcorn theatre in its season as well), there aren’t a lot of opportunities for an audience to see these kinds of plays.
In the UK and the US, there’s more variety in the types of theatre that’s on offer. The Broadway and the West End scenes offer the kind of popcorn theatre I’m talking about, as well as more serious fare. There’s high art, and low art, and everything in between.
I think there are a few reasons why the more “frivolous” popcorn plays are rare in the Canadian theatre scene:
- The number of stages. In the US and the UK there are more stages, allowing for more types of plays on those stages. In Canada, there are a comparatively limited number of stages on which to present plays.
- Grant centric funding. In the UK and the US there is a combination of not-for-profit, grant funded theatres, as well as for-profit theatres. In Canada, there are very few theatres that surivive without grants, and a grant funded theatre tends to produce theatre to fit within what the granting bodies (or at least the adjudicators) want to see.
- There may also be a certain amount of preciousness in the theatre. Oh sure, that’s fine for movies, but the theatre is above all that.
I’m not saying that we need to get rid of theatre that says something in favour of empty tripe. Just that we should have more of a balance. We can’t keep complaining that our audiences are disappearing, and yet keep producing plays that the masses don’t want to see. There should be room for serious plays, and raucous comedies, and weird genre plays in a season.
So how do we get there? We can’t magically increase the number of stages that we have. Unless some new form of funding magically opens up that allows more theatre companies to open theatre spaces, the number of stages isn’t going to greatly increase any time soon. Which means that a change needs to happen some place else. It means that companies would need to seek out plays that might seem more frivolous. If granting bodies discourage popcorn theatre, then IMO that needs to change.
Ultimately, for a healthy theatrical future we need theatre that appeals to different audiences: the frivolous and the serious.
I started thinking about this in the midst of the SAG-AFTRA/WGA strikes, when my girlfriend Melanie asked me if I thought that if AI started being used to crank out empty scripts, and doing so caused a dwindling of the attention movies and TV receive, would theatre see a resurgence? And I have been thinking of that since. I think the answer is yes, but not in its current form. Not until theatre gives audiences both the popcorn and the serious. Both, just like the movies.