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An Interview with Billy Houck - New Times - April 1999

BILLY: Dwain, you've made a statement that theatre is dead. What brought you to this conclusion?

DWAIN: Bill, perhaps the correct statement should be, (paraphrasing FrankZappa), theater isn't dead, it just smells bad. All kidding aside (but I'm not kidding), on the whole, theater does not appear to be able to sustain itself without the benefit of grants or non-profit status. This is not to say that there aren't exceptions. The wonderful melodrama in Oceano, or Jim Buckley's Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria, (note: this is no longer true; The Pewter Plough has acquired a not-for-profit status, although Jim Buckley is still very much in charge as artistic director [Sep 11, 2002]) are two exceptions that come to mind. Neither of these entities use taxpayers, direct or indirect, money to sustain themselves. Please note however, that each is able to survive by either giving the audience a solid night of unthinking entertainment (The Great American Melodrama) or has a audience base that supports theater (as long as it's not TOO challenging) in the town of Cambria. Also note, that if Jim had to pay his actors what the melodrama pays its entertainers (and we're not talking about a supporting a family, living wage here), it is very likely that the charming Pewter Plough would not be able to survive. However, all this may be beside the point, because until we define what you or I mean by theater, we may be talking about two very different entities.

BILLY: I'm willing to accept any art form that tells a story with live performers to a live audience as theater. The Melodrama and Pewter Plough are local success stories because they've managed to keep their doors open despite huge obstacles...but what about the big success stories? Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" has made more money worldwide than any film that's ever been made. No matter what your personal artistic appraisal of that show may be, this surely means the theater is alive.

DWAIN: More money worldwide than any film that's ever been made? That is extraordinary and somewhat difficult to believe. Be that as it may, are you telling me that we can describe theater as "being alive" because somewhere there are a few "big successes", especially if we ignore such mundane items as artistic content. "It is not by the content of his character that we define a man, but rather by the size of his erection." (I've heard that men have been known to have erections when they die, especially if it's by way of violence. Is this true?) By disregarding the limits of artistic merit, emotional content, intellectual challenge, spiritual embracement; disregarding the number of unemployed playwrights, actors, technicians, failures, closed shows; disregarding the number of people that have NEVER been to a play and will NEVER attend a play, I suppose it is possible that the existence of $100 a seat, "Phantom of the Opera" proves once and for all that theater is indeed alive. I cannot argue with such logic. But I would be forced to lie if I was to say that theater is "alive and well", and besides, "well" is a judgement call, an artistic appraisal if you will. By the way, I like your definition of theater.

BILLY: I think maybe we're getting away from the point if we allow success, or "alive and well"-ness to be defined only in terms of money. If money is what's important, then the snack bar is more important than the entertainment offered. There is a human element here, a need to tell each other stories, to entertain, to inform, to edify...and that's what the theater is for. Is thatdead?

DWAIN: Dead? Perhaps not. On its deathbed? I'm afraid yes. Ask yourself this: how many new, previously unproduced plays has the average theatergoer seen in the past year? For that matter, what is the average theatergoer? And I'm not referring to just the Central Coast; think nationwide. A handful? One? And it's not because the playwrights aren't writing - they are. And yes, alot of it is dreck, but there are unproduced scripts out there that will never see the light of day, that absolutely should be produced. And why aren't these plays being produced? No interest from the average theatergoer (whatever he or she is). No interest, no audience, no money, no royalties, no salaries, no rent, etc. Ask yourself this: When someone is on her deathbed, what do we do? Why we try to make her comfortable, and comfortable is OK for someone on her deathbed. And so old plays of tried and true comfortable content are being produced and attended by your average theatergoer. And to keep her alive, often we infuse the patient with a not for profit status and grants, public and private, because even at the the outrageous price of $13 per ticket, there are not enough average theatergoers to sustain her. The IDEA that theater's purpose is to communicate, entertain, inform and edify is not dead, but in practice, theater is one sickly old woman who, perhaps, knew better days. Self-sustaining theater is pretty much an anomoly. This is not to say that there aren't good, even great productions of excellent work to be found at various venues. I'm sure that both of us have seen at least one in the past year. But ... well try this. Stand downtown at the mission, stop ten people. Ask them what was the best play that they saw in the past year. Ask them what was the best movie they saw in the last year. What do think the odds are that 10 out of 10 will say they haven't seen a play in the past year? Theater is an art of communication. Without an audience with whom does one communicate?

BILLY: If the need to communicate isn't dead, and people aren't going to see new plays, then it must be the case that the new plays that are being done simply aren't filling potential audience's needs. Is this the fault of the audience? You were once so passionate about new plays that you spent your own money and hundreds of hours of your own time to produce them. You lost money. Could it be that people just didn't share your taste in plays? Is the theatre really dead, or do producers need to find a new way to get butts into seats? (we're over 1000 words now, you'll need to make your big final statement at this point. I may also need to edit for length...but I'll get your OK on any cuts before I send it in.)

DWAIN: Final reply. Several questions with no easy answers, and simple answers would never tell the whole story, but I'll try. 1. On the whole, people prefer comfortable to edginess, with the theater attending audience even more so. New, by its nature, is not comfortable; change is not comfortable. Is it their fault? Perhaps, but perhaps it is just their nature. 2. Obviously, on the whole, people don't share my taste in plays. The typical theater attending audience member will tell you that he or she goes to the theater for escape, and doesn't want to deal with material that has been chosen for it's possibilities of engaging and/or challenging them on an intellectual, emotional or spiritual level. They'll tell you they get enough of that in "real" life. 3. I don't know if there is a "new" way for producers to get people into the theater. How does one change the perception of the public that theater is stuffy and elitist or mindless and boring. Education? Free tickets? Massive expenditures in publicity? Perhaps, but likely not. Sorry Bill, but I've got no easy answers. Is theater dead? No, perhaps not. Ailing? Certainly. Curable? I don't know.

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