The Manion Theatre at UWS is not grandiose. Situated in the Fine and Applied Arts building on the UWS campus, there are two levels and 237 seats altogether. A small ancillary enclosure on the stage is for instruments, and a hydraulic pit sits in front of the first row. Two weeks ago, I was in the one of these seats for “Medea,” a greek-feminist tragedy. When you purchase tickets, they give you a pamphlet describing a short plot summary of the play with the names and majors of the actors. But recently, the UWS theatre program has included a small slip of paper that states an apology for the high ticket prices and an explanation about funding issues for the theatre program.
I read this as I was in my seat waiting for the show to start. I thought, as I usually do about these things, that it didn’t apply to me — especially as a UMD student. But when I looked around the theatre, I realized that the half-full audience consists mainly of friends, family members, and one sullen-looking grad student wearing a scarf.
It’s not to say that the place was empty. But it was ominously torpid.
Funding issues for theatre and art programs are nothing novel. Liberal Arts programs all over the United States are being cut — UMD’s Program Prioritization is a close-to-home example — and theatre programs are no exception. Yet, when you compare an hour-long play that costs $12 to a $60 television subscription for a month, television seems much more economical.
At first, the comparison between theatre and television seems shallow. Each offers a different experience: In a play the action is live, yet prone to mistakes. There is also a slight worry in the back of your mind that lines will be forgotten, that someone will trip, or that something will not go right. Television, on the other hand, has none of these worries. Television is always perfect.
There are similar types of shows in each medium as well. You have the small community plays like you find in my hometown of Virginia. Depending on the size of a college or city, you can have various sizes of plays. Finally, like on Broadway, you have the professional shows; the most expensive and glamorous. The echelon found in plays are similar to television: you have reality tv on TruTV, B-side movies on FX or TBS, and, finally, HBO movies or television series. Television and theatre are categorized similarly, despite the difference in watching them.
What is concerning is this categorical similarity, especially considering how easy it is to watch television. Not only cheaper and easier to access, television’s trained professionals get the ideal shot every time, and that makes it easier to watch. Viewing statistics don’t lie, either: the average viewer watches over five hours of television a day according to Nielsen Holdings N.V.
In short, theatre cannot compete with what the average television viewer demands. Theatre can only hope to emulate it.
The question I ask then, is what does this do to not only our conception of art, but to our idea of person? I believe that, as a result, we’ve become comfortable with the perfect television offers. For example, we have tabloids and the Internet to document our movie stars, but when they fall out of our idea of perfect we ridicule them (Charlie Sheen, Linsey Lohan, Shia LaBeouf, the list goes on).
Art, on the other hand, serves a different, more humbling role. Art, theatre, and the human being always attempts to be perfect. Yet, in a play the lighting isn’t perfect every time, the emotions are sometimes exaggerated and sometimes not exaggerated enough. But that is its beauty, for we come to terms with our condition when we watch a play. No matter how good the story, acting or lighting, we are always aware that the people in front of us are striving for the perfectionism of an alternate reality.
Television’s greatest danger is the other side of the coin: The more we watch, the more comfortable we get with the idea of an abstract perfect. In other words, the more we watch the more we become delusional, and we expect everything, at once, to be like it is on the false reality we experience five hours a day. In short, television changes what we think is right.
With its access and prowess, television is encompassing. It’s relatively cheap, too. But the most human form of entertainment is found outside of the box. Art is that which reminds us of who we are, not of who we wish to be. Television, on the other hand, is only an abstraction.
BY JOE LABERNIK Head Copy Editor