Boring an audience is the one true sin in theatre. We've been boring audiences for decades now, and they've responded by slowly withdrawing their patronage. I don't care that the recent production of The Seagull at the Royal Court was sold out. To 95% of the population, the theatre (musicals aside for now) is an irrelevance. Of that 95%, we have managed to lure in maybe 10% at some point in their lives, and we've so swiftly and thoroughly bored them that they've never returned. They're not the ones who broke the contract. They paid their money and expected entertainment; we sent them back into the night feeling bored, bullied and baffled. So what are we doing wrong?
The most depressing response I encounter when I'm chatting someone up and I ask them if they ever go to the theatre is this: "I should go but I don't." That emphatic "should" tells you all you need to know. Imagine it in other contexts: "I should play Grand Theft Auto"; "I should watch Strictly Come Dancing." That "should" tells you that people see theatre-going not as entertainment but as self-improvement, and the critical/ academic establishment have to take some blame for that.
I can't remember if I mentioned this here already and I'm way too lazy to go back and look through the archives, but I had an experience a couple of years back that really illustrated this. I was participating in a workshop with a large number of other playwrights, largely young-ish, emerging-ish artist types, hosted by a mecca for emerging playwrights. A foreign playwright was in town and moderated a series of exercises and games. One of the exercises involved each writer writing one word that described their work on a big sheet of paper. Then the other writers would gather around, look at the words assembled on the sheet of paper, and then either circle one that they wanted for their work, or put an X next to one that didn't want associated with their work. Sure enough, one with the most X's was "entertaining." (Natch: I had circled that one.)
So many times in theatre, we go for the lazy, snobbish idea that anything "entertaining" is easy, facile and less meaningful, forgetting that many, many works of art are actually quite entertaining. The word itself has become so debased, attached to so many useless things, that it doesn't even really mean anything anymore. But we can reclaim it. Entertaining doesn't have mean mental spam. What's challenging can be entertaining.
And, yes, I do agree that this connects to what Theresa Rebeck was talking about, or at least my impression of it. The most common dis of a new play is that it's too much like television or like a movie. But usually they're talking about things that are completely unlike television (well, maybe except for the quality of the jokes). What they mean is that it's entertaining. And that's bad. I completely agree with Anthony Neilsen that that's where to look for our dwinding audiences. If theatre isn't supposed to be entertaining, at least in part, then what is it doing? Is it strong medicine, hard to take but necessary? Is it brussell sprouts? Who the hell wants brussell sprouts? Unless they're covered with a glop of cheese (Mmm...cheese...), no one really. And in the end, all too often, we fault the audiences for not being interested when we so often give them little to be interested in.
Listen, if Anne Bogart, who Isaac quotes here, is saying that theatre should be entertaining, then it should be okay. She's a real artist! Not like that old schlock merchant, Shakespeare. Or Shaw, who wanted the audience laughing so he could pop the truth in their open mouths. Those guys blow.