In “Where’s the Art Audience?” David Hoppe laments the decline of attendance at Indianapolis arts events and appears to suggest that people avoid productions such as the Phoenix Theatre’s The Pillowman because they are not sufficiently hip or daring (Hoppe, “Change in the Weather,” June 7-14).
Hoppe reminds us that the play was the “toast of London” and “won a boatload of drama critics’ prizes” in New York. He goes on to wonder why local theater-goers failed to turn out for a production so lavishly praised by New York critics and other arbiters of theatrical taste — if for no other reason than “to see what all the hooplah’s (sic) about?”
Hoppe’s view appears to be that we local patrons of the performing arts deserve chiding for failing to respond to critical raves and support this “piece of cutting-edge theater fresh from the Big Apple.”
New York theatrical critical opinion, of course, serves an important educational and interpretive function. (Although it never fails to surprise me when “with-it” folks who would disdain buying a car or handbag, say, based on the latest promotional buzz blithely make theatrical choices based on pronouncements from “the critics,” who, as anyone knows who’s been one — or tried to influence one — play a key role in the marketing of theatrical productions.)
For the local theater patron The Pillowman presented a unique set of challenges. The play contains graphic depictions of repugnant acts, many of them directed against children — a boy’s toes are cut off, a 12-year-old girl is crucified, there’s torture and so on. Whatever redeeming artistic merits the play might have, the number of awards it’s earned or how highly the play comes recommended, the fact remains for many violence against children is (ready for this?) hard to watch. This is especially true for an audience perhaps uncomfortable with the disquieting knowledge that we reside in the state that leads the nation in abuse-related child deaths (a fact, of course, of which New York critics are probably unaware.)
This is not to say the Phoenix should not have presented The Pillowman. Hoppe’s correct that there is a need for challenging productions in any city that has cultural aspirations. We in Indianapolis ought to have access to new and challenging works, and the Phoenix Theatre, among others, should be commended for making these available to the community, especially since selling these productions is such a thankless task.
But the implication that theater-goers lack sophistication or commitment to the performing arts because they pass on a production that depicts child victimization shows, it seems to me, a lack of insight and a poor grasp of local theater-related sales and market realities.