Hot Pursuit: Researching Across the Theatre/Film Border

When we shift the focus from the object to the artist, we recognize the limits of genre/media-based boundaries. A study of the film work of, for example, Katharine Hepburn, would be obviously, tragically incomplete without a consideration of her stage career. In Viewing America: Twenty-First Century Television Drama (2013), Christopher Bigsby lists several prominent American playwrights who also write (or have written) extensively for television, including David Mamet, Marsha Norman, Adam Rapp, and Theresa Rebeck.17 Bigsby also identifies many respected television writers who began their careers writing for the stage, most notably Aaron Sorkin.18 Yet just as crimes committed in Mexico may be considered inadmissible in a Texas trial, scholars often make the conscious choice to exclude such extraterritorial evidence in our consideration of an artist’s oeuvre. For example, many if not most readers of the Journal of American Drama and Theatre know that Eric Overmyer wrote On the Verge (1987). How many know that he also wrote five episodes of St. Elsewhere (1986-87) and two episodes of The Wire (2006), amidst a long career in television? How many consider this when teaching or producing On the Verge? Conversely, how many film critics and historians consider the stage beyond their purview? Jonathan Rosenbaum, for example, notes in his introduction to Discovering Orson Welles that most scholars in “Welles studies” ignore Welles’s stage work, suggesting that “they’re more parochial than Welles himself was.”19 The theatre/film boundary is persistent. To demonstrate its permeability, we must be willing to cross it in hot pursuit of those artists whose careers we examine.20

Audience-driven research similarly offers unexploited potential for boundary crossing intervention into the mythical opposition between New York and Hollywood. How many theatre audiences since the 20th century are ignorant of film? How many film audiences are truly innocent vis-à-vis theatre? True, some filmgoers (and television watchers) obviously have limited exposure to professional theatre; nevertheless, amateur, community-based and educational theatres are widely accessible.21 Certainly audiences recognize differences between media, and may indeed be more receptive to one or another form of communication. Yet all media provide cultural input, so to speak, and to ignore this threatens the utility of our research. Hot pursuit, then, means not just following the artist across the theatre/film border, but following the audience as well.

This will not be easy. The audience is frustratingly diverse, and our means of accessing their response to any artwork are sketchy and incomplete. Perhaps this is why, despite the valuable theorizations of spectatorship provided by Susan Bennett, Marvin Carlson, and others, so many scholars find it far simpler to concentrate on what the Artist Intended rather than to hypothesize what the Audience Received. But the dichotomy is a false one. Recall that the unitary Artistic Producer is a fiction, no less so than the unitary Audience. If we cannot analyze either with certainty, perhaps we can—like quantum physicists, political pollsters, and bookmakers—learn to express our conclusions in terms of probability. There is (you should excuse the pun) a good chance this would help.

MYTH #5: Theatre is the Past. Film is the Present. Digital Media is the Future

The argument that theatre is a discipline rooted in the past while film and media studies are contemporary and forward-looking serves the need of film and media studies to separate itself from its “parent field,” rebutting those who would argue that film is merely Theatre By Other Means. In so doing, it replaces one fallacy—post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this)—with another—post hoc ergo excellens ut is (after this, therefore superior to this). The latter form of reasoning is, not coincidentally, a critical pillar supporting the concept of Manifest Destiny as it applies to US domestic and foreign policy, and so we might read it as a particularly (though not exclusively) American phenomenon.

This myth draws support from a mistaken, if understandable, confusion between the study of theatre or film and the industry of entertainment. There is no doubt that film and media have displaced theatre as primary sources of mass entertainment in western culture. This says nothing, however, about the vitality of either medium as an art form or a site of scholarship. Pace Benjamin, a century and a half of photography has eviscerated neither art nor art history. Moreover, the integration of film and video into live performance is potentially a great step forward for the theatre and studies thereof. In fact, a performance studies approach might lead us to reverse the terms in this formulation. The play, after all, belongs to the repertoire, a shifting repository of cultural memory that continues to grow and change in response to local conditions. The film belongs to the archive, remaining fixed into eternity. The Hairy Ape is continually reinvented; Citizen Kane stays the same.22

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